Change Of Guard Likely For Troubled Detroit Schools

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The Republican party has made a clean sweep of Michigan seats in the midterm elections. With soaring unemployment and financial crises, what do these results mean for the troubled city of Detroit? Host Michel Martin talks with Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, about his controversial tenure and prospects for public education in Detroit.


Well, as we said, Detroiters are digesting the results of races here in Michigan. It's been a sweep for Republicans as we told you earlier. Rick Snyder is the new governor-elect. He will be replacing Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who is completing her second term and is barred from running again by law. We hope you heard our conversation with her yesterday on TELL ME MORE.

There's a lot at stake in the governor's new term for Detroit, among other jurisdictions. Unemployment in the metro area stands at 15.7 percent, that's among the highest rates in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the city, of course, faces a big budget deficit. And the fallout from some very messy scandals involving top city officials in previous years.

In the middle of all this, Robert Bob was brought in to try to right the shift for Detroit's public schools. He was appointed by Governor Granholm in January of last year as the school system's emergency financial manager. He is expected to finish that assignment in March.

Because of our focus on education, we've been checking in with him from time to time. And he is with us now in our studios here in Detroit. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ROBERT BOB (Emergency Financial Manager, Detroit Public Schools): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: And as I've said, you - tremendous changes since you've been here. You - a lot of personnel changes, you've removed principals from 91 of 147 schools, replacing them with employees you thought were better suited to the task. Instituted the extended school day, began free summer school classes to ensure students didn't fall behind over the summer, didn't succeed in balancing that budget deficit. How big of a challenge does that remain?

Mr. BOBB: Oh, it still remains a huge challenge and a very heavy lift. The budget deficit is about 330 million. I inherited a huge deficit when I came onboard and the deficit grew, but we know exactly where we are as we speak today, as opposed to when I came onboard, the deficit was about 149.7 million. Although, there are about 500 employees on the payroll without a budget, there are a number of other things. And in about a month, we already forecast that budget to about 305 million.

MARTIN: Many people who listen to this program and who follow education policy and issues nationally will see some similarities with what's happening in Washington, D.C., which also has attracted a lot of national attention.

Michelle Rhee was the schools' administrator there, came in very aggressively. And now there's a new administration in Washington, D.C. coming in. And she's decided to leave, saying that the new person needs to have his own - put his own stamp on things. What is your relationship going to be with the incoming administration?

Mr. BOBB: Well, I've had several meetings with the Governor-elect Snyder prior to yesterday's election, and have had - you know, he's visited my office and we've met in a couple of other locations, but he does have an education agenda. And next week, I intend to present to he and Governor Granholm a plan that would take school districts in Michigan out of the deficit that they're in. And that plan will be, you know, delivered to Governor-elect Snyder and Governor Granholm next week.

MARTIN: Would he like you to continue? Your assignment is - your appointment is expected to end in March. Would he like you to stay on? Would you like to stay on?

Mr. BOBB: Well, I don't know. I think - we've not had that conversation. The conversation that I have had with Governor Granholm - and now this is publicly - is that, you know, I think that a benefit of the school district, I would like to stay on at least through June, as opposed to leaving in March with my turnaround team when we haven't put in place permanent replacements. And I think it would be a very disadvantage to the school district, and in particular children, if we just walked out in March.

MARTIN: You know, all of these decisions have come with a lot of pain, a lot of emotion involved in neighborhood schools. I mean, one of the arguments that you've made repeatedly - and you've talked about this on this program - is that the city can't afford to maintain all these buildings. So in order to provide the services that are needed and the kinds of programs that are needed, sometimes you have to shrink the footprint.

And I'd like to ask if there are lessons that you've learned from this very painful process. I mean, there's been a lot of anger, a lot of name-calling and things of that sort. Is there something that you would want to pass on to other people who are contemplating these kinds of difficult measures?

Mr. BOBB: Oh, yes, definitely. I think you have to prepare the community with respect to the reality. If you have a shrinking student population and you have more buildings - for example, I've closed 57 buildings. I have another 20 schools on the proposed closure list before I leave. And the community has to be prepared. But it does bring about a lot of anger.

So I would say that anyone that's involved in school closures really have to take into consideration the amount of anger, the number of meetings you have to have with the community time after time after time again. And you can't be so inflexible that you yourself aren't willing to change some of the decisions that you're making with respect to closing a school.

MARTIN: But is the message here a one of governance, that the person has to be, in essence, insulated from political pressure in order to make these tough calls? Or is this something that someone could do who is in an elected capacity?

Mr. BOBB: I can tell you, it's easier to make the call if you're, you know, if you're an emergency financial manager or if you report to, let's say, a mayor who will insulate you. When it comes - when these decisions have to be brought before an elected body - and I've been an elected body person - then you get -the decisions are made along the lines of politics and popularity, as opposed to closing the school because you believe in your heart of heart that's the right thing to do.

MARTIN: You have more than three decades of experience as a city manager in cities like - in cities in California, in Michigan, the District of Columbia, Virginia. What do you think you learned here in Detroit that you didn't learn in those other places?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBB: What I've learned in Detroit is that...

MARTIN: How to take getting cussed out.

Mr. BOBB: Well, how to - you know, I grew up in the South, but I've never been - had so much, you know, racial attacks pointed to me as I've had since I've been in Detroit.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. BOBB: And - level of personal security, as well.

MARTIN: This is a majority black city.

Mr. BOBB: It is.

MARTIN: So you're saying racial attacks from African-Americans?

Mr. BOBB: Absolutely. I mean, it's been pretty intense. I mean, I have -particularly when you're going through the school closure process and it -that's been the one greatest surprise I've had since I've...

MARTIN: Well, forgive me, but not to reopen a painful issue, but you're saying, what, calling you an Uncle Tom?

Mr. BOBB: Uncle Tom, the N-word, the, you know, it's - even some, you know, some profanity, as well. Which - you know, I'm a big boy. I can take some of this...

MARTIN: What do you make of that?

Mr. BOBB: ...but, you know, I didn't expect it. I didn't expect the intensity since I've been in Detroit. And some of it is dying down a little bit, but, you know, it was pretty intense. Because of the decisions that we were making with respect to not only school closures, we were - you know, we've indicted a number of individuals, you know, that have, you know, ties in ways that you could never imagine, you know, from the lunch room, stealing of money in the lunch room to serious indictments. And so those sort of things have played a major factor in the decision - I mean, in going forward, particularly the difficult decisions that we've had to make.

Laying off people - you know, I canceled the contracts of 780 employees, and then I conducted 627 hearings, personally. And so all of those were very difficult decisions to make that impact people's lives.

MARTIN: And so what's the takeaway here? Because, of course, you know, in Washington, D.C. the speculation is that Michelle Rhee had such a difficult time because she's Korean-American. And some people say, well, you can't relate to the people who live here because you're not of the same ethnic background. You are of the same ethnic background, and you're saying you still got that same criticism. So what's the lesson?

Mr. BOBB: The lesson is you're out of town. You came from someplace else.

MARTIN: Well, going forward, what is next for you, if you don't mind my asking? You said that you'd like to continue the work that you've started, at least to sort of see it through to a more logical state of completion. What about after that?

Mr. BOBB: Well, after that, I think I'll either go back to my private consulting or look for opportunities where school districts, small cities need someone to come in and help balance the books, turn around, make some difficult decisions for either an elected body or an administration that they themselves may not choose to make.

MARTIN: Is there still an appetite for - nationally, if you don't mind my asking - for the kind of aggressive moves that you've been making here and that other administrators have made in other parts of the country?

Mr. BOBB: Absolutely. In the urban school districts, in the urban cities, you have to make - I mean they're facing some very difficult, you know, budgetary decisions, education decisions. And someone needs to come in and help insulate those from the local - who are there locally from making some of those tough decisions.

MARTIN: And, finally, if you don't mind a local question, there is a concern on the parts of some that now that Republicans are in charge of all of the top branches in government in Michigan, and there are some who wonder whether they'll have the same level of support for the Detroit public schools and will be as concerned about them. Do you share that concern? And what do you say to people in other parts of the state who say, you know, every boat on its own bottom?

Mr. BOBB: Well, we'll say that Detroit is a significant city in the state, and the state of Michigan - so goes Detroit, so goes the state of Michigan. And so we really have to care about Detroit.

MARTIN: Robert Bobb is the emergency financial manager of Detroit's public schools. He was here with us in our studio here at WDET in Detroit. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BOBB: Well, thank you.

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