The big deal
Bobb wants Detroit's debt forgiven in exchange for new district administration ... or else
Published: October 13, 2010
Faced with an admitted cumulative deficit of $332 million, Detroit Schools' emergency financial manager is proposing a sweeping deal under which the state would forgive the school system's debt in exchange for a complete overhaul of district operations and structure. He's calling that Plan A.
The only alternative, according to documents drawn up by Robert Bobb for the state Department of Education, would be extensive cuts, including high school lecture classes of 62 students and the closure of 100 additional schools. That's Plan B.
Plan A "is not complete," says Bobb's spokesman, Steve Wasko, who discussed some principles of the forthcoming proposal with Metro Times. "It's being formulated at the moment."
But such a deal is needed, he says. Balancing the district budget by cuts alone would be "draconian," Bobb wrote to the state this year. In a July 29 memo, he outlined a plan to use current and projected revenues in the district's roughly $1 billion operating budget to pay off the previous and continuing deficits.
Under Plan B, the district would have to close dozens more schools, raise class sizes to 31 pupils in the primary grade classrooms and 62 students in high school lecture halls, eliminate student transportation, send administrative, financial and legal operations to the city or another entity and make other major reduction efforts, officials say.
"It is an unreasonable route, we believe, to resolve the fiscal crisis," Wasko says. "I think we all agree this is not a situation you can cut your way out of."
So Bobb, who was appointed by the governor in 2009 and has a contract through February, is advocating Plan A, which involves asking lawmakers for a deal: Repay or forgive the roughly $332 million the district owes — in exchange for an overhaul of how the state's biggest school system is run. Such a plan could also set a precedent for other struggling districts to enact major reforms and accept some state control in exchange for the state accepting debt.
"It is a huge story with wide implications potentially," says David Arsen, professor of educational administration and education policy at Michigan State University. "Without knowing the specifics of it, it's difficult to say anything about prospects for success."
Bobb's request is short on details but long on chutzpah and even threats, district employees, politicians and other education observers told Metro Times. And it's been kept reasonably quiet.
"It wasn't accompanied by all the bells and whistles his announcements usually have, that's for sure," says Anthony Adams, president of the Detroit Board of Education. "When we got a look at this plan, we were like, 'This is fricking frightening.'"
Bobb will reveal more details of his proposal within weeks after next month's election, but Wasko tells Metro Times they will be in line with the state's new "Race to the Top" legislation.
That package of bills included allowing state supervision of struggling schools, an alternative process for teacher education and certification, and additional charter and cyber schools. That also means reduced power and influence for employee unions and possibly more state management.
"I'm not saying a bold move isn't needed," says Rep. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park), chair of the House Detroit Caucus. "If we're talking about getting rid of the debt that is hanging over the district's head, I'm going to be willing to listen and the Detroit legislators are going to be all ears, but at the same time I don't think anybody is going to be willing to throw the baby out with the bath water either."
The plan as presented thus far is that control of local education in Detroit could be shifted away from traditional boards of education and employee unions and to whatever leadership new legislation creates. Depending on how the legislation is written, it could affect other financially troubled districts.
How such districts, including Detroit, would be governed is not part of Bobb's proposal thus far, Wasko insists. So it's unknown what future Bobb could propose for a locally elected board, or a superintendent who reports to one, or if the plan would have a provision for mayoral control of the beleaguered district as many, including Granholm, have suggested.
A big question is whether such a plan could get through the Legislature. Would the Detroit Caucus be willing to support such a change? And — at a time when the state is struggling with major budget woes of its own — would the rest of the state legislators approve of state funds going toward Detroit's debt even in exchange for radically changing how the district operates?
"From a feasibility standpoint, I guess I'm going to hold my breath about its ability to get through the Legislature," Johnson says. "We would probably want to see it in full and have the DPS make a presentation to us and sink our teeth into it."
What's clear thus far is the plan would mean a major departure from business-as-usual at the roughly 76,000-student district where the only constant has been changes in leadership.
Bobb is the fifth leader — superintendent, interim superintendent or emergency financial manager — in five years in Detroit schools. Between 1989 and 1999, four different superintendents led the district, which was under state control from 1999 to 2005.
'An act of betrayal'?
Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents about half the district's total employees, says he hasn't been contacted about Bobb's effort.
"That is part of the problem," Johnson says. "Education reform has to be done in a collaborative mode, which means working on a plan together, from the beginning through implementation. But he wants to do this in isolation."
> Email Sandra Svoboda