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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that a closed school in Detroit was named for the Cadillac automobile brand. Cadillac Middle School was named for Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.

Why D.C. keeps an eye on Detroit school leader

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By Nick Anderson
Saturday, December 25, 2010

DETROIT - The bearded man in the pinstripe suit and cowboy boots strode to the lectern in a midtown hotel ballroom as a video projector flashed images of real estate for sale. These buildings, many dating to the early 20th century, once embodied Detroit's dreams. They were schools. One was named for the poet Langston Hughes, another for an icon of motoring luxury: Cadillac.

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But Robert C. Bobb was unsentimental. The school system he leads is shrinking and broke. On that fall morning, Bobb just wanted to unload dozens of Detroit's unneeded campuses.

"We are selling them for cash," he told the audience. "How many of you brought your checkbooks? How many of you are ready to make a deal?"

Bobb, a former top D.C. official, is viewed as a potential candidate to head the D.C. public schools if interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson stumbles.

Four years ago, Bobb expected to put his stamp on school reform in the nation's capital after he was elected president of the D.C. school board. But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took control of the system and gave Michelle A. Rhee unprecedented power as chancellor to right-size and reboot the languishing public schools.

Now Rhee has left office, and Fenty is on his way out. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) has praised Henderson, a former Rhee deputy, and she seems to be the top contender for the permanent appointment.

But Bobb has built an intriguing record since March 2009 as emergency financial manager of Detroit schools. With his aggressive, no-nonsense style, he has restored order to a system in worse shape than Washington's. His tenure here is expected to end in June, about the same time Henderson's interim deal expires.

"We have to see how that process unfolds," Bobb said.

The Detroit school system ranks at the bottom in student achievement among big cities - well behind D.C. schools - and is running a nine-figure budget deficit. It is an academic and fiscal meltdown almost without parallel in urban America.

In response, Bobb has closed 59 schools, jettisoned much of the central office staff, overhauled the principal corps and sold off idle assets. He has expanded Advanced Placement offerings, more than doubled reading and math lesson time for younger students, obtained contract concessions from the teachers union, launched a $500 million school rebuilding campaign (with voter approval) and upended a culture of inertia and waste.

"He doesn't take any prisoners," said Gov. Jennifer M. Gran-holm (D), who appointed Bobb. "He's not afraid to make the hard calls. He's not afraid to fire people."

A constant fight

Bobb has solid relations with the local teachers union, in contrast with Rhee's tenure in Washington. Still, Bobb has faced lawsuits in which the city school board and others say he has overstepped his role.This month, a local judge ruled that although Bobb controls school system spending, the board has authority over academic policy. Bobb, who claims the power of the purse gives him power over academics, plans to appeal. Some on the board said they find it ironic that Bobb shoved them aside.


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