June 4, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Bobb boots out top DPS executives

Drastic downsizing of district's front office will save $16 million

Bobb )

Detroit -- Detroit Public Schools officials on Wednesday began a massive downsizing of its top leaders in an effort to shore up a $306 million deficit and bring the district in line with others of similar size, according to Robert Bobb, the district's emergency financial manager.

Among the cuts:

  • Nearly 80 percent -- 181 positions of 231 -- of the district's curriculum department will be laid off by the end of the month

  • Eleven on the 21-member executive cabinet, including the police chief, chief of facilities and head of contracting and procurement will not have their contracts renewed. Some were terminated effective Wednesday.

  • More than half the district's assistant superintendents will be cut.

  • Transportation services and possibly school-based security will be outsourced.

    While some of the top positions will be filled, most won't, Bobb said, adding that the district is top-heavy compared to other urban systems. The restructuring is expected to save the district $16 million.

    "We have to be as transformative for Detroit Public Schools as the transformation taking place in the automotive industry in Michigan," Bobb said, adding that saving dollars by cutting excessive staff means more money can be driven into the classroom.

    The district has about 15,000 employees, 2,222 of whom are in the central office, though some spent part of their time in schools, district officials said. Dozens of principals were cut last month as part of a massive effort to downsize and restructure -- and more cuts are on the way, Bobb said.

    Debra Posey, a noon-hour aide who has five children in the district, said she supports cutting district personnel if it means more money for the classroom. She said the school where her children attend, Courtis Elementary, was short on math textbooks earlier this year. Courtis is slated to be closed as part of Bobb's plan to shutter 29 schools this fall.

    "Maybe now they can give the kids what they need and give them more activities, like arts and music," Posey said. While she supports the administrative cuts, Posey is against closing Courtis.

    Bobb said he will restructure some positions to create two new deans -- one for high school transformation and one for high school/small school design. One of the positions will be temporary, he said.

    "Our goal is to transform the central office," he said. "We want it to be the center of support, not the center of attention for our schools." Bobb said he plans to search nationally for people to fill spots where necessary to populate the district with "the very best minds in the nation."

    Bobb said the restructuring of the curriculum department will help the district improve student achievement. Academics will be under the leadership of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district's new chief academic and accountability auditor.

    "We did not take this action lightly," Bobb said, adding temporary consultants will be used where necessary.

    Bobb said the positions that were not renewed were for fiscal reasons. He would not attribute the nonrenewals to performance, though some of the positions will be filled. He said the district is eliminating layers of supervision. The administrators were being notified Wednesday night.

    "We're moving in a new direction," Bobb said.

    Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he is not surprised by the cuts, and he doesn't believe they will hurt student achievement because "student achievement emanates from the classroom."

    "I really felt this was coming, in part, because Detroit Public Schools spends an average of 21 cents on every dollar on upper level administrative costs," Johnson said. "The tri-county average is 9 cents on a dollar." The priority should be sending funds to the classroom, and anything outside the classroom is a "nicety."

    Bobb also plans to bid out transportation services and possibly school-based security as part of his strategy to help the district return to solvency and improve efficiency, he said. Transportation, including private and public busing services, costs $48 million, he said.

    "It's about time," said Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy and co-author of an annual survey on privatization in Michigan schools for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "Since 2001, a great deal more districts have turned to private vendors to provide such services as transportation, food service and janitorial services, at a minimum. Millions can be saved."

    Bobb said he's not considering privatizing food service, which recently emerged from a controversial contract. He said privatizing is not a "panacea" but it has to be considered in some areas where savings are possible.

    "We want to stick to our core business -- educating children," he said.

    Of Michigan's 552 conventional public school districts, the percentage of districts contracting for the management or operation of one of the largest services -- food, janitorial or busing -- increased to 42.2 percent, up from 40.2 percent in 2007, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported.

    The survey included 550 districts, excluding Detroit Public Schools because the district did not respond to the survey, the report said. The Upper Peninsula district of White Pine was not included because it has no students.

    Bobb said the district will also undertake a comprehensive review of health care costs, which he said are spiraling. For instance, Bobb said the district has 300 employees whose health care costs $800,000 more in benefits than the sum of their salaries because the district gives part-time employees almost full-time benefits, he said.

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