Facing Tough Times, Detroit To Close 44 Schools

Detroit is expected to shut the doors of 44 of its 172 public schools as the district struggles with declining enrollment and a budget deficit of $219 million. Host Michel Martin speaks with Robert Bobb, the district's emergency financial manager.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Tiger Woods returns to golf. We'll ask why and what it means.

But first, we go to Detroit where the beleaguered city is shedding 44 of its public schools as it contends with steadily declining enrollment and a huge budget deficit. Detroit, of course, has been slammed by the downturn in the auto industry as well as the economic downturn in general. Of course, it also has been suffering its unique political troubles. Here to talk more about this is Robert Bobb. He's the emergency financial manager for Detroit's public schools. And he's with us now from there. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ROBERT BOBB (Emergency Financial Manager, Detroit Public Schools): Thank you.

MARTIN: How did you make the decision to close 44 of the 172 public schools and how did you decide which ones to close?

Mr. BOBB: It was a very important decision based on the city's population. At one time in Detroit's history, the population was 1.6 million people. And today, Detroit's population is around 800,000, awaiting the results of the next census. We've had a declining birthrate in our city. So we've seen a steady decline in our student population. And just 10 years ago we had approximately 175,000 students, and so this year we had 85,000.

There is a movement on the part of the mayor to shrink the size of the city. There are some terrific neighborhoods in the city, but there are some neighborhoods that are significantly abandoned. And therefore, in choosing which schools to close, we've looked at examined those neighborhoods where we have steady population. And so we've consolidated a number of our elementary schools. And we've proposed them to close a number of comprehensive high schools.

MARTIN: I get the picture. You're basically trying to shrink the city's footprint. One of the questions I have, though, is that schools aren't just buildings, they're kind of living organisms. There are relationships and networks and obviously many times people have very strong feelings about those relationships based on their memory of going to that particular school. But I was interested to know whether how well the school functioned played a role in choosing whether to close it or not.

Mr. BOBB: Well, we consolidated schools. We moved entire programs from schools that have excellent and very strong programs into schools where the program has not been as strong. And so, in areas where we're consolidating schools, were not consolidating a school, a low-performing school into a high-performing school. We're taking programs that have been very successful and bringing those programs into a school so that we can offer the successful programs to a larger number of students in a new neighborhood.

And you're correct. There are relationships that have been built by neighborhoods and by individual buildings. We want to change the conversation from the discussion of a building to the discussion of the strength of the academic programs that will be housed in that building.

MARTIN: Do you think that this will be enough to staunch the financial bleeding?

Mr. BOBB: Oh yes, definitely. Well, just on the school closures, you know, last year I closed 29 schools and this year on the table we have 44. But we have to recognize the fact that in Detroit we have a shrinking population. We have an expansion of charter and other schools. So, parents have greater choices in where their children should be educated. We are also implementing a $500.5 million bond issue, which gives us an opportunity wherein were renovating and building new schools or replacing schools, but at the same time, we're also are closing schools.

But we're doing it in a very strategic way so that we can help to strengthen neighborhoods, as opposed to continuing the abandonment of certain neighborhoods in the city of Detroit. But the city itself, it does have to become smaller than it has been in the past.

MARTIN: How are people reacting to this? I have to tell you, I received an email last night from a woman who was a graduate of Burton Elementary and it was a very highly regarded elementary school, which was, I think, one of the first to offer the international baccalaureate program. It was language intensive. It's just rigorous. I mean, she described a scene where people would line up around the block to try to get their children into the school. And she said very movingly that, you know, when I went to this school I knew my life was going to change. And as I understand it, Burton is one of those slated for closing.

Mr. BOBB: Burton International is an international baccalaureate program is very strong and extremely successful. It is in a building that's sandwiched between a casino and another large property. The building itself needs significant renovation. So what we're doing is moving the entire Burton program into a school building where the facility itself will allow that program to grow and offer those children a real gymnasium, swimming pool.

So we're not closing the Burton International program, we're bringing the program into a much better facility and allowing that program to grow and to offer more opportunities for other students throughout the district.

MARTIN: So, what I hear you saying is that you're trying to change the conversation from the buildings to what goes on in the building, to focus on the programs that are offered and the quality of the program offered, as opposed to the specific location where it's offered. Do I have that right?

Mr. BOBB: That's correct. In the case of Burton, it's an application school and students attend that school from all across the city.

MARTIN: Okay. But the impression I'm having is: Do you think that the citizens of Detroit are willing to accept that? People tend to have a very emotional reaction to their schools. And I wonder if you feel that people are willing to accept your argument and the mayor's argument that this is what has to happen.

Mr. BOBB: Well, I can tell you that there's a lot of anger on a part of some. There's a lot of uncertainty. I'm going to be hosting as many town hall meetings with individual schools and neighborhoods that we can between now and the end of April, and those meetings are being scheduled, but, yes, there are, you know, people are concerned. There are a lot of concerned there's a lot of anger and legitimately so. Parents want to know what's going to happen to their child, the type of facility that their children will be placed in.

The plan that we put in place takes away the uncertainty. And that is, it's a five-year master facilities plan which gives the community a long view of what schools would be closed in the future if we continue to have the decline in the residential areas of those neighborhoods, as opposed to every year we come in and we said, oh, we're going to close x number of schools.

But this plan this year gives the community a long view, a five-year view. It also provides the community with the real data and demographics of what's happening in their community and in their neighborhood. There are certain areas of the city of Detroit where we have a large the population is exploding and therefore we are not only building those schools, but we're renovating schools in certain parts of the community.

MARTIN: And finally, Detroit is not the only school district that is confronting this. The Kansas City, Missouri school district announced plans last week to shut down and leave half of its schools by the start of classes in the fall. DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta is considering closing 12 schools over the next two years to address a budget deficit. The officials in St. Louis are also considering similar steps. As a person who's worked in a number of jurisdictions across the country, what do you think this means?

Mr. BOBB: What it means is that, you know, we are greatly impacted by the economy and there really needs to be a way to really not only have the conversation around jumpstarting the economy, but it really needs a significant boost. Particularly, you know, urban environments, the infrastructural needs in these urban cities in Detroit, Kansas City and others are so significant and massive and there really needs to be a massive infusion of not only local fronts but also state and federal.

And of course in the state of Michigan, the state is facing a significant deficit. The city of Detroit is facing a deficit that Detroit public schools were working to bring the Detroit public schools out of about a $300 million legacy in current year's deficit as well. So, and then of course the unemployment, there are significant challenges in these urban centers. And these urban centers are going to have to have a very laser-focused stimulus to turn the tide.

And the answer is not just charter schools because we also have very low performing charter schools as well. And so, I just think that public education is going to be the mainstay, but we have to change, A, the conversation, and, B, figure out ways in which we can provide some financial stability to these communities.

And it's not just the competitive, you know, race to the top or some others, it's going to have to almost have to be a Katrina-like stimulus program or a program similar to what happened in the Gulf states after Katrina and many of these urban centers. And I can speak in Detroit's case because I can see the issues and the challenges that we face in Detroit every day.

MARTIN: Robert Bobb is the emergency financial manager for the Detroit public schools and he was kind enough to join us from WDET in Detroit. And we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOBB: Thank you very much.

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