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Dire straits for Detroit public schools

School lunch bag and apple

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Thanks to the decline and fall of the U.S. auto industry, the city of Detroit is no stranger to bankruptcy. The list of institutions in the care of bankruptcy courts may soon include the Detroit public school system. With a $260 million deficit and declining student population, Detroit schools are now in an official state of emergency. Governor Jennifer Granholm has pointed an emergency financial manager to fix the district's finances without further hurting its academics. Robert Bobb has that not so easy job.

ROBERT BOBB: The Detroit public school system has had seven consecutive years of overspending in its budget, and squandered away about $1.3 million in budget surplus since 2002. We are putting in place a deficit elimination plan to address the legacy deficit over the next several years.

Ryssdal: Obviously, you're not a popular guy with the school board. They've gone to court to try to stop your rescue plan. You're not a popular guy probably with parents there either who see you see you closing these schools. What's your response to that?

BOBB: Well, you know the school system, or the school boards over the years, placed the system in the condition that it is now. When revenues were declining, drastic action to reduce spending did not take place. And therefore, we were left with no choice but to reduce spending. We have issued over 2,400 lay off notices to our staff, we've closed 29 schools, we've reduced our central administration by 72 percent. We've taken a number of very drastic measures to bring the school system out of its deficit. And we've laid down the law, and that is we are no longer going to have deficit spending no matter what.

Ryssdal: But you have a school system that graduates 58 percent of its population in the last calendar year. How are you going to fix the schools with that kind of record?

BOBB: We have a major transformation process underway. We are placing more rigour in our classrooms. We have a major focus coming up this summer with respect to the dropout rate in our school system. Our school system doesn't have an attendance policy, so we're going to put in a rigorous attendance policy. We're also reconstituting 40 schools, which means that's a major transformation for the Detroit public schools.

Ryssdal: You've been quoted as saying bankruptcy for the Detroit public school system is an option. Is that true?

BOBB: Yes, one of the options under Public Act 72, which identifies my job description, gives the emergency financial manager the option of considering Chapter 9 bankruptcy upon notification to the state superintendent of education. And clearly that is one of the options among many that we are considering. We've met, and we continue to have meetings with legal experts, and we'll make a decision by end of this summer.

Ryssdal: How do you balance the two requirements of your job? To get the finances right, but also since you have, as I read it, very broad powers in your job, the academic situation as well. How do you reconcile those two? Cutting but building?

BOBB: You have really approached the million-dollar question. Because there is a noted conflict between reducing the budget and at the same time investing in our future. It's a conflict we face everyday.

Ryssdal: Robert Bobb. He's the emergency financial manager for the Detroit public school system in Detroit, Mich. Mr. Bobb, thanks a lot for your time.

BOBB: Thank you.

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It appears to me that Mr. Bobb managed to avoid the answer to the "Million Dollar Question". That's the answer that Detroiters need to hear. Unfortunately, he's doing a good job of making us think that he's handling the situation well. How in the world does anyone carry the expectation to fix this broken system quickly? As a Detroit Public School teacher, I feel outraged by alienation. MANY of us are the best resource that the district has and yet I believe that we will suffer every bit as much as the students if Mr. Bobb continues in his approach to managing both aspects of his appointment duties.

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