New state supt.: Give power back to Detroit schools

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan's incoming state superintendent of schools opposes any effort by lawmakers to dissolve Detroit Public Schools and says the state should hand back power of the district to locally elected officials.

"I believe we ought to have a Detroit school district for the Detroit community," Brian Whiston said Friday after a taping of WKAR-TV's "Off The Record" public affairs show."

Whiston, who has been superintendent of Dearborn schools for the past seven years, was hired in March by the Democratic-controlled State Board of Education to succeed retiring Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan. He begins July 1.

During an interview, Whiston also voiced opposition to legislative attempts to repeal of Michigan's law mandating union-level prevailing wages for school construction.

"No one seems to mind paying a CEO a fair wage, let's pay workers a fair wage," said Whiston, who will be paid $200,000 annually as the state's top education official.

Whiston, 53, is beginning the new job just as the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder are wrestling over how to deal with a mounting $438 million operating debt in DPS and other financial troubles in urban school districts beset with declining enrollment.

Snyder has said he'll spend the summer lobbying the Republican-controlled Legislature to take action on overhauling Detroit's fractured public education system.

Whiston said he supports returning DPS to the control of a locally elected school board after six years of state emergency management — an idea backed by Mayor Mike Duggan and a coalition of business, civic and community leaders in Detroit.

Snyder wants he and Duggan to appoint a school board to run a new debt-free school district and slowly transition back to an elected governing body over six years.

The new state superintendent suggested the battle over who controls DPS is misplaced.

"I think a lot of the focus has been who should run Detroit schools, and I think we need to change the focus to the classroom," Whiston said. "... I haven't heard that discussion."

Earlier this week, Whiston's new bosses on the State Board of Education passed a resolution saying they support "immediately restoring governance of Detroit Public Schools to a Detroit elected school board."

The elected state board also endorsed creation of a Detroit Education Commission that could open and close failing schools run by DPS, charters or the Education Achievement Authority.

"We need a functional quality management system for the network for schools (in Detroit) ... that works more effectively and not chaotically, which is happening now," said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education.

Whiston's opposition to dissolving DPS comes one week after state Rep. Tim Kelly suggested on "Off The Record" the 47,000-student district may be "irreparable" and "bound for elimination one way or another anyway."

"I don't think (DPS is) serving anybody but adults today," said Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, the influential chairman of the School Aid appropriations subcommittee.

Whiston, who is not an educator by training, said there needs to be a "laser-like focus" on improving the reading and writing skills of Detroit students "across the curriculum" to improve persistently low test scores.

"If we don't focus on what's happening in the classroom with the teachers and provide support and professional development for the staff and changes we need to make in those classrooms, five, 10 years from now we're still going to be talking about what we need to do about Detroit," Whiston said.

Earlier this week, Whiston appeared before a legislative committee and said the state has to focus on training, evaluating and empowering teachers to raise student achievement.

Whiston expressed concern Friday that there's an emerging shortage of new teachers entering the profession.

"Over the last few years, I think people have kind of been turned off by going into education because of the battles and financial crises that have faced education and the lower starting wages," Whiston said. "I think it's tougher for people to look at going into education."

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