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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/11/2010

Should this man lead a school system?

By Valerie Strauss

The president of the Detroit Board of Education is a man named Otis Mathis III. His biography says:

He was raised in Southwest Detroit and still lives there with his wife, with whom he has six children.
He is a “Vietnam-era veteran.”
He earned a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Wayne State University.
He served as Wayne County Commissioner.
He was a substitute teacher for Detroit Public Schools.
He was executive director of the Detroit Veterans Center.
He was elected president of the school board by his colleagues in January by a 10-1 vote.

It doesn’t tell you that he was a whiz at math in school, or that he had a reading disability identified in fourth grade that placed him in special education, or that he still has a problem expressing thoughts in writing.

Mathis has become the focus of a controversy that began with a column in the Detroit News by writer Laura Berman, who questioned whether Mathis is fit to lead the school board of the 90,000-student system because of his problems with written expression.

The system is one of the most severely troubled in the country; fewer than 25 percent of high school freshmen go on to graduate.

Here's an email that Mathis recently sent to friends and supporters, cited by Berman:

If you saw Sunday’s Free Press that shown Robert Bobb the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, move Mark Twain to Boynton which have three times the number seats then students and was one of the reason’s he gave for closing school to many empty seats.

Here’s another email he wrote last August, also cited by Berman:

Do DPS control the Foundation or outside group? If an outside group control the foundation, then what is DPS Board row with selection of is director? Our we mixing DPS and None DPS row’s, and who is the watch dog?

Berman notes that Mathis’ writing troubles were so severe that his bachelor’s degree was held up for more than a decade because he repeatedly failed an English proficiency exam at Wayne State.

She asks whether he is fit to lead the school board. The column prompted a lot of media attention, including some from overseas.

In an interview Wednesday, Mathis said he is receiving calls from as far away as Japan about the column, which he termed a “cheap shot.”

He didn’t name his disability, but said it was clear that people who had such troubles in school were capable of strong leadership, and that he was well-positioned to lead the school board in part because he has a deep understanding of Detroit.

"Of course I am capable of doing the job well," he said.

Berman ends her column saying that “because of his struggles and perseverance, Mathis describes himself as a role model. But is he?”

What do you think?


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 11, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Writing  | Tags:  detroit public schools  
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At the very least, he needs to have someone check all his emails before they go out.

And you need to spell-check all your articles, e.g., "dedade."

Posted by: efavorite | March 11, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Kind of ironic to have a misspelling while questioning whether a person can lead a school system, yet, cannot write properly.

The skill level to teach requires the person be able to write properly. Not as much skill level is needed to administer. While it might be a poor reflection on the administrator, I see no resaon he cannot run a school system.

Posted by: BigBubba1 | March 11, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Error fixed! Glad to see that Valerie, or her editor, or whoever, got to that silly mistake quickly. We all make them.

Posted by: efavorite | March 11, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

If there are no other major issues with Otis Mathis III's leadership ability and educational knowledge, then he should be entitled to accommodations that would help with the written communications issues - an executive assistant with a background in learning disabilities and editing skills for example?

Additionally, his own experience with learning disabilities could be a real asset in helping with the rather large number of students that have learning disabilities.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 11, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Isn't this an elected position?

Should Marion Barry be on the DC City Council? Some say no, the voters say yes.

If the man were appointed I think you'd have room to question his credentials, but since he's elected I think you have to say that the people have spoken.

School boards are designed to be made up of citizens of the district and as such will reflect the local area.

If he can run a meeting and talk people into reaching decisions then I'm not going to gripe about a lack of skill in writing.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 11, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

If they voted him in 10-1, he should stay.

The criteria he should be judged on should be more in line with his plans for helping Detroit schools, which are on the front lines of the recession, and have always had some problems due to poverty, corruption, middle class flight to the suburbs, and "voluntary" segregation, etc.

His resume shows that he has been willing to stand up for "underdogs".

Perseverance is going to be needed for his job.

Go get 'em Mathis.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 11, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

The errors made are not from an LD point of view. They represent how he speaks, trasnsferred to how he writes. Rows for roles, the lack of subject-verb agreement, number seats instead of number of seats, none for non are all based on his oral command of English. Other errors, such are and our, incorrect use of an apostrophe when a plural s is needed, are part of an elementary school language arts curriculum.

Posted by: chelita | March 11, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

If his errors are due to a learning disability, he needs to hire someone to edit his writing. If he can speak clearly, he should try dictating all his statements and having them transcribed. After all, if he were blind, we would understand if he wrote in Braille and hired someone or bought a special computer program to transcribe it, wouldn't we?

If, on the other hand, chelita is correct that he really speaks this way and sees nothing wrong, then he shouldn't be near the schools.

My brother was an award-winning writer and frankly admitted it would have been impossible without spell-check. I also remember being almost hysterical in grade school because a poorly educated teacher "corrected" mistakes into my English papers--my mother's college composition professor looked over the papers without knowing the story and thought the corrections came from the fifth-grader!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 12, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

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