Financial Manager Targets Detroit Schools

Detroit's public schools are under the microscope — and a new state-appointed emergency financial manger is addressing a $300 million deficit. In the month Robert Bobb has been on the job, he has proposed closing up to 50 schools in the next two years.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently remarked the Detroit Public Schools keep him awake at night. For administration that housed the importance of student achievement, the troubled district shows how difficult it is to raise the bar.

But a new state appointed emergency financial manager is taking drastic measures to turn things around.

Noah Ovshinsky of member station WDET reports.

NOAH OVSHINSKY: Former FBI agents roam the halls of the central office. Forensic auditors pour through old files. There is a recently installed hotline for potential whistleblowers, and the red ink totals more than $300 million. No, this isn't a struggling Wall Street firm. It's the Detroit Public Schools. It's all compliments of Robert Bobb, everything, except the deficit.

After spending most of his working life managing the nuts and bolts of city government, Bobb says he's learned an inescapable truth about public education.

ROBERT BOBB: There's a lot of rhetoric in terms of everyone cares passionately about education, but at the end of the day, it's whether or not we are prepared to actually put ourselves, you know, on the line everyday.

OVSHINKSY: Putting himself on the line is exactly what Bobb did a little more than a month ago when he took over the Detroit Public Schools on behalf of Michigan's governor. What he found when he got here was a district with little accountability, sloppy record keeping, a bloated bureaucracy and a shady contracting process.

The district has, for years, staggered under the weight of financial mismanagement and a massive drop in enrollment, losing almost 80,000 students in the last decade alone. Public criticism of Bobb's performance has so far been largely muted, but his plan to close 50 schools in the next two years to help stem the deficit is meeting increased resistance.

Earlier this week, in between hearings on the fate of hundreds of administrators, Robert Bobb was approached by parent Kim Jennings(ph) in the district's welcome center.

KIM JENNINGS: I don't think it's good for (unintelligible) on these kids is to get (unintelligible). You know what I'm saying? Because that will cause a lot of chaos.

OVSHINSKY: Looking tired but determined, Bobb listened to her concerns. He's doing a lot of listening these days. Bobb assured Jennings that the school closings, while painful, offer the best in the long run.

BOBB: I will be in the community having individual and or group meetings with parents, students.

JENNINGS: Okay.

OVSHINKSY: Bobb is expected to finalize the list of school closures early next month. Once that's done, he's expected to tackle another contentious issue: contract negotiations. Bobb says he's committed to creating an innovative contract for teachers and says he'd like to introduce some kind of merit pay.

Keith Johnson is the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. He says while he's impressed with Bobb so far, there are limits to what teachers will accept.

KEITH JOHNSON: I will not even entertain merit pay because I believe that merit pay is an insult. What you're in essence telling teachers, we'll pay you more if you teach better. Well, that operates under the presumption that our teachers are not giving their all on a day to day basis.

OVSHINSKY: Robert Bobb's ultimate goal is to improve academic achievement and bring students back to the district. Right now, the system only graduates around 60 percent of its students. He's asked Michigan's governor for $200 million in federal stimulus money to improve Detroit's schools.

Paula Wood is the dean of Wayne State University's School of Education and a long-time district watcher. She says Bobb's involvement presents a rare opportunity for this struggling district.

PAULA WOOD: What is it the Chinese symbol for danger is also the symbol for opportunity. So, it's here and it's now. And I'm hoping that with the right leadership and with the state partnered and city partnered with it, that some really good things can happen here.

OVSHINSKY: Robert Bobb's appointment lasts only one year and is subject to renewal. When he does relinquish his duties, he says he hopes to leave behind a district that's on the path to both fiscal responsibility and higher student achievement.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.

NORRIS: And that struggling school system is in a city with a devastated economy. Yet, even in Michigan, some people see a chance to grow.

And starting tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Steve Inskeep talks with people betting their money or even their homes on their businesses around Detroit.

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