A dictatorship over Detroit schools

April 28, 2011

Adam Sanchez, a teacher in Portland, Ore., looks the implications of the fight over the future of Detroit public schools, now in the hands of an emergency financial manager.

IMAGINE IF the governor of your state appointed a businessman to be in charge of the public schools in your city. That person, who had never before lived in your community, is given virtually dictatorial control over the school district. In his first year in office, he increases the district's debt by over 50 percent and, without consulting either administrators or teachers, spends $40 million on a new textbook and testing system.

Then, using the deficit he helped expand as an excuse, this savvy businessman announces that one-third of the public schools in your area will be sold off to private charter operators. To top it off, he sends every single teacher and staff member in the school district a layoff notice.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a teacher's nightmare. This is the story of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) under the reign of Robert Bobb. In January 2009, Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Bobb, who was president and CEO of LAPA Group, a consulting firm, as emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools (DPS).

Members of the Detroit Teachers Federation at a rally in 2007
Members of the Detroit Teachers Federation at a rally in 2007

Bobb, who was tasked with getting DPS's fiscal house in order, is one of the many graduates of the Broad Residency in Urban Education who now holds a high-level position in urban school districts across the nation. The Broad training program is supported by an education foundation launched by billionaire real estate mogul Eli Broad. Since 1999, the foundation has spent $370 million with the mission to "transform urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition."

The Broad Residency in Urban Education offers young business majors a full-time, senior-level management position in a large urban school district. For a few years, the Broad foundation pays half of their salary, and after that, the district is supposed to foot the bill. But in an interview with the Detroit News, Broad admitted he contributed $28,000 toward Bobb's Detroit salary and moving expenses.

Detroit, which was a struggling city well before the current economic crisis, has been pushed over the edge in recent years. The Detroit News estimated that in 2009, when Bobb was appointed, Detroit's broader unemployment rate--which counts not only the jobless, but those who can only find part-time work or who have given up looking altogether--was close to 50 percent.

A third of the city has been completely abandoned, prompting proposals by the mayor to demolish an estimated 10,000 buildings and turn largely abandoned neighborhoods into farmland.

THE SHOCK of the recession has provided the perfect political cover for a drastic reorganization of the city's school system and a sharp attack on the DFT. Bobb's neoliberal assault has received approval from Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has called DPS "ground zero" for education reform, and has claimed, "Detroit is going in a much better direction thanks to Bobb's leadership."

Yet in his first year as emergency financial manager, Bobb's "cost-cutting" measures added $113 million to the district's deficit, one of the largest single-year deficits in the history of Detroit schools.

Bobb managed this feat in part by paying out over $40 million in taxpayer funds on a new textbook and testing system, and another $40 million to various corporate consulting firms that helped develop a reactionary privatization scheme. This plan proposes the closure of 45 struggling Detroit public schools and the opening of 70 new charter and private schools.

Detroit currently has nearly 70 percent of its student population in public schools and 30 percent in charter schools. The new Excellent Schools Detroit initiative calls for a radical redistribution of Detroit's school-going population, setting a goal for 2015 that only 25 percent of students will still attend Detroit public schools and 75 percent will go to charter schools.

If this plan implemented, Detroit would surpass New Orleans as the city with the highest percentage of students attending charter schools, and public high school class sizes could increase to 62 students per class.

Bobb's primary attack has been directed at the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). In December 2009, Bobb helped negotiate a controversial contract agreement with Detroit teachers that required union members to defer $10,000 in pay over the following two years.

The contract was ratified by the membership after a campaign led by DFT president Keith Johnson and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who claimed the agreement was the best that could be negotiated given the district's deficit. In a recent press release, Weingarten called the contract "groundbreaking" and claimed that it represented "a shared commitment to transforming Detroit schools."

But even those unprecedented concessions weren't enough for Bobb. On April 15, he escalated his assault, issuing 5,466 layoff notices to every teacher and staff member in the district.

While the notices are not final decisions and many Detroit teachers and school staff may keep their jobs, there's uncertainty about whether Bobb will respect seniority rights or simply fire teachers he deems ineffective. Weingarten, who had earlier trumpeted the union's partnership with Bobb, declared that his plan is "shocking and disregards a commitment he made just 16 months ago to transform schools collaboratively."

After passing further cuts to K-12 and higher education, the Michigan legislature, following the lead of the state's new Republican governor, Rick Snyder, passed Public Act 4, which gave emergency financial managers like Bobb sweeping new powers. Emergency managers can now sell off public assets, privatize public services and unilaterally terminate or modify existing union contracts. Referring to his expanded authority, Bobb proclaimed to the Detroit Free Press after the mass layoffs were issued, "I fully intend to use the authority that was granted."

Bobb claims the mass layoff notices were necessary "in anticipation of a workforce reduction to match the district's declining student enrolment." But as the Detroit Metro Times reported in October 2010, "since Bobb has been in charge, the district has lost about 20,000 students," a much worse attrition rate than the previous three years. It should be no surprise that when you treat students and teachers like dirt and callously close schools, many families choose to leave the district.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this unprecedented attack, the DFT is wrestling with internal controversy. In January, DFT activist Steve Conn of the organization By Any Means Necessary ran against incumbent DFT President Keith Johnson. Initially, the election committee, which many claim is controlled by Johnson, declared Johnson the victor by a margin of 40 votes. But as Conn points out, 178 ballots were never counted.

Outraged, the membership voted 184 to 49 at the following union meeting for a hand recount. Johnson, however, has appealed the decision to AFT leader Weingarten, and the local union is waiting for her ruling.

Meanwhile, Johnson used his authority as president to suspend Conn on what appear to be extremely dubious charges of "imposing himself" on Michigan Federation of Teachers President David Hecker during a general membership meeting.

It is hard to believe these allegations are anything more than a pretext to prevent Conn from becoming president of the local. The suspension, instituted at the end of February, bans him from holding any union position and from attending union meetings for six months.

THE POTENTIAL to involve the broader community in the fight to save Detroit's schools was evident on April 15, the same day Bobb sent out mass layoff notices, when eight students and several faculty members and supporters occupied their school after learning it was slated to close later that year. The school, Catherine Ferguson Academy, is a nationally recognized school serving pregnant teens and young mothers. During the occupation, hundreds of supporters rallied outside the school, but after a few hours, police removed the occupiers.

While insufficient to meet the scale of the attack, the occupation of Catherine Ferguson Academy and Conn's election challenge are important steps to building a movement that can halt the complete destruction of Detroit's public schools. Another encouraging sign are the recent large protests at Michigan's Capitol building. Inspired by the fightback in Wisconsin, union members and supporters rallied against budget cuts and the enormous expansion of authority granted to emergency financial managers like Robert Bobb.

It will be up to community and teacher activists to build off these struggles. We can no longer allow CEOs like Bobb to run our schools. The business approach increasingly shifts responsibility for educational improvement onto teachers while simultaneously giving teachers less control over pedagogy and curriculum--all while starving schools of much needed resources.

Why are teachers increasingly blamed for the problems of our public schools while those with the real power are never held accountable? It is time to send Robert Bobb his layoff notice...with 5,466 signatures.

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