DETROIT — Robert Bobb has spent the past two years closing dozens of schools and firing principals in an effort to fix the failing Detroit Public Schools. Yet, he still hasn't solved the problem for which he was hired — erasing a legacy budget deficit that now stands at $327 million.
Now, in his final months as the state-appointed emergency financial manager, Bobb is proposing several headline-grabbing ideas — including a radical plan to shut down so many buildings that some high schools could see more than 60 students per class — in an attempt to wipe out the red ink.
The state Board of Education wants the budget gap closed sooner than later. Despite reworking vendor contracts to save money, shutting down old, high-maintenance buildings, weeding out numerous cases of fraud and theft, and keeping dozens of teaching and other district jobs unfilled, the deficit hasn't gone away. With Bobb's contract ending in June, he's floating extreme measures to get the job done.
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"There are so many competing interests within the Detroit Public Schools, you kind of have to throw a lot of different stuff against the wall to see what sticks," says Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Mich.
Bobb's latest proposal, announced about a week ago, calls for placing 41 academically poor schools and the 16,000 students attending them in the hands of charter operators.
"Rather than simply closing schools, this plan seeks to transform DPS into one of the nation's premier urban school districts by recruiting some of the best, proven school operators to serve Detroit's children and remake schools that have been failing them for years," Bobb has said of the charter proposal.
Another model seeks to take revenue and pay off the district's outstanding debt while doing away with the existing school system. A new district with new contracts and staffing levels would be built from the ground up. Existing schools would be moved into the new system.
Bobb also has proposed asking the state to continue current funding levels, despite a drop in enrollment, while it chips away at the accumulated deficit over time. But this seems unlikely as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder already is planning cuts to per-pupil funding in his proposed state budget.
None are guaranteed to work and most would draw opposition from the teachers' union and parents who don't want to see schools closed and teacher contracts thrown out in favor of charter school operators hiring non-union educators to work in their buildings.
But all are preferred to Bobb's initial deficit elimination plan that called for closing 70 of Detroit's 172 schools and increasing the maximum high school class size to 62. Though that plan was approved in February by state education officials who wanted to see a proposal that would eliminate the deficit quickly, even Bobb says it goes too far.
"He had no choice but to get us down to zero by the 2014 fiscal year," said district spokesman Steve Wasko. It "is not the plan we want, nor is it good for DPS or its students."
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Bobb was appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in March 2009 to turnaround the cash-strapped district. He hired an inspector general to look into complaints of financial wrongdoing and within two months was investigating about 50 cases of theft and fraud. Audits of school records revealed some administrators made or received inappropriate personal loans.
Along with the school closings, contracts of more than 30 principals were not renewed. Less money also is flowing out of the district as Bobb cut millions of dollars in spending from the budget.
But as enrollment drops, less money to pay the bills is coming in. And while seeking answers to the district's financial turmoil, Bobb also is fighting other battles.
"He has a school board that has taken him to court — and won; a recalcitrant teachers union that promises to file grievances. Then he has people within Detroit neighborhoods who don't want to see schools shuttered," Van Beek said.
Bobb was given more ammunition when Snyder recently signed a bill that gives broad new powers and tools to financial managers to restructure school districts and communities headed toward insolvency. Under the law, financial managers will be able to toss union contracts to help balance the books, strip power from local elected officials or — in extreme cases — dissolve a town or school district.
It's unclear how Bobb will use that going forward. For now, he continues to push the charter school plan which is the one receiving the most support in the city at the moment — even from the school board. Under Bobb's proposal, Detroit Schools would sponsor the charters and seek out groups to operate them. The district would lease the buildings for an estimated $21 million and receive 3 percent of whatever funding each charter gets from the state.
Operating costs are expected to drop by up to $99 million. The district would save about $22 million by not having to secure the closed buildings.
But the teacher's union has been fighting Bobb's efforts to close schools over the past two years and is "adamantly opposed" to adding more charters in Detroit while losing district-run buildings, Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson says.
Charter schools, even those authorized by the district, are not required to hire displaced Detroit Public Schools teachers or hire teachers under the union contract.
The district's track record with charter schools has not been smooth. It has closed two since it began authorizing academies in 1998, according to Wasko.
The Michigan Institute for Construction Trades and Technology was closed in 2002 for among other things failing to abide by and meet its educational goals and meeting generally accepted public sector accounting principles. The New Horizon Academy was also shut down in 2000 for the same reasons.
Bertha Marsh, who has five grandchildren in Detroit schools, says while most people don't want change, the problems with the schools leave them no choice.
"The district knows it has to do something. Mr. Bobb has seen how the finances are doing, and he sees it's impossible to make it financially stable unless they do something drastic. It can't be the same old same old," she said.
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