Goodbye, Connie Calloway

With their latest posturing at a hearing before State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, the so-called leaders of Detroit Public Schools are shamelessly wasting what little face the district still has. There are a couple issues. First the district doesn’t want a financial manager that the state wants to install. And the district wants a trial-like hearing to challenge the decision to mandate the manager. As usual, the students, who will suffer the most, are lacking any consideration in any of this.

Let’s review: The school board chose Superintendent Connie Calloway in March 2007 from a pool of candidates that could be charitably described as weak. Calloway led a 5,700-student district in Missouri, a far cry from the Detroit situation’s finances, administration and certainly the politics.Calloway came in sounding not so bad. She negotiated a five-year contract that was viewed by some as a commitment from the board to give her some time to make things happen. She met with members of the district’s unions, community leaders and politicos. She brought in some trusted lieutenants, who set about trying to remedy decades of decline. She was at first forthright with the media and therefore the public about what needed to be done and how she would do it.

And then, well, frankly it all went to hell in the last six months. Projections for the 2008-2009 budget bounced from a surplus of $5 million in May to a deficit of more than $400 million recently. Board members complained that Calloway didn’t respect them or respond to their inquiries. Enrollment skidded to about 94,000 this year, down from about 163,000 eight years ago. The district requested advances on its school aid payments from the state two months earlier this year.

A divided board fired Calloway this week, making her the district’s sixth superintendent in about 15 years. Granted Calloway wasn’t perfect. She’s at-best media-shy, at worst just plain naive about the need to be “out there” in the community to lobby for the district and herself. She chose to halt school closings and staff layoffs, which were much-needed cost-saving measures. For too long she relied on her “every day is a day of financial discovery” mantra without unveiling a specific plan for investigating and remedying the dire financial situation everyone knew preceded her.

But she faced a nearly impossible situation: a school board with many members who were unwilling to forego their own egos, political ambitions and power grabs enough to let the superintendent lead.

Witness this week’s hearings before Flanagan. After the Michigan Department of Education determined the district had failed to adhere to a deficit-reduction plan and had “serious” financial problems, the district would get a state-appointed financial manager, Flanagan said.

When the district balked, he decided he would listen to their side. His format was 30-minute presentations from the Department of Education and Detroit Public Schools. To his credit, he extended the time for lawyers and state officials to present their information and asked some questions to clarify the arguments..

State officials presented a history of their attempts to work with the district to remedy the finances. But, according to the department, a deficit-reduction plan wasn’t followed and a consent agreement wasn’t really agreed upon.

So how did the district’s lawyers argue their case? They asked for the “right” to cross-examine the state officials. They offered as evidence of the district’s ability to run itself the assertion that academics are getting better. They pointed out many of the district’s problems date to the “reform” board, the appointed board that ran the district during the state takeover from 1999 to 2006. They said the dire situation in the schools is just like what’s going on in the city and the state because of the poor economy. And they called the state’s plans to install financial overseers a violation of “due process” and constitutional rights.

Well, as U.S. Secretary of Education appointee Arne Duncan says, education is a civil right. And he’s talking about the rights of children to attend safe, clean schools with qualified teachers, adequate supplies and an atmosphere where they can learn. That includes the obligation of adults — educated, elected, professional adults — to lead. And here we’d amend that to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Detroit is a district that should be taking all the help it can get. Instead of spending district money — which, by the way is in quite short supply with a $400 million deficit by one analysis — on hearings, memos and time arguing for process and procedure, why not put it toward what’s best for the education of children? What they really need to do is consider completely overhauling the organization of the district to cope with plummeting enrollment — down 42 percent in eight years. If the state wants to administer the financial end, well, let’s lessen the burden on the local administrators and board members. (Of course, protecting an oversized administration and board is one of the underlying points of contention here.)

After all, the board has got to hire a new superintendent. And finding someone willing to come into this mess might take some doing. The next pool of candidates might be even weaker than the one that produced Calloway.

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