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Urban Battle: Can Robert Bobb Save Detroit's Schools?

In this week's edition of TIME, we profile Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial officer, Robert Bobb. Here's an excerpt:

On a recent morning, a crowd filled a downtown Detroit courtroom for the sentencing of a 19-year-old ninth-grade dropout caught breaking into a public school, apparently to steal computers. The hearing's main attraction was not the guilty man or the judge but Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency financial manager of Detroit's public schools. In the last six months of 2009, Bobb told the court, nearly 500 computers were stolen from schools, costing his system some $600,000. "The Detroit public-school system isn't an electronics store," he said.

This isn't the kind of problem most school chiefs in the U.S. have to worry about. A year ago, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave Bobb, the former president of Washington, D.C.'s Board of Education, the task of ending the financial crisis that has devastated the Detroit public-school system. In the past decade, the number of Detroit public-school students has plummeted from more than 167,000 to 84,600, mainly because of the emergence of charter schools and the middle class's exodus to the suburbs. It could fall further, to 65,000 in the next four years. Those trends, if they persist, will further erode revenues of a school system saddled with a $219 million budget deficit. So Bobb is trying to squeeze out the waste in the meantime, and he has built an investigative apparatus that has uncovered widespread corruption, including nearly 3,800 unauthorized dependents on employee health-insurance rolls. In the case of the ninth-grade dropout, the judge essentially followed Bobb's suggestion: the 19-year-old was ordered to spend up to 23 months in a boot camp and finish high school.

Beyond saving money, Bobb sees his mission in broader terms: to improve the system's miserable academic performance. Again, the situation is dire. Last month brought news that more than three-quarters of the 900 eighth-graders who took a national math exam scored at "below basic" levels. In October 2008, some 57% of Detroit third- through eighth-graders essentially failed a state writing test. Detroit's graduation rate is 58%. "The system is academically bankrupt. This is almost academic homicide," Bobb says.

Here's the full story.

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