Managing the Mess

May 5, 2011

When the news broke yesterday that retired General Motors vice president Roy Roberts would be the new Detroit Public Schools czar, the first thing I thought of was Henry Ford.

This is not because I have attention deficit disorder. No, I thought of something brilliant Hank the First once observed about his own career.  Ford said if he had asked about transportation needs in the 1890's, nobody would have said they needed an automobile.

They would have said they wanted a faster horse. For years, various people have been trying in various ways to beat life into a dying horse called the Detroit Public Schools.

They’ve tried appointed boards and elected boards; emergency managers, all sorts of superintendents and infusions of cash.

Nothing has worked very well. Sometimes they identify a particular problem, but the overall health of the system has remained poor. Now if you are not from Detroit, you may not think this matters much to you. Except that it does.

We as a state will all suffer, economically and otherwise, if kids can’t get a functional education in our largest city. Plus, the seeds of many of the problems that have ruined Detroit’s schools are present and growing in other school systems, urban, suburban and rural school systems across the state.

So now it will be the turn of a retired auto guy to try and streamline the system. Yesterday, when Governor Snyder announced  Roberts’ appointment, I couldn’t help but also wonder this: 

Is he a new GM kind of guy, or an old GM guy? The old GM was an arrogant, wasteful spendthrift with quality control problems.

Eventually, it went bankrupt. The new GM is trying hard to be lean, mean, smart, flexible, and is making money, at least for now.

Roy Roberts is an intriguing figure, a seventy-two year-old grandson of sharecroppers who himself started on the assembly line, and somehow worked his way up to be vice-president of North American vehicle sales, service and marketing. He’ll need to wear all those hats in the job he’s facing.

But Roberts just might be the right man for the job. He will have far more powers over academics as well as finances. He knows the city and knows the state far better than did Robert Bobb, the outgoing emergency financial manager. He is one of a rare breed of black philanthropists; coincidentally, the very morning his appointment was announced, he and his wife were being honored for giving more than a million dollars to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The new man made the right noises yesterday, saying that he intended to find “the best academic person and the best financial person, and lead from the center.” But if he is to be successful, leading may eventually mean transitioning and partnerships.

There will soon be more Detroit kids in charter schools than in the traditional public schools. After stabilizing the traditional system’s finances, Roberts might want to consider cooperative arrangements with some of them. The important thing is that serious and successful education happens, regardless of who provides it.

General Motors has reinvented itself and come back from the dead. Let’s  hope that the most successful black executive in that firm’s history can work similar magic on the Motor City’s schools.