By any measurement, Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb gets a failing grade for his effort to rein in the district’s finances. Every step he has taken to control a spiraling deficit has worsened the financial and educational prospects of DPS.
When Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Bobb, DPS was hemorrhaging red ink. He was enthusiastically welcomed by city, regional and state leaders with the fanfare of a rock star. His arrival was viewed as being long overdue and critically necessary.
Bobb’s base salary rose to $280,000 and philanthropic organizations chipped in another $145,000 in supplemental income. But his salary wasn’t the only obscene increase. Under this tutelage, the DPS deficit grew from $219 million to an estimated at $327 million.
The most serious issue affecting the bottom line is the bottom falling out of student enrollments. The district lost more than 100,000 students since 1999. Last year, DPS had about 84,000. Preliminary numbers from the statewide Sept. 29 enrollment count has the district pegged at 73,460 students, a nearly 3-percent decrease from last year.
Since the district receives about $7,600 per student, enrollment is the equivalent of tax base. This year’s enrollment decline means the district will get $19 million less from the state than expected, making deeper cuts necessary.
Bobb, though, put on a good show. He enthusiastically launched a summer student-retention campaign that included door-to-door visits and open recruitments featuring celebrities at rallies and parades. Nothing captured the attention of fleeing parents.
Bobb also closed 50 schools, negotiated $105 million in labor concessions, aggressively outsourced student transportation and security, attempted to institute district wide academic reforms and conducted operational audits that rooted out waste, inefficiencies and corruption. He set up an action plan to enhance after-school tutorials for students and increased training for teachers.
Good intentions notwithstanding, the education delivery system was not substantially primed. Progress on the academic front was characterized by unassailable high dropout rates, low graduation rates and low test scores.
The most compelling dynamic in the learning process is the degree to which parents are involved. Bobb successfully cultivated parental involvement, but not in the way he intended. The stampede of students from Detroit schools shows a lack of parental confidence in the direction Bobb is taking the district. It would be counterproductive to make more cuts, close more schools and accelerate student departures.
Bobb, though, is relentless. He now wants Michigan taxpayers to rescue DPS from self-inflicted financial pain. He is requesting $400 million in state tobacco settlement money to bail out Detroit and 40 other cash-strapped school districts. In other words, he wants the state of Michigan to do what he was unable to.
It’s a desperate plea. Unless the district finds a way to stop the exodus of students, the calamitous downward fiscal cycle will continue beyond any bailout. The flight of the tax base, after all, has turned into a rout.
There are no practical reasons for continuing the emergency financial manager/DPS relationship. Gov. Granholm bet and lost that Bobb could perform miracles. Gov.-elect Rick Snyder should not place blind faith in another highly paid, articulate mercenary who claims that DPS is salvageable. The district is broke and unfixable; its demise tragically assured.
The new governor and the Legislature should cut its losses and move to radically and comprehensively change the DPS governance structure in a way puts the interest of students first. Fundamentally that means finishing the job of liberating parents and students from decades of costly and dysfunctional management.