Detroit Public Schools

Feb 10, 2011

Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public Schools, came to Lansing yesterday to ask for something he has to know he’s probably never going to get.

He wants the legislature to give what amounts to a loan guarantee to the company that insured the schools’ last round of borrowing. If that firm, Assured Guaranty Municipal Corporation, doesn’t get that assurance, it may block the schools from borrowing more money? Why? Because it worries DPS will go bankrupt.

Which would leave Assured Guaranty holding the bag. And it’s a pretty unpleasant bag, The schools are hemorrhaging money and students. Bobb came in two years ago, full of confident promises to eliminate the deficit. But it has only gotten worse.

Assured Guaranty insured a loan for a little over a quarter of a billion dollars the schools borrowed in 2005. Now, the schools need more. They have a new deficit of $327 million dollars.

That’s more than half their entire general fund budget. To make ends meet, Bobb says he needs to borrow $219 million next month.

He wants the legislature to help him get it. But lawmakers were skeptical at best. Bobb, whose time as Emergency Financial Manager ends in June, assured them that the district has no plans to file for bankruptcy. But that, of course, is what the chairman of General Motors said, right up until the time they filed for bankruptcy.

Senator Bert Johnson told reporters he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of any one company being entitled to extra protection.

“I think you’ve got to question if it’s a prudent move,“ he said. Johnson added that the lawmakers were sure to demand, quote “some serious accountability.”  Robert Bobb, “has got to prove the merit of his proposal.”

Senator Johnson, who said those words, is a Detroit Democrat. If he feels that way, just imagine what the reaction is likely to be from the outstate Republicans who run the legislature.

The sad fact is that despite his best efforts, Robert Bobb has failed in his efforts to turn the schools around. So far as I can tell, he did reduce corruption, close buildings and cut costs where he could.

But the disaster was too far advanced. The schools are continuing to lose thousands of students a year, which means a loss of millions of badly needed dollars from the state.

Detroit’s Public Schools continue to be hit with almost daily scandals. Today, one Detroit newspaper is exposing an illegal grade-changing scheme. The other paper is writing about a Detroit high school basketball coach who was arrested for allegedly selling heroin on the side.

America is a nation that became great in large part because of our tradition of public schools. But common sense has to conclude that this model just doesn’t work in Detroit anymore.

Nolan Finley, the Detroit News’s editorial page editor, has urged the governor to dismantle the district, to instead oversee a portfolio or schools run by independent contractors.

That may sound like libertarian theory. But increasingly, it seems like it might be worth a try. The schools themselves don’t matter, after all. The children do

Their future, and that of our state and society, depends entirely on their getting an education.

By any means necessary.