Interview: Fixing Detroit Public Schools & The “Cosby Effect”

Robert Bobb was appointed to a 1-year term that expires at the end of February.  The veteran public administrator was serving as President of the Washington, DC Board of Education, a post he was elected to in November 2006. Mr. Bobb is the former City Administrator and Deputy Mayor for Washington and served as the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security Advisor. In DC he managed a workforce of approximately 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $8 billion. He has also served as City Manager in Oakland and Santa Ana, California; Richmond, Virginia; and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

[Editor’s Note: Just a few days after this was published, Mr. Bobb and the State of Michigan reached agreement, and he is staying for another year.]
**Robert Bobb

The Interview

Secretary Arne Duncan referred to Detroit as “New Orleans without Katrina,” and we’ve seen pictures of some truly awful schools.  Are schools really as bad as those pictures make them look, or are those outliers?

Detroit schools and the school district are in dire straights. No question. That’s why Governor Jennifer Granholm felt it necessary to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager to take over. And that’s why we are taking a comprehensive approach to overhauling the system, looking not just at the money but also the educational model and analyzing where we need to improve security and operations. I recruited Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former CEO of Cleveland schools and New York City’s Supervising Superintendent of the Chancellor’s District, to serve as the district’s Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor. We needed that because our schools post some of the worst test scores and graduation rates in the nation. Dr. Bennett is working on a systematic approach, beginning with early childhood education (including a zero to age three plan), to overhaul our academic program. We are also overhauling 40 low-performing schools and restructuring most of our traditional high schools.

The rampant waste, fraud and abuse that plagued this system also led me to appoint John Bell to serve as Inspector General and oversee our police department and a team of internal auditors and investigators. Mr. Bell has 100 cases ongoing, including several that have been moved to the county prosecutor’s office.

How ironic is it that you now have the kind of power in Detroit that Michelle Rhee has in Washington, and she’s the woman who basically took all your authority when you were President of the School Board in Washington and the Mayor took over the schools?  That is, you’re doing stuff–closing schools–that as DC School Board President you might have resisted. Have your views changed about mayoral control now that you are in a different seat?

There is no doubt that the school board structure hasn’t worked in Detroit. But my views have been consistent that voters should have a say on this matter.

You inherited a deficit of about $260 million.  How on earth did that happen?

The district had overspent its budget for the last seven years. There was also a pervasive environment of misspending and outright corruption. For instance, an audit we conducted to determine eligibility of healthcare dependents initially showed 411 ineligible people on the rolls, including some who were deceased. The number of ineligible dependents dropped from the rolls has since increased to 3,903.  The annual savings is estimated at $13.3 million. The school system also undertook a review of transportation in the spring of this year looking for improvements in both effectiveness and efficiency.

In the school year 2008-09, the district used taxicab service along 447 cab routes and serviced 1,155 students at a cost of $4.6 million. Not any longer: this year we’re spending just $1 million on 106 routes and 162 students. We are consolidating some bus transportation routes and saving another $4 million. These are operational reviews that are standard in any industry and should’ve been conducted. In addition to misspending, though, we also have people stealing computers from our schools, stealing bags of money from the lunchroom and other outrageous wrongdoing. I created an Office of Inspector General to root out such corruption. I won’t tolerate one red cent being stolen from Detroit’s schoolchildren.

It can’t all be bad. Or can it?

It’s not all bad. We have some shining examples of great schools. We have five of the best high schools in America. At one of our schools, Davis Aerospace, students can earn their pilot’s license as soon as they are old enough to drive. We have schools where students can take the traditional Spanish and French, as well as Chinese. We also have the first single-gender public high schools in the state of Michigan. And the Detroit School of Arts is a shining example of an excellent program that includes amazing partnerships with places like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

But if most schools are bad, why would families choose to enroll?

Some parents choose DPS because they want their children to attend a neighborhood school, but many opt for our schools because we are the best option. We outperform many of the area charter schools, and we have many excellent teachers, including the most Nationally-Board Certified teachers in the state. And one in four of our schools have new leadership this year. And to reference my previous answer, we also have many outstanding programs that cannot be found anywhere else.

You’ve got Bill Cosby on your side.  How did that come to pass?

Dr. Cosby first volunteered to assist DPS after being impressed with CNN coverage on the indictment of DPS’ workers for fraud and theft.  He heard me say: “I don’t care if the crook is a little guy or the chief executive. I do not care if they own the company or drive the trucks to the company’s loading dock. I do not care if they’ve been doing this for 20 years or 20 minutes. We’re coming to get you.” Dr. Cosby called me and said, “Where do I pick up my uniform? I want to be on your team!”
Bill Cosby and Robert C. Bobb, Detroit Public Schools
What’s been the impact? People talk about the ‘Obama effect.’ Is there a ‘Cosby Effect’?

You bet! The impact has been profound. I had no idea how valuable his assistance would be in shining a spotlight on the importance of public education and the great things happening in Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Cosby captured the attention of local and national media, as well as the hearts and minds of our parents. His words speaking directly to parents – both via the television cameras and face-to-face on the streets of Detroit – resonated in ways that we continue to hear about every day. The citizens of Detroit were touched to hear Dr. Cosby tell them why it’s important to take advantage of public education, which we know can open doorways to a bright future. And they heard Dr. Cosby’s message that it’s important for them to stand up for their children and get them to school well-rested and on time.

The local union president said that students and adults have come to accept ‘the abnormal as normal.’  How do you go about turning that around?  Do you want consumers to be angry?  (And why aren’t they?)

We are working extremely hard to turn around not only the reputation of Detroit Public Schools, but the systems of Detroit Public Schools. That means taking a comprehensive approach, as I’ve mentioned above. We have to overhaul not only the finances and eliminate our $259 million legacy deficit, but completely transform the educational system and vastly improve school security. Only with real action can we turn around this school system.

You didn’t answer my second and third questions?  Do you want parents to be angry? And why aren’t they?

Some parents are angry and should be. And I have said that if I were a lifelong Detroiter – and not the recent emergency financial manager of DPS – I long ago would have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit about the poor educational system in Detroit.

Your term ends in February.  What’s next for Detroit, and for you?

While my term is one year, it can be renewed, and I am in talks with the governor about staying on additional time. The school system and city need consistency.

Sounds as if you want to stay. Do you?

Yes. This is much larger and a lot more complicated than even I had imagined when I came on board. My staying, though, still is pending the outcome of negotiations. If those negotiations go well, then, yes, I’m in DPS to see this project through.

My work isn’t done yet. If I stay, one of the first things would be to make sure construction projects are done right and proper oversight is instituted if voters give approval to the $500.5 million bond issue to build 8 new schools and modernize 10 more.

[Editor’s Note: Just a few days after this was published, Mr. Bobb and the State of Michigan reached agreement, and he is staying for another year.]

What do you feel you’ve accomplished?

My team has accomplished much so far, including many of the systematic changes I mentioned above. But there is much more to do.

Hiring Dr. Bennett for academics and Mr. Bell for finance were big steps. Her team is on the ground doing the necessary work to overhaul the academic system. Mr. Bell and his team have uncovered enormous waste, fraud and abuse.  They’ve saved us nearly $30 million in areas like healthcare and transportation.  We have also reaped savings from closing 29 schools and through painful but necessary staff reductions.

How long will it take to make the system whole?

My first task is to balance the budget, which we have done for this year, and to eliminate the legacy deficit from seven years of misspending. At the same time, we need to be putting systems in place to transform the district operationally. We also must be working to raise academic achievement and expectations. That is absolutely our top priority. We already announced a $148.4 million academic reinvestment plan, to be paid for through Stimulus funding.  We’ll spend it on class size reductions in early grades, enhanced extended day programs, high priority school partnerships, Netbooks for nearly all DPS students in grades 6-12 as well as their teachers, “Double Dosing” of high school math and English Language Arts instruction, expanded professional development and increased supplemental learning materials.

While we have seen some immediate changes, we expect that full transformational change would likely take three years, especially before you see real achievement results based on national examples. Still, in every area, we will expect and demand that progress be demonstrated along the way. The parents and children of Detroit deserve no less.


Watch an Ed Week profile of Robert Bobb that also features some of the photos of abandoned Detroit schools that John mentioned in his first question.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Fixing Detroit Public Schools & The “Cosby Effect”

  1. What a pity. Detroit public schools were world-class once upon a time. I was in the Music Curriculum at Cass Tech, with a young man who became President of the Cleveland Institute of Arts, with numerous symphony orchestral musicians, with great jazz artists like Ron Carter and Donald Byrd. Diana Ross went there as did Lily Tomlin and Mrs. Henry Ford II. It was an amazing education. I studied composition, theory and arranging (in high school!). I pray for a restoration – for the sake of today’s students. They deserve better.
    Bruce W. Galbraith
    Cass Technical HS ‘58


  2. Another blow for Detroit. It’s encouraging to see someone like Bobb willing to take on the task of turning things around and to stay until the job’s done. I hope the stimulus money provides real change and improvement.
    John Gillespie


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s