Tonya Allen says she declined to be DPS superintendent

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen said Friday she has declined an offer to serve as interim superintendent for Detroit Public Schools.

During a media conference, Allen would not divulge exactly who made the offer, saying instead “it was a mutual discussion and long-term conversation with all parties.”

But she said she did offer to serve as an “external member of the transition team to help the district.”

Retired bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who is in line to become the next state-appointed leader of DPS, met this week with district employees and said he wants to build a transition team that includes educators, according to people who attended the session Wednesday.

Asked how Rhodes responded to her offer, Allen replied, “He’s been very receptive, and when he’s ready to make an announcement, he’ll tell us the role he wants us to play on his team.”

DPS is set to run out of cash by spring. State lawmakers are debating competing proposals that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the district to restructure and pay off its debt.

In a statement Friday, DPS projected its annual deficit will be $35.7 million less than originally predicted when the budget was adopted June 30, 2015.

DPS’ fiscal year 2016 budget had forecast an annual deficit of $96.9 million but the district now says that will decrease to $61.2 million.

Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, whose last day in office is Monday, said in a statement, “This budget amendment is further proof that the restructuring reforms put into place at DPS over the last year are continuing to show real results.”

“Although there are serious financial challenges that still exist, it is clear that FY16 is trending toward further improvement and that the course has been set for DPS to achieve long-term financial sustainability. As we continue to stabilize enrollment, I believe we will be able to operate the same as any school district in the State of Michigan.”

Allen said having a series of emergency managers — four in the past seven years — has not worked.

“It’s not the right thing for me to come in as an interim leader,” she said. “I want to continue to be an advocate for children as a leader outside the district. I need to focus on all children and all schools.

“My desire to help has not waned. I stand to work with the transition team and I am committed to working with educators. DPS’s success will begin from within.

She then listed several educators she thought might be a better fit as interim superintendent, including Cass Tech High School Principal Lisa Phillips and Alycia Meriweather, director of the DPS Office of Curriculum and head of the Detroit Mathematics and Science Center.

“They are amazing leaders and we need to give them a shot,” she said. “They have been shut out over the entire time the emergency manager has been in place and it’s time for them to lead and they can do it.”

Allen is one of the co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which issued a series of recommendations last year on how to rescue the financially ailing DPS and restructure the city’s educational system.

The coalition’s ideas include returning DPS from state to local control, putting Education Achievement Authority schools back in the district and having the state pay off the district’s debt.

Allen said there are three stages in the effort to reform DPS, which is struggling with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, declining enrollment and dilapidated school buildings.

“Triage, transition and transformation,” she said. “We’re still in the triage stage and we need a transition team to stop the bleeding to get legislation passed and then focus on the transformation.”

She said she has not yet made recommendations to Rhodes or anybody else involved, “but these are my thoughts.”

“First, they need to figure out a process to select an interim superintendent,” she said. “I’d like to put a call out to business and civic leaders to help us first take on the facility problems.”

Allen then lit into the abysmal condition of the district under state control.

“The district was led by an emergency manager appointed by the governor,” she said. “The EAA board was appointed by the governor. No other city in the country has these kinds of rules of engagement, and none of it has turned out well for us at all.”

She then talked about the reform bills being debated in Lansing. Both the House and Senate are considering legislation to provide $715 million to pay off DPS’ debt and create a new, debt-free district to educate children.

The Senate version would return control of the district to an elected school board by November, while the House bill would phase-in control by an elected board over eight years. The House measure also would limit teachers’ collective-bargaining rights and impose penalties for “sickouts” like the ones conducted last month to protest health and safety problems in DPS schools.

“Some people in Lansing seek to blame Detroiters for problems with the district that happened under state control,” Allen said. “We need more Detroiters in Lansing making the case for the reform.”

Finally, she made a pitch for Detroiters to get behind Rhodes.

“A lot of people are very concerned about Judge Rhodes because of his recent experience with the bankruptcy. But Rhodes is one of the most process-oriented judges out there. He was instrumental in making sure everyone’s voice was heard — not just business and civic leaders, but he created an inclusive process. I am convinced he will do the same thing as a transition leader. I hope we support him in building what’s next.

“I just want to let everyone know exactly where I stood and why.”

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