Detroit Schools Emergency Manager to Step Down

After two years as the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, state-appointee Roy Roberts will retire in the next two weeks from his job at the helm of the state's largest school district.
by | May 2, 2013

By Chastity Pratt Dawsey

After two years as the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, state-appointee Roy Roberts will retire in the next two weeks from his job at the helm of the state's largest school district.

Roberts, 74, said in an interview with the Free Press that he will step down when his contract expires May 16. Roberts planned to announce his departure in a memo to employees today and called a 9 a.m. special meeting with the school board and union leaders.

He said recent financial and academic progress, capped with the announcement earlier this month of the five-year strategic plan developed with input from 600 participants, put the district on a path toward self-governance. Roberts expects the financial emergency will be over in the next three years.

"I'm confident that what we have put together is meaningful ... if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't leave," Roberts said. "The deficit elimination plan says we're going to get rid of the deficit at the end of the 2015-16 school year -- and we're on track for that -- and get out of here and turn (DPS) back over to the local people to run it."

With his departure, Roberts said, chief financial officer Bill Aldridge will take on more responsibilities and become the chief financial and administrative officer, partly to ensure some stability and institutional knowledge will remain. Aldridge will oversee the procurement and logistics department, as well as the technology and information services.

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Roberts in May 2011 for one year, then re-appointed him last year. It is unclear when Snyder will make an announcement about Roberts' replacement. Sara Wurfel, spokeswoman for Snyder, did not respond to requests for comment.

"I would be honored if they saw fit to to take somebody from this staff," Roberts said of his administration. "But it's not my decision and I don't have the authority ... the governor does."

Before Roberts arrived, a plan was in place to shrink Detroit Public Schools into a smaller district and close more schools due to declining enrollment. Roberts, at the behest of the governor, signed an interlocal agreement that created the separate state reform district in 2011 and relinquished 15 low-performing schools to the new district last fall.

He also reduced the district deficit from $327 million to about $76 million by selling more than $200 million in bonds, cutting the deficit but increasing long-term debt. He used 10% wage cuts, school closures and layoffs to help cut spending.

The estimated $76-million deficit lingers and the school district continues to lose students, but Roberts ended the past two years' budgets with more money left over in the coffers than expected. Instead of using it to pay down the deficit, he doled some of it out as 2% bonuses last December to build good faith among disenchanted employees.

Under Roberts, DPS's scores on the state's standardized MEAP tests increased this year; however the achievement gap between Detroit's scores and the state averages since 2009 has worsened, data show.

LaMar Lemmons, the school board president, said he had not heard any news about Roberts' departure. Over the past two years, Roberts largely ignored the school board. He used his power over hiring and payroll to deny the board the academic authority it had under the prior emergency financial manager law. A court battle with the board ensured and Roberts lost, but a new emergency manager law restored all powers to the emergency manager in March. About 4 p.m. Wednesday, Roberts called a special meeting with the school board for 9 a.m. today.

"He didn't say what it was going to be about," Lemmons said.

Aldridge is in his third stint as a top administrator for Detroit Public Schools. In 1988, he worked as divisional director of financial planning and budget and chief accounting officer until 1992. From 1996 to 2000, he returned to the school system to serve as chief financial officer and chief operating officer. He played the lead role in negotiating a Detroit Federation of Teachers contract that established the union's first financial performance-based compensation bonus, the district said. He also established the district's first rainy day fund of over $40 million.

In his new role, Aldridge expects to replace the decade-old computer system used by human resources and financial departments with a new, more efficient one. "It's going to change the face of DPS. There's too much paper and pencil, manual human intervention now. (A new system) will allow me to take some of the costs out of the district," he said.

Prior to coming to the district, Roberts was known for having become the highest-ranking African-American executive in the U.S. automobile industry after he was promoted to group vice president for North American Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing of General Motors.

"If somebody comes to my funeral," Roberts said, "I would rather they say, 'He did all he could for the children of the city of Detroit.' That's more important than saying, 'He was the highest ranking African American in the auto industry.' We touched lives here."

(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press