March 4, 2010 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

Does DPS leader's writing send wrong message?

Detroit school board chief Otis Mathis admits his grammar problem. (Madalyn Ruggiero / Special to The Detroit News)

The president of the Detroit school board, Otis Mathis, is waging a legal battle to steer the academic future of 90,000 children, in the nation's lowest-achieving big city district.

He also acknowledges he has difficulty composing a coherent English sentence. Here's a sample from an e-mail he sent to friends and supporters on Sunday night, uncorrected for errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage. It begins:

If you saw Sunday's Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason's he gave for closing school to many empty seats.

The rest of the e-mail, and others that Mathis has written, demonstrate what one of his school board colleagues describes, carefully, as "his communication issues." But if these deficits have limited Mathis, as he admits they have, they have not stopped him from graduating from high school and college. In January, his peers elected him president by a 10-1 vote over Tyrone Winfrey, a University of Michigan academic officer.

"I'm a horrible writer. I know that," says Mathis, 56, a lifelong resident of southwest Detroit. His difficulties with language were spotted as early as fourth grade, when he was placed in special education classes. His college degree was held up for more than a decade because he repeatedly failed an English proficiency exam then required for graduation at Wayne State University.

In another city, these revelations might be grounds for disqualification. But Mathis is liked and defended by many of his peers, who cite his collegiality, lack of defensiveness and leadership as more important than his writing skills. Even Winfrey, his defeated rival for the presidency, declined to criticize his qualifications.

But the story of Mathis speaks directly to Detroit's educational conundrum, as officials try to raise standards and the proficiency of its students.

Is Mathis a success story? A man who beat the odds to win political success and career opportunities on the strength of his personality and judgment? Or is he an example of the system's worst failings -- a disinterested student who always found ways to graduate, even when he didn't meet the requirements -- likely to perpetuate lax academic standards if the board wins its court battle with Bobb over control?

"It's kind of scary to even talk about," says Patrick Martin, 49, a Detroit contractor whose 12-year-old son is a student at Noble Middle School.

"If this is the leader, what does it say about the followers? It explains a lot about why there's so much confusion and infighting with the board and Robert Bobb."

Another e-mail

Here's another mass e-mail from Mathis, from Aug. 11, 2009:

Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row's, and who is the watch dog?

"I told him just last week that he should have his e-mails read by somebody before he sends them out," said fellow school board member LaMar Lemmons Jr., who praises Mathis as a leader he can trust.

"I said, 'If somebody gets ahold of this, it will become an issue that you can't read or write. It will go around the world.' "

Can Mathis read?

"Yes, I can read. I'm capable of reading a lot of information and regurgitation," says Mathis, who told me he sometimes needs to read documents two or three times to fully comprehend their contents but then masters -- and memorizes -- them.

Engaging and honest

Mathis is an engaging man. When I asked him about the grammatical deficiencies in his e-mails, he didn't waffle or grandstand, instead honestly answering questions about his difficulties in school.

High school saw him bouncing back and forth between schools. "I was kicked out and kicked in and kicked out," he says with a chuckle. He credits a high school English teacher with encouraging him to graduate, getting him to attend school "once a week instead of every two weeks" by giving him an audio version of Alex Haley's "Roots," one vinyl record at a time.

He graduated from Southwestern High School in 1973 with what he says was a 1.8 grade-point average but was previously reported as a .98 average. After serving in the Navy, Wayne State placed him in a special program to help academically unqualified students move forward, on the G.I. Bill.

He stayed at Wayne for 15 years, as a student and a counselor, becoming a virtual "prisoner of Wayne," as he jokes, unable to graduate.

Mathis and another student unsuccessfully challenged the use of an English proficiency test as a requirement for graduation. In 1992, when the case went to trial, the lawsuit gained national attention. Mathis said then his failure to pass the test "made me feel stupid." The requirement was eventually dropped in 2007, and Mathis applied to get his degree the next year, after his election.

Understands struggling kids

Mathis, who can be a persuasive public speaker, retired from Wayne in 1995. He's served as a substitute teacher in Detroit schools, run a nonprofit and served on the Wayne County Commission.

In his career, Mathis has compensated for his rudimentary writing skills by seeking help from others and working on his listening and speech skills. "We picked him (to be president) because we thought he has the intelligence for it and the tolerance for disruptive behavior," says Reverend David Murray. "He has that type of calm."

Is it absurd for a man who cannot write a simple English sentence to serve as the board president? Or to lead the elected board of a district that ranks at the nation's bottom for literacy?

The questions are more likely to elicit complex answers than criticism of Mathis.

"I know he's a terrible writer. Oh wow, I've seen his e-mails," says Ida Byrd-Hill, a parent and activist who runs a nonprofit and is a member of Mensa, the high-IQ group.

"His job, though, is to represent the community. His lack of writing skills is prevalent in the community. If anybody does, he understands the struggles of what it's like to go through an institution and not be properly prepared."

Mathis and some of his supporters say his story is about someone who manages his limitations, just as others manage physical disabilities.

"Instead of telling them that they can't write and won't be anything, I show that cannot stop you," Mathis says. "If Detroit Public Schools can allow kids to dream, with whatever weakness they have, that's something. ...It's not about what you don't have. It's what you cando."

Because of his struggles and perseverance, Mathis describes himself as a role model.

But is he?

Laura Berman's column runs Tuesday and Thursday in Metro. She can be reached at (313) 222-2032 or lberman@detnews.com">lberman@detnews.com.

More Laura Berman