TheGrio’s 100: Robert Bobb, causing controversy and innovation in Detroit’s public schools

TheGrio's 100 - In 2009, with a deficit of $219 million, the Detroit Public School system was in a state of financial emergency when it appointed Robert Bobb as emergency financial manager...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In 2009, with a deficit of $219 million, the Detroit public school system was in a state of financial emergency when it appointed Robert Bobb, 65, as emergency financial manager. For the last two controversial years, Bobb has sold off idle assets, closed schools, and overhauled staff. He also expanding class offerings and doubled lesson time — reworking the schools with an eye on the ever-swollen bottom line.

Robert Bobb is making history … by wielding Detroit’s educational wallet. Since coming to Michigan, he has cut away some of the public school’s fat — by raising class sizes, working with the teachers union, outsourcing bus and security services, and selling surplus property. Bobb’s aggressive, no-nonsense style has been received with mixed feelings — ranging from America’s praise to Detroit’s disappointment over an increasing deficit that the financial manager was hired to fix.

Adding to the deficit are Bobb’s ambitious programs, like a $500-million school rebuilding campaign. He has also expanded Advanced Placement courses and doubled reading and math lesson time for younger students — an act that some, including one recent Wayne County Court decision, say is overstepping his bounds of financial management. Bobb plans to appeal the decision, noting that the power of the purse gives him power over the curriculum.

What’s next for Robert?

Although many applaud Bobb’s successes in Detroit, the deficit has grown by approximately 50 percent to $327 million since his appointment, which expires at the end of the academic year. Bobb, who cut his teeth in Washington, D.C. in roles ranging from Deputy Mayor to Homeland Security Advisor, is noted as a potential candidate to head the public school system in the District if interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is not instated.

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What inspires Robert?

“Education has been critical to my success throughout my lifetime. Growing up as one of five children on a sugar cane plantation in southwest Louisiana, I developed with the help of my parents and grandmother a deep personal dedication to proving that, given the will to succeed, and having adults who believe in the will that one can put forward to succeed, we can create an environment where all children can learn, and more importantly where all children can succeed,” Bobb told theGrio. “I believe that in Detroit there is this will, and that this will exists deeply in our community, and in Detroit Public Schools. No child, no matter how large the urban district, should be condemned to an educational failure.”

In his own words …

“We’re in a total makeover of this school system. The adults were in charge for years,” Bobb told the Washington Post last December, referring to his financial takeover from the schools’ administration.

A favorite quote …

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free” – Frederick Douglass.

A little-known fact …

In 2010, research found that only 33 percent of African-American males in the state of Michigan graduate high school, compared to 74 percent of white young men.

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