July 11, 2009 at 1:00 am

DPS gives control of lagging schools to private sector

DPS Financial Manager Robert Bobb made the historic announcement about overhauling 17 failed high schools at a Friday press conference. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb announced Friday that he has hired four educational management companies to turn around 17 of the worst-performing high schools in the district, a move that marks what leaders say is the largest public school district overhaul of its kind in the nation.

"We have not been making the grade," Bobb said at a press conference at Central High School.

School board members expressed shock and dismay Friday -- just one day after they rolled out their own academic plan that they've asked Bobb to fund. Some accused Bobb of overstepping his bounds as a financial manager by launching an academic plan that will affect 20,000 students in three-quarters of the district's high schools without the board's knowledge.

The board was charged with working on the academics, while Gov. Jennifer Granholm brought in Bobb to work on the finances for a year.

"We have asked Robert Bobb to do a very difficult job and he needs the authority to do it right," said Granholm's spokeswoman Liz Boyd, noting Bobb is not overstepping his role. "He doesn't need to be micromanaged."

The district signed multiyear contracts with four out-of-state companies that will be funded through $20 million in federal stimulus dollars. The aim is to improve student achievement, discipline, respect, safety and graduation rates, district officials said.

It's time that "we reverse the historical trend of abysmal failure for our children and ensure that all of our children ... are prepared to succeed in college, in the work force, in the community," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Bobb's chief academic and accountability officer.

The schools will have new principals this fall, but it's unclear which teachers will stay, an issue that will be addressed in negotiations with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bobb said.

"If we are going to hold individuals (principals) accountable for the results in their buildings, they should have the authority to choose the people who come to work with them in these buildings," Bobb said.

Keith Johnson, president of the union, said the contract doesn't allow principals to pick who they want, except when they have vacancies.

The move also shocked Dr. Carla Scott, president of the Board of Education, who -- like other board and union members -- said she learned about Bobb's moves from the media.

Board members are increasingly frustrated that Bobb is overstepping his role as a financial manager, Scott said.

"What he's trying to do is create an all-charter district," she said. "Where is the evidence that charter schools have provided a better academic product?"

"He's supposed to fix the finances but he's destroying the district," said Dr. Margaret Betts, a DPS board member.

District spokesman Steve Wasko said the schools remain DPS schools.

"While charters are very much in the mix for the remaining schools to be restructured, these really are much more so partnerships between the schools and these agencies," he said.

Amari Alford, 15, said she's tired of violence, students skipping and disrespect at Central High. Fellow student Terrance Shelton, 14, said he is still rattled by the shooting he witnessed earlier this year and upset students have to share books.

"We need a change," Alford said. "I'm tired of it. I refuse to go here if this continues."

The educational organizations overseeing the restructuring were chosen because they have proven results around the country in turning around schools, Bobb said. The companies are Edison Learning and Institute for Student Achievement of New York, EdWorks of Cincinnati and Model Secondary Schools Project of Bellevue, Wash. The district will establish benchmarks to ensure success and the companies can be fired if they are not meeting their marks.

The schools that will be transformed for the fall are Central, Crockett, Henry Ford, King, Western, Cooley, Denby, Finney, Kettering, Mumford, Southeastern, Pershing, Detroit Tech, Southwestern, Cody, Northwestern and Osborn.

"Detroit is the biggest I've seen," said John Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, referring to districts that are turning to management companies.

Such turnaround strategies have been successful elsewhere, but results take more than two years, Musso cautioned.

"When you get to the position where you want to bring in a management company, you pretty much have exhausted all other avenues," he said.

All of the chosen schools have Michigan Merit Exam scores well below the state average and failed to make federally required adequate yearly progress.

Friday's action is part of a wider restructuring of 40 schools. Bobb is considering management companies for six alternative schools and 10 elementary schools.