Can Mike Duggan save Detroit Public Schools?

Bill Johnson

Interested parties are advocating, rumors are circulating and pressure is building to give control of the Detroit Public Schools to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan after the tenure of the DPS emergency manager runs its course.

One thing is clear as the process unfolds: Neither the history of governance changes at DPS, nor the city’s financial management skills, provides reason to believe this would be a good idea.

With everything that remains unfixed at DPS — and possibly never to be fixed in the city — it’s difficult to make the case for placing education under Duggan’s control.

Let’s be real: We’ve seen nothing but city miscues and DPS failures over the half-century.

Past elected school boards were more interested in self-perpetuation than student excellence. Their actions — or lack thereof — made DPS ripe for receivership.

The first bite out of the apple came from Mayor Dennis Archer and the governor who replaced the elected school board and appointed a “reform board.” Ken Burnley was named superintendent followed by a string of emergency manager “disasters” including Robert Bobb.

By the time Roy Roberts made it onto the scene, the district was pretty much shot. Jack Martin is essentially the pallbearer.

The state takeover was supposed to be a compassionate solution to historic problems.

DPS EMs were charged with conducting a thorough review of the administrative and financial operations of the school system and rescue students from a life of despair. Bad enough that some of them — Burnley and Bobb — raped the district of its scant resources. But not one was able to draft program models capable of steering DPS successfully into the 21st century.

To the point, they lacked the talent to navigate a virtual minefield of obstacles that stood between children and the education they need. The district took on heavy casualties. Parents justifiably saw abandonment as the most viable option when all else failed.

The thinking is that Duggan can marshal the resources of the city independent of state control.

Businesses, civic organizations, the religious community, parents and parental groups, community-based organizations, labor and the educational community would rally to his side in an unprecedented way.

Theoretically, these stakeholders would understand the gravity of the prevailing crisis and the need to make children the central focus of policy decisions.

Somehow, they would recognize that the mediocre education delivered by the system serves as a ball and chain around the neck of children in an environment where they are expected to be proficient in the high-tech information oriented society of today and tomorrow.

Under Mike Duggan, DPS would magically be immune to the forces that usher in fiscal problems. The educational neglect of children would cease to be viewed with indifference.

Of course, this is a fallacy. There’s no reason to believe any of this would become reality in the foreseeable future. Giving the mayor carte blanche authority to reform DPS is an idea whose time has not come. Here’s why.

First, there should be some sign that the mayor knows how to make the dysfunctional system of buses run on time before making him responsible for a dysfunctional school system. Secondly, the mayor has yet to demonstrate he can make school zones safe for students — or residents for that matter.

The delivery of effective and timely essential services is still a work in progress. There are more blackouts than lighted streets in morbidly distressed neighborhoods.

Without a few successes, how can citizens feel comfortable about entrusting the mayor to come up with a realistic plan under which students believe they have a future?

And then there’s this. The last time Duggan was given a major role with DPS, he was placed in charge of spending the loose change from a $1.5 billion voter-approved capital bond program. Rather than making a serious attempt to address the dilapidated and dangerous physical condition of schools that hindered teacher and student performance, he used the opportunity to further his political ambitions.

Bill Johnson is a former Detroit News columnist and editorial writer.