In 1975, the Detroit Public School Board appointed Arthur L. Jefferson as the General Superintendent of a school system governing over 200,000 students.
Remarkably, he was only 36 years old at the time. He served diligently through an incredible period marked by labor strife and intense contract negotiations. In these tumultuous times, it is almost unimaginable that Dr. Jefferson went on to serve Detroit’s children for fourteen years until he retired in 1989.
Since then, elected boards have appointed seven people as either Interim or General Superintendent and only one lasted more than two years: David Snead. He survived three years.
The district has also endured four state appointed CEO’s, three emergency managers, one transition manager and is presently served by an Interim Superintendent, Alycia Meriweather. She is a proud graduate of Renaissance High School, a lifelong Detroiter where she still resides with her husband of 20 years. Upon her appointment by then transition manager Judge Steven Rhodes, Meriweather was lauded and applauded by a plethora of teachers, administrators and union officials, including DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey, who called her a “good choice.”
Last fall, the voters of Detroit elected a new school board. Despite the public praise and continued support for Dr. Meriweather, one of the first pronouncements by the new board, if not the first, was that they would immediately conduct a nationwide, transparent search for a superintendent.
In the midst of this national search, the state announced the impending closure of more than two dozen underperforming schools in the new DPSCD. You could hear the board members howl as each cried foul.
Earlier this week, they voted to sue the state to prevent closures that haven’t occurred. Board President Iris Taylor said that the “district is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without even the threat of closure.” Now after 90 days in office and expenditures in the six figures, the Board has whittled down its list of candidates to three. Surprisingly, Ms. Meriweather is not among the finalists.
The list reportedly includes Derrick R. Coleman, superintendent of the River Rouge District which has about 1,700 students currently enrolled; Orlando Ramos, regional superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools since 2015, a district with an enrollment of 76,000 students; and Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, with a student population of 130,000.
Mr. Coleman is a homegrown DPS graduate who formerly served as a DPS assistant superintendent. The DPSCD board would do well to remember the last superintendent who came from a tiny district to run a large urban school district: Connie Calloway. She didn’t last two years and wound up suing the board, costing even more money the district didn’t have.
On the other hand, if they’re seeking someone who has a background and familiarity with DPS, it’s perplexing why Ms. Meriweather was not selected as a finalist.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ramos doesn’t seem to be too happy in his position in Milwaukee. Not six months ago, he was seeking to be the “chief cheerleader” for the Allentown School District in Pennsylvania. Dr. Vitti, who presides over the “most dangerous school district in Florida”, just signed a contract extension in Duval County that keeps him under contract until 2019.
Could it be that the Board doesn’t want Ms. Meriweather, despite her local background, experience and commitment, simply because she’s a holdover from state control? Otherwise, why shouldn’t she be given the same opportunity to turn around Detroit schools that the Board is demanding for itself?
The initial moves of the current members bring to mind the turmoil surrounding Drs. Porter and McGriff and a reform team that long ago promised change and hope. Thus began a merry-go-round of superintendents that couldn’t cope.
It is imperative that this new Board be different from the school boards of yesteryear. We simply cannot afford to return to the backbiting, sniping, political posturing and grandstanding that seemed to go hand in hand with a seat on the Detroit Board of Education.
Business development requires educational development in order to continue. The true measure of success doesn’t rest with Mayor Mike Duggan, Dan Gilbert or the Ilitch family. Rather, it lies with committed parents, engaged children and a responsible DPSCD board.
Let’s hold them to it like the future depends on it. Because it does.
Cliff Woodards is a criminal defense attorney in Southeast Michigan and the host of Your Turn with Cliff Woodards, airing each weeknight at 7pm on 910 AM The Superstation.