May 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

DPS will ax 900 jobs to cut deficit

In addition to teachers, Bobb targets central administration staffing

Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager Robert Bobb )

Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager said Tuesday he plans to cut more than 900 of the district's employees and take other drastic cost-cutting measures to eliminate the system's multimillion-dollar deficit.

Robert Bobb said cuts to the district's 15,000 employees will include layoffs of hundreds of teachers and staff in central administration. A review of the central administration is beginning next week, he said in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News. Bobb, who already has announced that 29 schools would be closed by fall, said other cost-cutting will be sought through labor contract renegotiations and changes in vendor agreements.

Bobb, who took over the troubled school system's finances in March, said he plans to balance the budget by June, which requires eliminating a $306 million deficit sooner than he anticipated. That entails eliminating the $139 million "legacy" deficit for fiscal year 2008 and the ballooning deficit for 2009 through vast cost-cutting measures, right down to examining the cost of binders used for budgetary books. Bobb plans to complete the fiscal year 2010 budget by June 17.

"As we stand today, our goal is to balance the budget, and that is not an easy task," Bobb said. "It's whether or not to take the bitter pill now or delay taking the bitter pill."

Bobb said the changes are part broad restructuring effort of the troubled system, which gained national attention from the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who recently called the system a "disaster" but said it could be a "national model."

While some parents are distraught over school closings, Bobb also has been lauded by some for making quick, necessary changes.

"Robert Bobb was appointed to put the district's fiscal house in order," said Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gob. Jennifer Granholm. "He is making the tough decisions that allow the district to focus on its priority, which is educating children."

More tough decisions are to come, with some changes being sought within the Detroit Federation of Teachers union contract. Bobb has said he is seeking an innovative contract, and negotiations are starting this month. A districtwide meeting with teachers and representatives from many large urban districts will be held next week to discuss strategies that have worked in other systems, such as peer review, differentiated pay systems, site-based school management and a chancellor district approach, like the one in New York City schools, Bobb said.

"The issue of reform is embedded in conversations we are going to have with the teachers union," Bobb said, adding that early discussions with the union have been "great."

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, has said issues, such as merit pay and seniority, are not up for negotiation, but on Tuesday said, "I will listen to everything. If something is palatable and does not have an adverse effect on my membership, anything is within the realm of possibility."

Johnson said 639 teachers are expected to be laid off, but that number could be drastically reduced through attrition and retirements. While massive layoffs are common in school districts and hundreds of teachers are sometimes recalled, Bobb said 900 positions must be eliminated to balance the budget.

Bobb also said Tuesday he is canceling some vendor contracts, where overcharging is suspected, and he plans to review all leases and real estate sales. Rooting out corruption and misspending is also part of his task, he said. Bobb, who hired a former FBI agent to be the district's inspector general, said 48 investigations are ongoing into corruption in the district. Charges are expected to be filed soon in some cases.

Bobb also said that improving the school system will mean investing in it. He is meeting with Mayor Dave Bing next week to talk about improving school and neighborhood safety.

"Part of our plan is to treat the school system like the homeland security issue," he said. That includes expanding the district's police command centers and having more cameras in schools and on the exteriors of buildings that will rival those seen in London or on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., he said.

The district is also seeking to compete for millions of dollars in federal stimulus dollars, spurring some of the restructuring. Just last week, Bobb said 33 principals would lose their jobs and 37 schools will have new leaders in the fall as part of the district's restructuring.

Despite the uncertainty and rapid changes, Bobb said he is encouraging parents to stay in the system because radical transformation is under way.

"There's no question this is going to be a different school system in two years," he said. "It's going to be a different system this fall."

But some parents say the cuts go too far, and they worry classrooms are being impacted.

Hamtramck resident Wanda Walls, whose children attend one of the closing schools -- Guyton Elementary -- said she worries the cuts will drive parents out of the system. She plans to send her children to another district next school year.

"All they are doing is pushing people away," she said. "If they keep closing schools and cutting the budget, the kids are not going to get the proper tools to learn."

jmrozowski@detnews.com">jmrozowski@detnews.com (313) 222-2269