Published Online: May 17, 2011
Published in Print: May 18, 2011, as Detroit Deep in Debt as Manager Leaves

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Detroit Deep in Debt as Manager Leaves

Emergency financial manager Robert Bobb stands at the scene of an early-morning fire at Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit last week.
Emergency financial manager Robert Bobb stands at the scene of an early-morning fire at Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit last week.
—David Coates/The Detroit News/AP
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As the Detroit public schools’ emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, wraps up his final days in the job, he is facing a district that continues to lose students and money.

The $200 million deficit he inherited two years ago is now at least $327 million. The graduation rate, though better, still lags behind the national average. Enrollment has dropped from 104,000 in 2007 to 74,000 now.

Mr. Bobb’s twice-extended contract officially expires in June, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, introduced his replacement this month: Roy Roberts, a 72-year-old former General Motors Corp. executive.

Mr. Roberts will face the same economic challenges Mr. Bobb did—state funding cuts, millions in lost per-pupil revenues, and staggering annual pension and health-care payouts. But he has a tool that Mr. Bobb didn’t—a new Michigan law that allows state-appointed financial managers to restructure contracts and take away the power of elected officials who might get in the way.

Mr. Bobb spent hours fighting the elected school board in court over control of the district’s academics. He conducted more than 220 audits that uncovered theft by administrators and others, and he took strong actions to improve the schools.

He also put in place a revamped curriculum and academic plan that calls for 98 percent of students to graduate by the 2014-15 school year and all to pass state standardized tests. The contracts of the principals at some failing schools were not renewed. Every teacher received a layoff notice this spring, and Mr. Bobb said only about 80 percent will return for the fall semester.

Mr. Bobb, who has been undergoing cancer treatment, has been praised for pushing a $500 million bond issue that is allowing the district to tear down crumbling, obsolete buildings, while building newer schools with state-of-the-art classrooms and amenities.

After he was criticized for a deficit- elimination plan that called for closing half the district’s 141 schools and increasing class sizes, he changed course, saying that while it would have wiped out the deficit in a few years, it was too severe. He moved forward instead with turning struggling schools over to charter operators.

"One thing we've proven is you can cut, cut, cut, but there comes a point when services have to be provided and students have to be educated," he said.

Vol. 30, Issue 31, Pages 4-5

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