Posted on March 8, 2010

Does DPS Leader’s Writing Send Wrong Message?

Laura Berman, Detroit News, March 4, 2010

The president of the Detroit school board, Otis Mathis, is waging a legal battle to steer the academic future of 90,000 children, in the nation’s lowest-achieving big city district.

He also acknowledges he has difficulty composing a coherent English sentence. Here’s a sample from an e-mail he sent to friends and supporters on Sunday night, uncorrected for errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage. It begins:

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.

The rest of the e-mail, and others that Mathis has written, demonstrate what one of his school board colleagues describes, carefully, as “his communication issues.” But if these deficits have limited Mathis, as he admits they have, they have not stopped him from graduating from high school and college. In January, his peers elected him president by a 10-1 vote over Tyrone Winfrey, a University of Michigan academic officer.

{snip} His college degree was held up for more than a decade because he repeatedly failed an English proficiency exam then required for graduation at Wayne State University.

In another city, these revelations might be grounds for disqualification. But Mathis is liked and defended by many of his peers, who cite his collegiality, lack of defensiveness and leadership as more important than his writing skills. Even Winfrey, his defeated rival for the presidency, declined to criticize his qualifications.


Is Mathis a success story? {snip} Or is he an example of the system’s worst failings–a disinterested student who always found ways to graduate, even when he didn’t meet the requirements–likely to perpetuate lax academic standards if the board wins its court battle with Bobb over control?


Another e-mail

Here’s another mass e-mail from Mathis, from Aug. 11, 2009:

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?

“I told him just last week that he should have his e-mails read by somebody before he sends them out,” said fellow school board member LaMar Lemmons Jr., who praises Mathis as a leader he can trust.

“I said, ‘If somebody gets ahold of this, it will become an issue that you can’t read or write. It will go around the world.'”

Can Mathis read?

“Yes, I can read. I’m capable of reading a lot of information and regurgitation,” says Mathis, who told me he sometimes needs to read documents two or three times to fully comprehend their contents but then masters–and memorizes–them.

Engaging and honest

Mathis is an engaging man. When I asked him about the grammatical deficiencies in his e-mails, he didn’t waffle or grandstand, instead honestly answering questions about his difficulties in school.


Mathis and another student unsuccessfully challenged the use of an English proficiency test as a requirement for graduation. In 1992, when the case went to trial, the lawsuit gained national attention. Mathis said then his failure to pass the test “made me feel stupid.” The requirement was eventually dropped in 2007, and Mathis applied to get his degree the next year, after his election.

Understands struggling kids


In his career, Mathis has compensated for his rudimentary writing skills by seeking help from others and working on his listening and speech skills. “We picked him (to be president) because we thought he has the intelligence for it and the tolerance for disruptive behavior,” says Reverend David Murray. “He has that type of calm.”

Is it absurd for a man who cannot write a simple English sentence to serve as the board president? Or to lead the elected board of a district that ranks at the nation’s bottom for literacy?


Mathis and some of his supporters say his story is about someone who manages his limitations, just as others manage physical disabilities.