The leader of Michigan’s largest school district says a key reason why Detroit schools are in crisis is this: racism.

“There is a racist element to what has happened,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the state’s influential business and political leaders at the annual, high profile Mackinac Policy Conference. “Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens.”

Vitti, who is white, often speaks publicly about inequity in schools but his strong language about race was notable in part because of the setting.

The policy conference, held every year the week after Memorial Day to discuss issues affecting the city and state, is attended predominantly by white business and political leaders, including some who have been influential in making decisions that affect schools across the state.

Speaking on a panel with Mayor Mike Duggan, school board member Sonya Mays and University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Vitti was highly critical of the way the Detroit schools, which primarily serve African American and Latino children, have been managed.

He said he was “shocked” and “horrified” last year when he took over a school system that lacked what he considered basic systems.

He had inherited a district from a series of state-appointed emergency managers who had run the district for more than seven years.

It was run, Vitti said, “by individuals that had no track record of education reform.”

Parents and educators had no way to raise concerns because the elected school board was largely powerless, he said.

The emergency managers presided over a district that has some of the lowest test scores in the nation and where buildings were left in such poor repair that the district had to dismiss students early three days this week because too many schools don’t have air-conditioning.

The district saw “year after year of low performance, of lack of growth, drop in enrollment, facilities that are not kept up,” Vitti said.

“That would never, ever, happen in any white suburban districts in this country.”

His comments were greeted with applause.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed most of the emergency managers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Watch the full panel on Detroit’s “new era” of collaboration in schools here: