Detroit Public Schools: Who’s Failing?

Nina Kampfer

IT’S NO SECRET that the Detroit Public Schools have been in a state of chaos for some time. When former Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as Emergency Financial Manager in 2009, many hoped that he would make positive changes. The district was carrying a $219 million deficit, not to mention some of the country’s lowest graduation rates and standardized test scores.

Bobb immediately began calling out fraud and embezzlement and taking a much-needed critical look at how resources were being allocated within the district. To increase enrollment, he launched the successful “I’m In” campaign to encourage students to stay in the district.

But Bobb quickly fell from Detroit’s good graces. He made illegal made decisions about curriculum materials, spending millions on book deals. He also planned exorbitant building projects, while closed school buildings all over the city remained vacant.

By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the deficit that Bobb had been hired to eliminate balloned to $327 million.

Teachers agreed to concessions during the 2009 contract negotiations because they were afraid that their failure to sacrifice would result in layoffs and school closures. This didn’t stop Bobb from sending over 2,000 layoff notices to DPS employees the following spring. He took his time rescinding the layoffs, which resulted in a shortage of 600 teachers in the beginning of the next fall semester. Many classrooms had a revolving door of substitutes and when there weren’t enough subs available, students were corralled into auditoriums and cafeterias.

One of Bobb’s signature moves was to release lists of schools that were in jeopardy. At the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the list included 57 schools slated to close over the next two years. Releasing the list turned any resistance into a fight for individual schools. Principals invited him to special meetings, and parents appealed to him to save their neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, the schools who had escaped the list tried to stay on his good side.

During the 2010-2011 school year, Bobb released another list. This time, instead of being subject to closing or restructuring, schools could also be chartered. Charter schools were not a new presence in Detroit, and Bobb’s entanglement with pro-charter forces was not a secret. His salary was padded by the Broad Foundation, which has given financial backing to charter schools all over the country.

Bobb claimed that the district would save millions on the operating costs of these buildings. Although he had always stated that his principal goal was to improve the quality of education in DPS, schools that were too costly were much more likely to be kicked out of the district than those with low academic achievement.

Alternative schools, such as the Detroit Day School for the Deaf ($40,105 per student), Moses Fields, an all-special needs school ($26,390 per student), and Catherine Ferguson ($19,326 per student), a school for pregnant and parenting teens, received the most media attention. (Schools are funded through the state, which paid an average of $7,500 per student last year.)

The Day School for the Deaf and Moses Fields were taken off the closure list with little explanation, and Catherine Ferguson bounced between the charter and closure lists, finally securing a charter right before the school year ended.

From Bobb to Roberts

In March, Public Act 4, Michigan’s new Emergency Manager bill went into effect. Despite the extreme amount of power Robert Bobb and other EFMs had already assumed, the process of consulting with school boards, city councils and labor unions were viewed as an obstacle.

Under Public Act 4, the EFM title became Emergency Manager, a role which included the power to change or cancel union contracts, slash benefits and dismiss school boards and city councils.

Shortly afterwards and just before his own exit, Bobb issued a layoff notice to every member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and 250 administrators, sending the message that he intended to put his new powers to use.

The community’s anger towards Bobb had mounted as any previous notions that he was working in the community’s best interests faded. With his term about to expire, he was strategically replaced by Roy Roberts, a former General Motors executive who came out of retirement for the job.

Roberts bought time in the beginning of his term as EM, but he soon announced that the situation in DPS was “worse than he thought.” He drew up a new budget, in which employees’ pay is cut by 10% and they become responsible for 20% of their benefits.

Teachers will no longer be compensated for unused sick days or missed preparation periods. The cuts impact all DPS employees, from paraprofessionals who make $7 per hour, to Roberts himself who collects a $250,000 salary.

The fear of losing reimbursement for the unused sick days that they had banked throughout their careers prompted many teachers to retire early last year. As a result, classrooms were staffed by substitutes or teachers were shuffled around in an attempt to fill the vacancies, which further contributed the instability of the schools.

Opposition to the inevitable continuation of attacks on the union was in part stunted by the vulnerability of DPS employees. With every DFT member pink-slipped, rumors about the possible loss of tenure and a potential switch to merit-based pay circulated the district. With so many schools on the chopping block, it was highly likely that the district would end up with more employees than it would need to staff the remaining schools. For the most part, union leadership chose to work with the district’s highest powers instead of mobilizing the membership to take any substantial action.

In lieu of protests, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals, which are all AFT affiliates, have gone to court. In addition to Roberts, they are suing state treasurer — and former Democratic state legislator — Andy Dillon, who approved the decision to modify the union contracts.

The unions representing DPS employees have been criticized throughout the reign of Emergency Managers for failing to take aggressive action. The union presidents again quelled any rumors of job actions by announcing that their members were “looking forward to starting the new school year and would not disrupt service.” Although his responses to the attack on DPS have been insufficient in the past, when it came to wage cuts DFT president Keith Johnson stated “We know how to fight and we know how to win and we will.”

A second lawsuit has been filed against Roberts and Dillon by 28 plaintiffs from across Michigan, represented by a slew of attorneys led by the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. The suit charges Public Act 4 is unconstitutional.

At the community level, a petition campaign to get repeal of the Emergency Manager law on the ballot has begun. If 161,000 valid signatures are collected and verified, the question will be placed on the November 2012 ballot and will be suspended until it is put to a vote. The campaign highlights the undemocratic use of Emergency Managers.

New Threats

While funding for education is being cut at the state level, the threat of the Emergency Manager has successfully been used as a tool of control in school districts and municipalities across Michigan. In the city of Northville, the school board has threatened to ask for an EM due to a stalled contract negotiation. The teachers’ union refused to accept the district’s offer of a 9.25% pay cut, unpaid furlough days and two years of wage freezes. Northville is one of the most affluent cities in the state and has some of the highest performing schools.

In Hamtramck, a small city surrounded by Detroit, teachers voted to accept many of the same concessions that were forced on DPS by Roberts. They will pay 20% of their health benefits, take a 10% pay cut over the next two years and have their wages frozen. The district’s $3 million deficit is enough to warrant the presence of an EM.

As the district struggles to stay alive under Roberts’ rule, another unsettling prospect is looming. In addition to schools that are too costly to maintain, low-performing schools may also be taken out of the district. However, instead of being chartered or closed, the failing schools will be subjected to a state takeover.

These schools will be severed from DPS and become part of the Education Achievement System. The principal of each will be primarily responsible for hiring and firing. For now Roberts will run both systems, although eventually the EAS is supposed to be statewide.

The presence of Emergency Managers in Detroit has illustrated the absurdities of making positive change through dictatorial processes. Detroit is a city with a decades-long history of neglect. As industry has disappeared, so has the majority of the population, leaving its neighborhoods and schools full of holes.

Yet Detroit is far from broken. Rather, the leadership of the city has failed to respond to the needs of the community, or to highlight its potential.

Separating the district into a selection of charter and non-charter schools didn’t improve the quality of public education in Detroit. Creating a third system of state-run schools won’t help either.

The problem in the district is not that the teachers are lazy and overpaid, protected by tenure and union contracts. The problem is not that the parents of DPS students don’t value education, or that the state can’t afford to fund it. While these are common excuses, none can adequately capture the ways in which the decision-makers at the top have failed the Detroit Public Schools.

The disruptions to education have created unprecedented challenges for the students and teachers in DPS. Successful learning environments typically require a level of stability that they have been denied. While many changes have been implemented under emergency management, they have only added to our problems.

September/October 2011, ATC 154


  1. The costs that DPS gave for some of the schools were very misleading! Detroit Day School for the Deaf shares the building with an Early Intervention Program that serves 350 children through the week (they come different days but there is a staff of about 80 for that program. DDSD was built 40 years ago with full ADA accommodations and other enhancements specifically for the deaf and the building capacity is only 110 (classrooms are small as state mandate for class size for deaf (very specialized teaching needed) is only 7. However, it was discovered DPS includes the costs of all the other isolated classes around the District for deaf and hard of hearing students as if they are in the school for the deaf when they are not. Teacher consultants who serve those children have their checks sent to DDSD and may also be counted as a DDSD expense. Also not mentioned is that staff at DDSD are the only ones writing big grants and have brought more than 4 million to the District in the last few years. Federal law requires a full continuum of programs and placements for deaf and hard of hearing students. Mr. Bobb backed off when the true facts came out but Roberts is planning to “repurpose the building) – give it to others and send the kids to buildings without the right accommodation of recommended critical mass of same language peers to provide or a full communication access environment. This building was already paid for by others. It is fully used by two programs. Civil rights complaints over lack of a full continuum for students needing it will be costly. DPS administration has been trying to do something else with the building for some time and telling parents they can’t go there, this keeping enrollment low when it would be more cost effective for parents to have the right to choose DDSD and close some of the isolated classes that are never evaluated out in the other schools. The truth really needs to be out there more publicly as some in charge don’t have a clue that they are creating bigger problems for DPS in the long term by closing the school.

  2. Additionally, it is Federal Funding, not state that pays most of the expenses for students with disabilities, including teacher salaries. It was discovered that Alvarez and Marsal, a consultant contracted by Robert Bobb to save money in special education,hatched a plan to make special ed programs totally funded by special ed funds, ignoring that a student with disabilities is a student first and disabled second.
    Bobb ordered all Title 1 funding withheld from handicapped students. despite the fact this was Federal money (not state) students received because they were poor and had nothing to do with supplemental funds DPS received due to disability. So – we have 1. A building paid for my Federal money with some contribution from State and City 40 years ago. 2. Teachers, aides paid for by federal funds channeled through the county. 3. Students who are Detroit students in a Title 1 school who were denied being denied funds by Mr. Bobb they were legally entitled to and who only received programming because of a private donation from a farmer who died. Nice, eh? While all this was going on, it appears Bobb, until outrage from the Deaf community and parents brouHht this out, was ready to sell the school to the highest bidder and put the kids in buildings would have violated their rights under IDEA 2004.

  3. the costs per pupil for Day School for the Deaf seem skewed by the fact that the costs for staff that service deaf and hard of hearing students in isolated classes in general ed buildings (which lack the same services, supervision and professional development of the team approach at the center base DDSD program, are all included for “budget purposes” as if they are in the DDSD center base program. I have learned that Wayne County RESA (intermediate school district) which handles the funding of staffing and other things for disabled students, does not distinguish where the funds go. So, the costs should be divided, not among the 42 or so students at the school, but all 350 or so deaf and hard of hearing students in the District. The capacity of DDSD is 110 students since state law requires not more than 7 in a class due to the complexities of teaching language, etc to deaf children. The school does share the building with early intervention who create most of the wear and tear on the building but do not provide anything toward the budget for maintaining the school. Both programs should remain in the building until an annex is built to better serve the needs of EIDC on one floor and DDSD expands services to high school and adult deaf for night school as so needed in the community.

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