Detroit Schools Official On State Of System

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called Detroit's schools a "national disgrace." The system suffers from budget deficits, corruption and a falling student population. Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, the official who will decide whether the school system will file for bankruptcy protection by the end of the summer, discusses the financial state of the Detroit Public School system.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's one small piece of solace for California schools: Detroit has it worse. If you were leading the Detroit Public Schools, here are some numbers you'd have to live with. In 2002, you had 160,000 kids in the system. By next year, you expect to have 83,000. You have 104 schools with 41 failing so badly, you've just told all 2,600 teachers who work at them that they'll have to re-interview for their old jobs. The schools are flirting with Chapter 9 bankruptcy. They are, according to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a national disgrace.

All that is the reality for Robert Bobb, spelled B-O-B-B. He has managed cities and school systems from California to Michigan and Washington, D.C. And he is now the emergency financial director of Detroit's public schools. And given the alternatives, Robert Bobb sees the upside to bankruptcy.

Mr. ROBERT BOBB (Emergency Financial Director, Detroit Public Schools): It gives us the opportunity to set aside all of our labor contracts with the various labor unions that we have, that includes teachers. And also, it gives us an opportunity to restructure some of our debt.

SIEGEL: You've had some pretty big corporate bankruptcies in Michigan recently. Would you prefer bankruptcy to going on with your current contracts and your debts, as they're now structured?

Mr. BOBB: Well, we've renegotiated with some our creditors. And now we hear the argument that were we to choose Chapter 9 bankruptcy, it would cause great damage, as it were, to our school system's reputation. But it is one of those options that we cannot afford to dismiss as a non-option.

SIEGEL: Mr. Bobb, given your experience in California, in Washington, D.C., elsewhere in Michigan, what is it about Detroit that strikes you as unique to Detroit and different from the experiences you've had elsewhere?

Mr. BOBB: Well, what is unique here is the fact that in these other jurisdictions, they did not experience, you know, seven consecutive years of over-spending. The other jurisdictions that I've been involved in have had a much more disciplined approach to budgeting and finance. And when revenues were reduced, they did not hesitate to go through a very rigorous process to bring expenditures in line with the revenues that were available. Detroit…

SIEGEL: And in Detroit, when revenues went down?

Mr. BOBB: We continued to spend, and that's why we're in the deep financial deficit that we're in.

SIEGEL: So you're paying the price of a city that violated what would seem to be a fairly obvious lesson, which is you can't spend what you don't have.

Mr. BOBB: Candidly, the old adage of, you know, the sins of the fathers and mothers are now upon the current children of the system.

SIEGEL: For ineptitude, for corruption, for maladministration, for what? How do you judge what you're finding there as you sift through the legacy that you're managing?

Mr. BOBB: For all of those examples you just cited, we've experienced, you know, corruption within the system, obviously the over-spending which has taken place. This is a school system that rewarded vendors more than it rewarded children. But when it comes down to the tough decisions that would put in place systems, remove personnel - those decisions were, you know, were not made.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. BOBB: And so we're paying a price.

SIEGEL: You're saying we love children but we also really love our jobs, is what you're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBB: We didn't operationalize our love for children.

SIEGEL: Is it fixable or have you reached a point where, I mean you've lost - or you will have lost about 50 percent almost of the student population in less than a decade. The problems you've recited are just colossal. Is there some point when you just say, just go to charter schools? Rethink the whole thing. Shutdown the public school system.

Mr. BOBB: We will never shutdown the public school systems. The school district is fixable. It will survive and it will grow stronger. You know, we may have to grow smaller to go stronger, but it will survive.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Bobb, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. BOBB: Well, thank you, Robert. Appreciate it.

SIEGEL: Robert Bobb, who is the emergency financial manager of the Detroit public schools.

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