On a recent morning, a crowd filled a downtown Detroit courtroom for the sentencing of a 19-year-old ninth-grade dropout caught breaking into a public school, apparently to steal computers. The hearing's main attraction was not the guilty man or the judge but Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency financial manager of Detroit's public schools. In the last six months of 2009, Bobb told the court, nearly 500 computers were stolen from schools, costing his system some $600,000. "The Detroit public-school system isn't an electronics store," he said.
This isn't the kind of problem most school chiefs in the U.S. have to worry about. A year ago, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave Bobb, the former president of Washington, D.C.'s Board of Education, the task of ending the financial crisis that has devastated the Detroit public-school system. In the past decade, the number of Detroit public-school students has plummeted from more than 167,000 to 84,600, mainly because of the emergence of charter schools and the middle class's exodus to the suburbs. It could fall further, to 65,000 in the next four years. Those trends, if they persist, will further erode revenues of a school system saddled with a $219 million budget deficit. So Bobb is trying to squeeze out the waste in the meantime, and he has built an investigative apparatus that has uncovered widespread corruption, including nearly 3,800 unauthorized dependents on employee health-insurance rolls. In the case of the ninth-grade dropout, the judge essentially followed Bobb's suggestion: the 19-year-old was ordered to spend up to 23 months in a boot camp and finish high school.
Beyond saving money, Bobb sees his mission in broader terms: to improve the system's miserable academic performance. Again, the situation is dire. Last month brought news that more than three-quarters of the 900 eighth-graders who took a national math exam scored at "below basic" levels. In October 2008, some 57% of Detroit third- through eighth-graders essentially failed a state writing test. Detroit's graduation rate is 58%. "The system is academically bankrupt. This is almost academic homicide," Bobb says.
Experts point to Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; and Denver as big-city school districts that have rebounded in the hands of strong managers. Detroit presents a very different situation. The tax base is nearly gone. Poverty and unemployment are far more pervasive than in most other major American cities. Many adults lack the basic skills necessary to qualify for the high-tech jobs officials are desperately trying to attract to Michigan, which has the U.S.'s highest unemployment rate. Home values, on which property-tax revenues are based, have plunged to pennies on the dollar. Over the past decade, the Detroit schools weren't merely mismanaged. They were abandoned.
All that prompted Granholm, a Democrat, to seize control of Detroit's public schools in the fall of 2008 and then look for someone to fix them. After a wide search, she settled on Bobb, who had a reputation for restoring fiscal sanity to city governments including managing public-school-system budgets. When Bobb arrived last spring, here's what he found: Contracts had been stuffed in office drawers. The district couldn't afford new books. Gas was siphoned between buses. The district had to borrow money to pay its employees. There wasn't even a chief financial officer managing the system's $1.3 billion annual budget. "Detroit is unlike anything I've ever experienced. It's a lot worse than I anticipated," he says.