An Hour With… Sonya Mays

Detroit Public Schools Community District board member; President/CEO of Develop Detroit

In mid-January, seven members were sworn in as the Detroit Public Schools Community District board — the city’s first elected school board in seven years. Sonya Mays — a former adviser to Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and current president/CEO of Develop Detroit — is one of those new members. We asked her about the “new” DPS.


You didn’t have name recognition. How did you cut through the clutter of 63 candidates?

The honest answer is it’s still a little bit of a mystery [laughs]. We were all new to this process, and worked really, really hard. … The conventional wisdom [was] I couldn’t win because I had neither name recognition and I also had worked for an emergency manager in a system that was trying to free itself from that. … And I knocked on a ton of doors! And three, four community meetings a week. [Also] I got … endorsements from an unbelievably diverse set of stakeholders … from the Regional Chamber to the UAW to the Black Slate. [And] I owe a big debt of gratitude to Detroiters. Part of me wonders if Detroiters don’t get enough credit. You had an electorate who faced an interesting choice three years ago with the mayor’s race. They came out and voted for [Mike] Duggan in a write-in. … That’s serious commitment.

The new board has a bit more limited power?

It’s certainly not 100 percent local control but it’s far closer than anything we’ve seen in almost a decade. I keep trying to focus on the opportunity … and not get hamstrung [by] the baggage perceived.

What was your role with the emergency manager?

Senior adviser. I’m a lawyer and former investment banker. [I was] helping to think about revenue opportunities … legal and statutory work [and] the restructuring of some key city departments, such as planning and development. I really like fixing broken things. And municipal government is nothing but an endless series of puzzles to solve.

What brought you back here from Wall Street?

[Bankruptcy was] happening in the abstract [but] the consequences … were going to be felt by my family. I had a particular skill set … so I came back. I do have mixed emotions about the emergency management law. [It’s] far better applied to reworking a financial picture [than] an operational picture. I think that’s where it went pretty sideways at DPS.

Your platform is against hiring uncertified teachers.

I’m highly reluctant to flex on that point. But I do understand there’s a dire shortage [that’s] mushroomed statewide. I’m going to push [to] get certified, highly qualified teachers into Detroit. … It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of partnerships. But I think there’s a path to that.

National politics are leaning to become very pro-charter schools. And charters are DPS’ competition.

When you have scarce resources, the more charter schools and more mini systems … created are all chasing the same number of finite dollars. … You’re actually effectively increasing the cost of administration, which pulls dollars out of instruction. … By just about all accounts in Detroit, we have what is exemplar of a failed charter school environment. … I find it frustrating we haven’t seen any truly meaningful efforts being led from Lansing to try to right that ship. I am very pro traditional public schools. … I really don’t want the school system … to continue to be a petri dish.

What about more training for construction workers in Detroit?

This is an interesting place where my day job intersects with my public service. I run a housing development organization [Develop Detroit]. We see it as core to our mission to employ as many Detroiters as possible. There’s a real opportunity to bolster how the district does career technical education. … It’s a real opportunity to step in either with adult ed or with students who are not on a traditional collegiate track. Not just construction jobs. Opportunities for entrepreneurship. … If we do this right, that’s the “double bottom line” I love.

“If we think public education is important, [we] have to embrace it. We’re not going to get another chance at hitting the reset button.” – Sonya Mays

Student absenteeism is problematic.

This is going to sound a little counter-intuitive, but my housing work is probably a more direct analog for how you approach wraparound services … [because] when you’re doing housing work, you’re fully in someone’s life. You understand [their] family situation. Their needs, their challenges. You have to have a mind-set that [puts the] child’s life in the context of everything that’s going on at home.

What are the board’s biggest challenges?

If we think public education is important, we collectively have to embrace it. Not just people [with] children. It means business owners. Marketing executives. Parents to be. … It affects us all in some way or another. We’re not going to get another chance at hitting the reset button. [Also] there are finite resources … and that, by definition, implies some difficult choices.


Name: Sonya Mays

Age: 40

Hometown: Detroit

• Renaissance High School
• University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business (Master of Business Administration)
• U-M Law School
• University of Michigan (biological anthropology)

• President/CEO Develop Detroit, a community development nonprofit
• Board member, Detroit Public Schools Community District

• Senior adviser to Kevyn Orr, Detroit emergency manager
• Vice president/investment banker, Deutsche Bank
• Director of community and media relations, CarolinaPros, Inc.
• Substitute teacher, Detroit Public Schools

• Board member, Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan
• Alumni Board of Governors, University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Campaign Slogan:
Building Hope. Building Futures.

• Ensure safe and secure schools
• Better support of educators
• Reduce absenteeism