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In Detroit Schools, State Takeover Leads to Leadership Dispute

May 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Correspondent John Merrow reports on the progress of Detroit's public school system, following last year's tumultuous takeover by the state of Michigan, following allegations of corruption, a $316 million hole in its budget and tumbling enrollment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: the big battle over public schools in Detroit, the system facing serious financial and academic troubles.

Results released just today show that students in the fourth and eighth grades scored the lowest among 18 large cities on a national reading test. And that’s just part of the problem.

The “NewsHour” special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.

JOHN MERROW: Detroit, Michigan, a city in decline, with a public school system so deep in debt, the state took it over.

ROBERT BOBB, emergency financial manager, Detroit Public Schools: What we have in this urban school district is a leadership disaster, which, if it is not corrected quickly, then we will have damned generations of kids to an inferior education.

JOHN MERROW: In early 2009, Michigan’s governor hired Robert Bobb, a veteran city manage, to clean up the school district’s finances. Takeovers like this have gained in popularity, but it’s frequently a messy job.

Alleged mismanagement and corruption have contributed to a $316 million hole in Detroit’s $1.3 billion school budget. Meanwhile, enrollment has dropped from 167,000 students 10 years ago to about 84,000 today.

Did you know when you took this job how bad things were in Detroit?

ROBERT BOBB: No, not even a clue. When you get in the — on the ground and you start digging even deeper, then you can see where these issues are even more substantial.

JOHN MERROW: Bob’s approach has stirred up ill will. His security detail is a constant presence.

Do you worry?

ROBERT BOBB: Do I worry? Of course I worry, absolutely. I mean, I go into some very hostile environments.

JOHN MERROW: In his first year on the job, Bobb shuttered 29 of the districts 200 schools, sparking community pushback. Now he says he plans to close 41 more and lay off about 1,250 teachers, nearly one-quarter of the teaching force.

MARK O’KEEFE, executive vice president, Detroit Federation of Teachers: I don’t see how they can do what they want to do, to keep parents bringing their children to our schools, and do anywhere near that number of layoffs.

Mark O’Keefe.

JOHN MERROW: Mark O’Keefe is vice president of the Detroit teacher’s union, which, last year, signed a new contract with Bobb.

MARK O’KEEFE: I can say some good things about Robert Bobb, because this situation was dire, and we needed someone to come in and take action. And he did that. And the type of people who assert themselves and take action and can make changes quickly, sometimes, that same trait is what might lead to you maybe assert more control than you have or seek more power than you have.

ROBERT BOBB: Together, let’s start a revolution on behalf of your children and children in Detroit public schools.

JOHN MERROW: Critics contend that Bobb has authority only over the school budget. But Bobb has reached further, tackling the system’s abysmal academic performance. On a recent national test, just 3 percent of Detroit’s fourth-graders scored proficient in math, the worst scores in the history of the test.

ROBERT BOBB: The issues impacting Detroit public schools are top-to-bottom issues. It’s not just the fact that we have over a $300 million budget deficit. But it’s also the issue that we have an academic emergency.

JOHN MERROW: Bobb hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett, an experienced school superintendent, to help him overhaul the curriculum.

BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT, chief academic and accountability auditor, Detroit Public Schools: I was amazed at how frozen Detroit had become. I mean, it was as if they were locked in time somewhere, where the rest of the education world had moved forward, and they really hadn’t.

JOHN MERROW: At the heart of Bobb’s academic reforms are mergers and redesigns of schools. This huge high school will become a pre-K-through-community-college campus. Bobb has invited Wayne State University to be a partner.

WOMAN: We have to be creative over here.

JOHN MERROW: Across the district, Bobb’s plans include extending the school day and creating specialized programs in the arts, communications, math, and science.

ROBERT BOBB: If we care about kids in an urban environment, let’s give them the best opportunity that those children can get, so that they become college-ready.

JOHN MERROW: But, this past summer, Bobb’s big plans hit a big wall.

Otis Mathis is chair of the Detroit school board, which filed a lawsuit saying Bobb went too far when he got involved in curriculum. Academics, Mathis says, are the responsibility of the superintendent the board has hired.

OTIS MATHIS III, chair, Detroit Board of Education: The dispute is that the governor and the emergency financial manager would handle the deficit, and the board and the superintendent will handle academics, and that, somehow, in a few months, it got twisted, where he has controlled everything.

JOHN MERROW: The teachers union signed on to the lawsuit, saying teachers don’t know whether to answer to Bobb or to the superintendent.

O’Keefe cites, as an example, a test Bobb told teachers to give.

MARK O’KEEFE: Then they got a memo from the superintendent saying not to take the test, because the superintendent and the board are in charge of academics, and they didn’t approve of this, so they weren’t supposed to take the test.

Then they got another memo from Robert Bobb, saying: Ignore the last memo. You have to listen to me and do what I say. Take the test.

Then they got another memo from someone on the board, saying: Forget the last memo. Don’t do it.

So, what are the teachers supposed to do in that situation?

JOHN MERROW: In the end, the teachers obeyed Bobb.

The power struggle also makes life complicated for principals.

Who is your boss?

JAMES HEARN, principal, Marcus Garvey Academy: Currently, right now, I answer to the superintendent of schools, I answer to the emergency financial manager of schools, and the school board.

JOHN MERROW: And the school board?

JAMES HEARN: And the school board.

JOHN MERROW: They said, it’s confusing. Do you empathize?

ROBERT BOBB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, someone — you can’t have an organization where you have, you know, several people in charge. But, in my mind, I’m the — I’m in charge.

JOHN MERROW: For parents like Ida Byrd-Hill, the dispute is one more chapter in Detroit school’s long, sad history.

IDA BYRD-HILL, parent: It’s a battle of adult egos again. The problem that upsets me most is that the adults can’t come to a table and agree to disagree.

JOHN MERROW: They’re fighting like children.

IDA BYRD-HILL: Or worse than the children.

ROBERT BOBB: Very good.

IDA BYRD-HILL: Let’s face it. The board didn’t do so well, which is why he’s here. And he may not respect the board, but they were voted in by the community, because the community wanted them to represent their interests. So, just, both sides have a little respect.

ROBERT BOBB: You should be able to hire your principals, your janitor, your engineer.

JOHN MERROW: In mid-April, the courts issued a temporary injunction against Bobb’s plans. Bobb is appealing, but he says it doesn’t really matter which way the judge decides, because every academic decision involves spending.

ROBERT BOBB: I mean, we win, we win, and, if we lose, we win, because someone is going to have to finance these services.

JOHN MERROW: So, you will still be in charge?

ROBERT BOBB: If a penny touches it.

JOHN MERROW: Even if the judge says, “Mr. Bobb, you are not in charge of academics,” you will still have some sort of veto power?

ROBERT BOBB: Because the programs have to be financed.

JOHN MERROW: Bobb’s contract runs out in March of next year. How much he will be able to accomplish before then is in question.

Meanwhile, the exodus of students from Detroit public schools continues, to charter schools or to regular public schools in other cities and towns.