NEW YORK -- Roy Roberts, a former GM executive, says his first few months on the job as emergency manager of Detroit's public schools have been "like drinking from a fire hose."
"I had five weeks to pull together a budget for 2012," he said in an interview. "That's not a simple process."
So far, his tenure has entailed cutting salaries across the board by 10 percent; imposing $81 million in wage concessions; and announcing a new state-run educational authority to oversee Michigan's lowest-performing schools that will pilot in Detroit next year. He has also faced several lawsuits and seen 11 people charged with stealing from the city's schools.
Some of these may seem far-reaching decisions and unusual challenges for a schools chief. That's because they are. Under Michigan's Public Act Four, which created his role, Roberts has near carte-blanche power over Detroit's schools and the people who run them.
"That means I don't have to accept the union's input or the school board's input," Roberts explained.
While Detroit's school board and teachers' union are relatively powerless with the emergency manager in place, Roberts has so far shown relative restraint in using his authority.
"My attitude has been -- I don't care how much power or authority I have," Roberts said. "The key is when I use it. I haven't seen fit to say I'm going to abolish unions or school boards. I'm doing what I think is right and best for the young people."
"When the governor was introducing me the first day," he noted, "I went back to the president of the [teachers] union. 'If you want what I want, I want you at the table,' I told him. 'If not, I'm going to move off you fast.' We both shook hands."
Roberts took over Detroit Public Schools in May. He now helms a district in crisis, due to the recession, a $327 million deficit and a reputation, as Roberts put it, as "the worst academic system in the United States of America."
But Detroiters are angry about the state takeover of the school system, as Deanna Williams, a student at Eastern Michigan University who recently graduated from Detroit Public Schools, expressed.
"I hear [from my friends] it's just more of the same," she said on Monday, at a panel with Roberts and Tamron Hall at NBC's Education Nation summit. "A lot of this is just words. What are you going to do to get the schools to rise up?"
"They don't have the resources because nobody wants to put them there," Williams continued. "People like the higher-ups."
"It's noise," Roberts said afterwards. "There is enough culpability to go around."
Whatever Roberts' own plans for the schools, he has also had to deal with the buildup of the system's past failures. Earlier this month, 11 Detroiters -- including three DPS employees -- were charged with school theft.
"It's kind of sad, but it provided an opportunity for me to say to the public, 'We're not going to be a patsy for people who will steal from kids,'" Roberts said.
DPS also faces dwindling enrollment as families move outside Detroit. That population drop led to school closures under Roberts' predecessor, Robert Bobb.
Bobb's five-year plan for the district sought to close 45 schools. Roberts has so far closed none. He said few specifics are available about possible school closures under the new state-run district, since planning is in its early phases.
Williams, the former student, criticized the school closures, saying residents and parents "have a lot of trouble believing that this is the best plan."
"It's being done to the people of Detroit, it's not being done for them," she said.
In addition to school closures, the district faces major staff cuts. Under Roberts' deficit-elimination plan, DPS would fire 1,500 teachers over the next five years. The enrollment crisis, Roberts said, explains that decision, too.
"Firing is a misnomer," Roberts said, pointing to the need to balance the district's budget. "Sixty-eight percent of our budget is people. It's driven by how many students do we have. That drives the teacher count."
Meanwhile, Roberts is planning the execution of the Educational Achievement System, the new statewide district that will take over Michigan's lowest-performing schools.
"We're going to close some schools, charter some schools, have some autonomous schools, raise money for those schools and train principals differently," Roberts said. He added that EAS aims to raise $200 million in private donations, half of which would fund an ambitious scholarship program. "So far so good," he said of the fundraising, although he declined to name specific pledges.
Roberts recently hired Kansas City schools chief John Covington to run EAS. To take the job, Covington left his superintendent post abruptly after two years in Kansas City, before it was possible to assess the results of his plan to close half the city's schools. Since his departure, the district lost accreditation.
But Roberts said he isn't worried about Covington's record.
"When [Covington] came to Kansas City, it already had provisional accreditation," Roberts said. "Everybody there was ultra pleased with his work. That's why they were so upset when he left them."
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