Robert Bobb's state of emergency

In Washington, D.C., where he was city administrator and deputy mayor, Robert Bobb had a view of the White House on his morning walk to work and Capitol Hill on his way home.

Now he has an office in the Fisher Building across the street from the former General Motors Corp. headquarters and drives through Detroit's decimated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods on his way to appointments throughout the city.

To Bobb, the Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager, the setting makes his challenge that much more evident. No longer does he work among the world's most powerful institutions. Now he's working to save one of this shrinking city's most important assets. 

After the Detroit Board of Education fired its superintendent and the state determined the district was in financial emergency, Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Bobb to his one-year post effective in March. State law gives him — not the school board — broad authority over the district's finances and budget, and he's using it. He's eliminated cabinet positions, slashed other administrative posts, promised more staff and teacher cuts, closed schools, overseen audits, publicized prosecutions of former employees and is trying to balance a budget with a deficit of $304 million and rising.

His moves, predictably, have garnered attention and controversy. Local media have largely praised him. Some students and parents have demonstrated against school closures and other cuts. Teachers union leaders have said publicly they want to maintain contract provisions like merit pay, but they've also made public displays of collaboration with him.

Bobb, with a résumé that includes city manager positions in Oakland, Calif., Santa Ana, Calif., and Kalamazoo, and an elected board of education role in Washington, D.C., brings a steely but soft-spoken demeanor to the work. 

He spoke with Metro Times about the district, his work and his plans.

Metro Times: Why should anyone care about Detroit Public Schools?

Robert Bobb: Education is the hottest topic in town. It's the most important. No city can improve its quality of life without a great education institution. If the education system fails, it doesn't matter what happens to the rest of the community. It definitely will fail.

MT: Is Detroit failing?

Bobb: [after a pause] I just picked up this article, "Detroitosaurus wrecks" [the cover story of The Economist, June 4, about "the decline and fall of General Motors"]. And, if you believe what you read …

MT: It was a yes-or-no question, and you show me a magazine cover?

Bobb: I think Detroit is on life support.
I think a lot of the institutions for better or for worse have significantly deteriorated. When I see the neighborhoods that have failed in Detroit and I see the abandoned manufacturing plants, as an outsider, it really just dawned on me today the power of the auto industry in Detroit and the metro area. 

MT: You're the emergency financial manager, but academics are at the heart of a school system. How much are you taking that into account with your daily work?

Bobb: From Day 1, I've spoken about academics. I said on Day 1, you cannot just fix the financial plan, program, problems as it were, without focusing on the academic side. The academic plan should drive the financial plan. We have it backward because of our financial difficulties. Now we have the financial plan driving the academic plan. We're reversing that trend. 

MT: The local media have praised you in glowing terms. One paper called you a "rock star." Have you had that before in your career?

Bobb: One thing I've learned over the years of being in public life is never believe your headlines. Every day, on our website, we have this clock and it's ticking down for the one year pursuant to my contract and state law that appointed me. We can't waste time not moving forward or focusing like a laser beam on what we do. We avoid going to a lot of major social events. We avoid spending a lot of time at fancy luncheons and dinners. Everything we do is very strategic. 

MT: But haven't we heard that before?

Bobb: A lot of people talk about students first. You hear all this garbage, "Well, students first. We care about student achievement." It's a big, adult, nice thing to say. It's political. You get people excited, but where the rubber meets the road and they have to make the tough decisions on behalf of children, they start to compromise. They are compromises that benefit adults, not children.

MT: Why did you take this job?

Bobb: Gov. Granholm, in all of her elegance in her ball gown, convinced me at Barack Obama's inauguration. I'd been speaking with her people, but I wanted to look her in the eye. I believe that she is very much dialed-in on fixing the education issues in Detroit.

MT: What does this one year do for you and your career?

Bobb: There are a number of takeaways. The first is: Can you take all of the things you've learned over the years and really make great gumbo out of it? Can you take everything you've learned and, in a very difficult and challenging environment such as Detroit, use it on behalf of children? 

No. 2, if you can reform the Detroit Public School system, that would be a remarkable personal and professional achievement. But I'm the first to recognize that it cannot be done unless you surround yourself with smart people and individuals who are as mission-driven as you are. It can't be about the Detroit Public School system. It has to be about the children of the Detroit Public School system.

MT: Why is education so important to you personally?

Bobb: Education has been at the centerpiece of where I am. My parents did not graduate from high school, not even middle school. I grew up on a sugar cane plantation in southwest Louisiana, one of five kids and the first male in my family to graduate from high school. When I finished high school, I did what most of the young men in my neighborhood did, I went to work in the sugar cane refinery and then from there I went on to college and never looked back. 

MT: How much have earlier reform efforts here shaded your work?

Bobb: I don't want to call them bad strategies. Different people during different times did and accomplished different things. The difference is, as I look back, and some of them may dispute it, they were creating a great Detroit Public Schools system. We're reversing that. We're creating centers of excellence at every school and in every neighborhood. 

MT: Some of your most talked-about efforts are the criminal prosecutions. Where are those going? 

Bobb: We have a number of cases that are making their way into the criminal prosecution process, federal and state. What we're doing on all the cases, we're looking backward and we're looking at today. We've got to fix what happened in the past so it doesn't continue to repeat itself going forward. 

MT: How far back are they looking?

Bobb: The school audits only went back one year. There are different timelines. There are statutes of limitations on some issues. But if you squeeze, people will tell you. The Detroit Public School system, from what we're seeing, a lot of it is just petty bullshit, to be honest with you.

MT: You've appointed a former FBI special agent as your inspector general. What are he and his team looking at? 

Bobb: We're going back to look at major real estate transactions that have taken place in the past. This building that we're in, we paid $24 million in cash for three or four floors in a building that sold for about $38 million, maybe $36 million. It's like we bought the Fisher Building in my opinion. I'm sure there are those who would dispute that.

MT: Can you predict the outcome?

Bobb: We're not making any extravagant exaggerations. We're not trying to indict anyone. We know these cases are there. We're just going to ask everyone who was involved in those transactions past and present so we can understand how these things happen: What was so unique about DPS and its finances that it could afford to spend $24 million in cash for one transaction or that it could afford to relocate from a building that it owned to a very expensive first-class office space? We don't need to be in first-class office space. I've had a team of auditors review all these transactions. We just need people to explain to us what was in people's minds when these decisions were made. 

MT: What have you found in reviewing budget decisions and how the district went from a surplus to a huge deficit?

Bobb: The fiscal year ends on June 30. The new budget is approved on July 1. The FY 2008 budgeted ended June 30, 2008, with a $137 million deficit. It's in the red. How do you approve a budget the next day with an $8 million surplus? Then we come in and start scrubbing the budget numbers, and we find it's not an $8 million surplus, it's like a $70 million deficit in the current year we're in. Someone was asleep at the switch.

MT: Have you asked the board about it?

Bobb: No. We did brief the board. We told the board back in April when we laid out the fact that we have a $303.5 million budget deficit. We haven't completed work on the 2009-2010 budget. That's an even larger deficit.

MT: Can you anticipate what it might be?

Bobb: If you just take the legacy deficit to $303 million before we finish the work on this budget it's going to be about another $100 million. It's pretty substantial.

MT: How did that happen?

Bobb: There were a number of things. In 2008-2009, the current fiscal year, we have over 500 employees who should not have been on the payroll, there was not a budget to support them. They were all over the organization. They should have laid them off. In addition to that, you had contracts that were in desk drawers, contracts for multi-millions of dollars that there should have been a budget allocation for, and we did not have that. That added to the deficit. 

MT: Wasn't anyone watching?

Bobb: When you do a budget, whether you're a public company or a private company, the budget is approved and three months later, you see if you're still on your target. There's nowhere that I can document where there was a conversation with the board that said, "This budget is out of line. The revenue is not coming in. Let's make some mid-year adjustments. Even if it meant laying more people off."

MT: But that conversation would have had to have been started by a superintendent who is hired by the board. Is that a dynamic to consider?

Bobb: I've been a city manager hired by city council members, and one of your responsibilities as a professional administrator is to be dogged about the financial resources of your organization, be it a city, county or a school system. You've got to be able to say, "This is the problem." You've got to highlight the financial situation. That's your fiduciary responsibility. You can't duck it. You can't hide. You can't blame others for it. You're the administrator. Board members aren't paid to be the administrator. They may interfere in administration, which many boards tend to do, and I'm sure this one is no exception. But those who are the professional administrators — the superintendent, the CFO, the budget director — they're responsible for keeping track of the funds. 

MT: What is your relationship with the new mayor?

Bobb: Mayor Bing reached out to me while he was running for office. As a matter of fact, he and I spoke on Election Day about the Detroit Public School system and the city of Detroit. We met three days after he was actually sworn in. 

MT: City Hall is certainly coming off a raucous year. How has it affected the district?

Bobb: Oh, it is? I haven't had much opportunity to pay attention to City Hall.

MT: You could have caught some of it on national television.

Bobb: I do watch some of the early morning news and found it quite extraordinary. I think after a period of time the names change, the faces change, the issues are the same.

MT: I'm not sure our issues here in Detroit were the same as in other places. And this year is unique with you at DPS, what's happened at City Hall, a new mayor, another citywide election. How much are you a part of that political scene?

Bobb: I don't need to be part of any political scene. I just need to be laser-focused on my responsibility and why I'm here and not get involved in the political minutia.

MT: But you've become a face of the district as well in a way your predecessors were not. Is that part of some strategy?

Bobb: For the Detroit Public Schools, absolutely. There's a message. We have to encourage parents to keep their kids in the Detroit Public School system. We have to build confidence and we have to let people know what's going on. On one hand, we've got to fix the issues. On the other hand, we've got to promote them. On the one hand you have a responsibility for fixing a deficit, but on the other hand you have responsibility for investing. 

MT: Is that difficult?

Bobb: For me, that's where I'm really intellectually conflicted. On the one hand I have to fix this huge hole, this mess we're in. But on the other hand, if I just focused on fixing the financial mess and we aren't making any strategic investments for the future, then we're going to slip further and further behind.

MT: School closure is a good example of that issue. From a budget standpoint, it makes sense to, but now you have neighborhoods without a school. That contributes to a downward spiral for that neighborhood, doesn't it?

Bobb: That's something we are concerned about. Based on my city manager's experience what we have said to the community, what we are communicating, is there are five products that represent the centerpiece of our work. We don't want to do 50 things. We have five major ones: create a master education plan for teaching and learning, a safe and secure learning environment, a master facilities plan, parental and community involvement and a long-term financial plan.

MT: The balance of the media coverage of your work has been headlines about investigations, not this long-term planning.

Bobb: You’ve got to have a little bit of that but you’ve got to have more of this. For example, it’s not really sexy to put in a whole new sewer system, but it’s the foundation to building a great city. We’re building a strong educational system where kids will graduate. That’s what’s sexy.

MT: Can you describe the specific elements of your master plan?

Bobb: First, we want to create a master education plan for teaching and learning. This gives us the game plan for how we’re going to approach what we’re going to teach, what we expect children to learn to compete in a world that’s far, far beyond the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

MT:What’s next?

Bobb: No. 2 is a safe and secure learning environment. What parents care more about than anything, sometimes even more than what’s going on in the classroom, is whether or not their child is going to be safe on the campus. I was the Homeland Security Advisor for the District of Columbia government. I’m working with a group that will be in town within the next couple weeks. We want our public safety personnel to be able to press a button to a camera and see everything that is happening in and around the schools. There are cameras around schools but we want to be able to have cameras so we can see up and down corridors into dark spots — we want to be able to see where our kids are. We’ll have a crime camera that will look up and down the streets onto our playgrounds that will be able to capture people with sensors who come into our buildings at night when they shouldn’t be there. Inside that plan will be the human component. We want the best minds in America to tell us how to create the best conflict resolution program in America. We have student-on-student issues to address. We have student-on-faculty issues to address. We have faculty-on-student issues to address. We have faculty-on-faculty issues to address.

MT: Back to the master plan, what’s the third part?

Bobb: A master facilities plan. When you develop the master education plan, it then informs what kinds of facilities to need to build for the future. We want science labs in every schools. We want large schools, small schools, schools with Internet hookups. This plan informs the type of facilities that you build in the future or how you renovate existing facilities.

MT: What is the fate of the dozens of empty buildings the district owns?

Bobb: Renovation and new construction. We’re going one step further which I think is phenomenal theater. We want to take all of our existing buildings that are vacant and create a plan of development for each of our sites. All of them have either a great building or a building that should be demolished or one that should be restored but it has great properties around it. So how do we create mixed use development on that site that will complement development that’s taking place in that neighborhood? At the end of the day we’re leaving something so that when the economy changes and you walk in and say, “I’d like to buy that building,” then we say, “OK, you can purchase that building but there’s a plan of development. It’s been vetted with the city, vetted with the community.” We become value added by using our assets. It’s like helping to grow the city from the school system up.

MT: The fourth part of the master plan is parent and community involvement. What does that mean?

Bobb: We need to explain how we define parental and community involvement, philanthropy involvement, business community involvement with our schools either through existing foundations, our own foundations, etc. The parental part is how do you get parents turned on to an entire educational system as opposed to just the school where their child attends?

MT: The final part is the master plan for the long-term finances?

Bobb: It all starts with the education plan, safety and security. This plan is critical because it’s designed to finance all of these things. That’s what’s in our minds to reform the Detroit Public Schools system.

MT: How will this be funded?

Bobb: We're going to develop the plan and then we're going to fight like heck to get it funded. We're receiving $123 million in federal stimulus money in the next two years. For the first year it's a new Finney High School and a new K-8 in the Brightmoor neighborhood. In the second year it will be a new Mumford High School and others.

MT: You say "we," and "this is our plan." But your contract is just for one year.

Bobb: I'm going to get it done in a year. This plan will be done come hell or high water. This is the centerpiece. 

MT: How is what you're doing different than what's been tried in the past?

Bobb: In the past, people only focused on "Are we going to reform? Are we going to keep kids educated?" When a problem occurred, then we said, "Let's create a Department of Public Safety," for example. There wasn't long-term planning. We closed schools, but there wasn't a conversation about how we help rebuild a neighborhood based on the assets from the closed school.

MT: A California newspaper reported that you would return to Oakland and run for mayor there next year. Is that your plan? 

Bobb: That is definitely not an official campaign announcement. I don't know what I'm going to do when I grow up. People are interested in me running for mayor of Oakland. Some people are interested in me running for elected office in D.C. People were interested in me running in Richmond, Va., some time ago. All are options. I'm enjoying what I'm doing.

MT: What about staying in Detroit more than a year?

Bobb: It depends. You never close a door. We're just charging ahead every day. Straight ahead. 

MT: So what's the next phase as you're finishing your first 100 days?

Bobb: We have to get a budget out. We have to announce our budget in the next few weeks, painful as it may be.

MT: But as the emergency financial manager, appointed by the governor, you don't need a board of education vote on it, correct?

Bobb: No, I don't.

MT: How are you working with the board?

Bobb: They're over there, I'm over here. I briefed them on the budget. Every time I have a press conference, I invite the board member who's the chair of the relevant committee.

MT: How often do you speak with the board?

Bobb: I spoke to a board member today.

MT: And the time before that?

Bobb: I can't remember. Actually, it was a week ago. 

MT: In other districts, I've seen the superintendent brief the board members before a press conference. But that's not what you do?

Bobb: No, I'm an emergency financial manager.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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