By Nick Anderson
Saturday, December 25, 2010; A01
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.
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.
School board President Anthony Adams said he told Bobb: "You of all people should understand how important an elected board is to getting community support. What happened to you in D.C. is what you're doing to us in Detroit."
Bobb said there is nothing he could have done to avoid conflict. "We're in a total makeover of this school system," he said. "The adults were in charge for years."
In education circles, "adults" has become a dirty word. The sharpest attack possible on a school official is to say he or she cares more about adults than children.
Bobb, 65, has managed several cities. In the District, he served as city administrator from 2003 to 2006 under then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). He still calls the District home and has a residence in the Crestwood area of Northwest Washington.
Detroit has "arguably the worst urban school district in the country," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in November. He said "the education provided to those children has been devastatingly bad for far too long."
Such comments rile Detroit leaders. They point to the city's selective Renaissance High and Cass Technical High, both on U.S. News & World Report's list of quality schools, and say Duncan should do more to help.
Yet most of the city's fourth- and eighth-graders fall short of basic reading and math achievement levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Not only did Detroit score lower than any other city in 2009 but its scores were also the lowest in the history of the urban testing program.
"Sometimes before you can rise, you have to hit bottom," said Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. "I think we hit the bottom."'He is not kidding'
The blue Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle hurtled along the freeways and boulevards of the Motor City, carrying Bobb, two school police officers (with earpieces) and a press aide to schools scattered across 140 square miles. Often no one called ahead, leaving principals startled when Bobb and his entourage swept in.
One afternoon last month, Bobb dropped by Davis Aerospace High. Cynthia Turner, 17, a senior, said she plans to attend Western Michigan University and hopes to become an astronaut.
The principal said the school, which offers flight instruction, was a bit short of $60,000 needed to buy a used Piper Arrow with retractable landing gear.
"Go ahead," Bobb said. "I'll make up the difference."
The severity of Detroit's financial crisis magnifies the importance of every spending call Bobb makes.
The school system is saddled with a $327 million budget deficit that is impossible to erase without cutting services or obtaining new sources of revenue. Annual operating expenses for Detroit schools are $1 billion.
Even the best-run Michigan schools face major fiscal challenges because of the economic decline of a state dependent on the struggling auto industry. The unemployment rate in Michigan is 12 percent. In Detroit, population 910,000, it exceeds 14 percent.
In addition, city schools are shedding thousands of students every year. Enrollment has fallen from 163,000 a decade ago to perhaps 76,000 this fall. Abandoned houses, often crumbling or torched, haunt distressed neighborhoods. Some principals specialize in merging two or three schools into one.
To save money, Bobb outsourced bus and security services. He raised class sizes and put surplus property up for sale. He also reached an accord with the teachers union on a contract that gives some principals more leverage in staffing decisions and withholds $250 from each teacher's paycheck as deferred compensation. Bobb's salary is $425,000, with private foundations paying about a third. This year, he is giving $21,000 back to the schools as a budget reduction.
To deter fraud, Bobb ordered employees to pick up paychecks in person one week. Initially, hundreds of checks went unclaimed. The suspicions of large-scale theft by "ghost employees" turned out to be unfounded. But a message was sent. Bobb's auditors have reported the recovery of millions of dollars and found unused Chevrolet Cavaliers, BlackBerrys and other valuables inexplicably stashed in warehouses. Bobb fired members of his own security detail for overstating their overtime.
"He keeps coming back to show the people that he is not kidding," Bill Cosby said. The comedian has walked neighborhoods with Bobb to encourage families to keep their children in public schools. Cosby said a crackdown on corruption is essential "in any place in education where things are falling apart and the numbers are atrocious."Back to basics
One morning at Thirkell Elementary School, Bobb spent an hour with Darrius Evans, 4, and Darrell Grigsby, 5. He tutors them every week through a volunteer initiative launched in response to dismal federal test scores. The day's topic: ABCs. He read aloud, quizzed the boys on letters and helped them assemble mini-primers with scissors, crayons and glue.
Darrell recited the alphabet through F, then paused.
"G," he whispered.
"Did you say G?" Bobb asked.
"Okay, tell me again, in a big voice. Sing 'em out for me."
Later, Bobb popped into Farwell Leadership Academy to check on a new principal. He asked Antoinette Pearson whether the middle school will make what the government calls adequate yearly progress.
"I'm planning on it," the principal said. "How many years are you going to give me?"
Then he asked if he could do anything to help. Pearson said the school's central air-conditioning unit is kaput because thieves stripped its copper parts. She said mice are streaming into the school through a gaping hole in a brick wall. As Bobb walked outside to inspect the breach, he passed through a metal door pocked with bullet holes. They were patched with caulk.