Jacques: Will Mike Duggan head Detroit schools?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Everyone thinks Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan should have more to do with running schools in the city. Except Mike Duggan.

"I've got enough on the my plate right now," Duggan said last week, shaking his head at the mention of Detroit Public Schools.

Duggan has his hands full. Yet the mayor understands how integral schools are to Detroit's turnaround. A strong K-12 network of schools is essential to rebuilding a middle class in the city. Without that, Detroit's future is grim.

While the mayor remains cool to the idea of taking on another major challenge, others in his administration have faith in him.

"He doesn't want to take over the schools, but he'll have to do it," a top aide to Duggan said. "You can't fix the city without fixing the schools."

With the bankruptcy over, Gov. Rick Snyder has also started turning more focus to schools in Detroit. He is very aware time is almost up for DPS' third emergency manager, Jack Martin. Martin's term is over next month, meaning the state has to figure out a Plan B fast.

Snyder has made it clear that he's not a fan of the Detroit school board regaining more control. But he's also admitted emergency managers for the district haven't been as effective as he'd like.

As Snyder says, "How do we do a better job of educating kids in Detroit?"

Snyder has stopped short of saying he wants the mayor to take on more oversight of city schools, but the governor definitely thinks Duggan should take part in the developing conversation about schools.

And Snyder wants the next blueprint for improving schools to come from the community — not him.

"I want the community to be actively involved in this process," Snyder says.

He's keeping a close eye on recent efforts in Detroit. Last week a coalition of 31 education, civic, business and religious stakeholders came together with a mission of giving Detroit kids a better education. Participants, which range from the Skillman Foundation to AFT-Michigan, believe Detroiters are best suited to come up with a solution.

While Snyder is taking a back seat in the discussion, he's still involved. Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana schools chief who helped turn around New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, has been working in Michigan this year and giving Snyder's team advice on schools. And Snyder says Pastorek is working with this new coalition.

Detroit's complicated mix of traditional public schools and charter schools could use streamlining. Earlier this year, Excellent Schools Detroit suggested having the city exert more control over schools, including overseeing transportation and enrollment. And Dan Varner, the group's CEO, thinks the mayor's office is the place for this oversight.

Duggan wouldn't have to oversee schools personally. He could hire a school czar to do this work. That system worked well in New York City, when school chancellor Joel Klein headed the city's schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Klein had authority to open and close all city schools, including charters. Student performance and graduation rates improved during his tenure.

Several strong Detroit candidates come to mind: Varner, who is wrapping up a term on the state Board of Education, and Clark Hill, attorney Reggie Turner, also a former state board member with a keen interest in Detroit schools.

Whether he likes it or not, Duggan must get more involved.

"No one else can do it," says Duggan's aide. "The governor understands that what he's tried isn't working, and he wants to get this settled. The mayor is the only person who can it done."