Bobbing for power

Mar 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

Although the debate wasn't supposed to be about him specifically, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb was frequently the focal point Monday, when a Michigan House subcommittee on school district academic emergencies held a public hearing at City Hall.

The question being considered is this: Should an appointed emergency financial manager also be able to dictate a district's academic policies?

News Hits thinks it is safe to say there weren't many people in the room exactly thrilled about the job Bobby B. is doing when it comes to managing the district's finances, and they definitely don't want him determining academic policies.

An estimated 200 teachers, bus drivers and other district employees flooded into the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center to voice their displeasure with Bobb, who is wielding a heavy ax as he attempts to deal with the district's $219 million deficit. Appointed by Jennifer Granholm, Bobb recently had his contract extended for a second year by the guv.

There was a lot of anger in the air, but subcommittee Chair David Nathan (D-Detroit) did a nice job keeping control of a situation that often felt on the verge of boiling over.

Did we mention that there weren't a lot of Bobb fans in the room? Nor was Bobb there, even though he is the one seeking clear legislative authority to do what he is already doing. In January, according to a Detroit News report, Bobb told the House education committee that his turnaround team is developing an academic reform plan. "We are going forward until someone tells us not to," he said at the time. "This train has left the station."

Last year, the Detroit Board of Education filed a lawsuit that's attempting to put the brakes on that train. In a case that is still pending, the board is seeking a court ruling that Bobb's authority is limited to financial matters alone.

The concern expressed by several speakers Monday is that too much power concentrated in the hands of one person is a dangerous thing. "As we know," said teacher and activist Steve Conn, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Sierra Gibson, a junior at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, told the subcommittee, "I don't think one person should have the power to determine my future."

Keith Johnson, the embattled president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, told the subcommittee, "We need to have an academician running academics." While expressing support of the role of the elected school board in determining academic issues — "Their will and their influence cannot and should not be ignored," he said — Johnson also said that the current situation is becoming untenable, with the lack of cooperation between the board and the EMF creating confusion; teachers don't know "whose directives to follow."

One of the few voices in favor of consolidating control came from Henry McClendon, an education consultant with the Skillman Foundation. If there is indeed an academic emergency as well as a financial emergency, it is the foundation's opinion that there shouldn't be two appointments, argued McClendon.

"In order to have success," he said, "you have to have some consistency in leadership."

Unfortunately, for Detroit's public school students, the adults trying to run things are creating more chaos than consistency.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]