Robert Bobb vs. DPS school board heats up
Lawyers of Robert Bobb and the DPS Board of Education made summary arguments at the Wayne County Circuit Court Friday, one of the last stages of the pitched battle over whether Bobb is overstepping his boundaries as emergency financial manager of the city’s public school system.
The board’s attorney, George Washington, alleged that Bobb—appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm in March 2009—has made illegal academic decisions without the school board’s consultation. Washington also asked Judge Wendy Baxter to order Bobb to attend monthly school board meetings to discuss school closings and financial plans.
“It’s very clear that the citizens of this community have the same right that anybody else does to control their schools,” Washington said. “[Bobb] has seized power in the city of Detroit.”
The board filed a civil suit against Bobb last summer, alleging that he is making illegal decisions regarding the district’s academic policies. Bobb, however, maintains that academics and finances are inextricably linked. He was appointed to lead the 87,000-student school district out of financial woes as its deficit passed $300 million last year. His current contract runs through February 2011.
Washington and John Clark, Bobb’s attorney, acted—and dressed—their parts as they squared off in arguments that became heated at times. Wearing a plain, beige suit, Washington used passionate, populist rhetoric to get more than a few head nods from the audience, which was made up of a number of local activists, a handful of students and a few members of the school board.
“We don’t want this type of one-man rule,” Washington said, adding that Bobb’s recent plan to increase the DPS graduation rate to 98 percent by 2015 is “fraudulent.”
Clark—clad in black pinstripes—spoke calmly throughout the argument, citing empirical data in Bobb’s defense. The financial manager has the ability to make academic decisions, such as those regarding textbook purchases or standardized tests, because they affect enrollment and federal funding, Clark said.
He added that Bobb’s cost cutting has already produced academic benefits.
“There is raw data that shows the school closures…have helped increase [the district’s] MEAP scores,” he said.
Friday’s arguments focused largely on Bobb’s Master Facilities Plan, which stipulates that 45 school buildings will be closed during the next three academic years. Washington argued that Bobb didn’t properly consult the DPS board before unveiling the plan, but Clark said it has “financial components.”
“No one wants to close schools,” Clark said. “But that’s not reality.”
The reality is this: the DPS high school graduation rate is under 40 percent, according to a 2009 report by America’s Promise Alliance. That’s third worst in the country among the country’s 50 largest cities, and a far cry from the 71 percent national average. Furthermore, DPS enrollment—and funding—is steadily declining as more and more local students switch to charter schools or neighboring school districts.
Despite the district’s hard times, a failure to communicate is the main barrier between Bobb and the school board, according to officials. Bobb is required to consult the board by law, but both attorneys said the opposing party is unwilling to collaborate. They also disagreed on what “consultation” really means, be it face-to-face interaction or correspondence.
The 90-minute court session Friday afternoon closed with Baxter asking both attorneys to modify their final arguments by September 13, after which she will issue an opinion on the case.