Detroit School Shakeup

Published October 1, 2009

Teachers and other employees of Detroit Public Schools were shaken up this summer when the district’s emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, announced they would have to reapply for their jobs.

Bobb was appointed to oversee the financial operations of the schools in March by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

A total of 2,600 public school teachers, counselors, and administrators at approximately 50 failing schools were affected by the announcement. Thirteen schools are being closed, shuffling the remaining teachers and staff around the district.

While the timing—less than two months before school began—has been criticized, some people have been impressed with Bobb’s bold moves.

“I believe the intent is to have an evaluation process with employees, which is always healthy,” said Kyle Olson, vice president of the Education Action Group, an independent group of citizens and school board leaders in Michigan that works to make sure tax dollars benefit students. “Union contracts restrict evaluations with accountability, and it appears Mr. Bobb has found another way to hold employees accountable and get rid of ineffective teachers.”

Long-Needed Reforms

Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, agrees.

“Reconstituting failed schools and making teachers reapply for those jobs is one method to deal with the pervasive corruption and mismanagement that has plagued DPS for years,” Van Beek said. “Since the district has already discovered more than 250 ‘ghost’ employees, it seems that making teachers reapply for jobs is a sensible way to find other problems within the teaching corps.”

The ghost jobs were discovered early this year when Bobb required all school employees to pick up their paychecks in person. The district discovered checks were being directly deposited into 257 bank accounts that no one claimed.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers fought Bobb’s requirement that school employees reapply, claiming the maneuver breached the teachers’ bargaining contract. Bobb said he did not have to follow those rules since he is the fiscal crisis manager.

“Anything that weakens their position of influence and relevance, they will oppose, regardless of how sensible it is or if it makes things better for students,” Olson said of the union. “Detroit Public Schools is a prime example of a labor-focused school system instead of a student-focused system. I believe Mr. Bobb is trying to change that.”

Calling for More

Van Beek says though the personnel overhaul is desperately needed in DPS, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Reconstituting schools might allow the district to find and deal with some problems, but ultimately, only comprehensive school reforms, like increasing school choice, will repair this dysfunctional district,” Van Beek said. “DPS parents have been voting with their feet for years and finding alternative educational opportunities for their children, and Detroit should embrace this fact and utilize it.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.