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And We Are Not Saved

OK, so can we slow down now on the push to canonize Detroit Public Schools financial manager Robert Bobb?

Since being appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm as the emergency financial manager in March 2009 to control the finances of the state's largest school district, red ink is growing, according to district budget documents:

• Instead of a $17 million surplus Bobb projected for this fiscal year, spending has increased so much Bobb is projecting a $98 million deficit for the budget year that ends June 30.

• Added to the $219 million deficit accumulated from previous years, Bobb anticipates posting a $317 million deficit by this summer -- the largest year-end deficit ever recorded for the district.

Don't get me wrong. I think Bobb's a smart guy. And I appreciate that he has a bear of a job on his hands trying to right the school system's listing fiscal ship, a job that no one thinks he'll complete overnight.

Even so, from the moment he arrived, far too many (especially in the media) have sought to portray the man as everything from a superhero to a saint to the single-handed savior of our struggling school system.

To be honest, I've never understood why he's gotten such a pass. Sure, he's talked tough. And, yes, he's fired some folks and made public examples of others. And I'll admit, Bobb can give a great press conference and keynote speech.

But given the worsening budget outlook of the schools -- on his watch -- how does any of this amount to anything more than the smoke and mirrors of bureaucracy theater? And why is his brand of theater any more acceptable than the slapstick comedy that too often has been the elected Detroit school board? Because it looks cooler and sounds tougher? (I prefer Dirty Harry to the Keystone Kops, too, but neither is going to solve an actual crime.)

Detroiters, though, we love that emotional rush that comes when a new bureaucrat rides into town swearing that things are going to be different on his watch. And from day one, Bobb has played to that craving quite well. He's slapped up the petty thieves and been quick with the pink slips. He has held forth about openness and accountability, and has been quick to bring some folks into public hearings to discuss misdeeds.

But on the flip side, he's also had to turn around and re-hire many of those he canned because, well, it turns out that DPS actually does need them. And while he's been relentless in his insistence that the little people stand before his public hearings, he's been far more forgiving of the powerful (like when he backed off of asking a very influential real-estate firm to talk publicly about questionable deals it did with DPS).

Most importantly, the emergency financial manager still ain't saved a dime.

Several months ago, he promised a multi-million-dollar surplus. Then it came out last fall that he had added $21 million to the deficit. Then last month, the Wife (who broke the news about the $21 million, BTW) reported that the district was so short on cash that it couldn't even make payroll. Now, Bobb essentially just says, "Hey, things could've been worse without me."

"My confidence level has never been higher," Bobb said. Asked to grade his financial job performance, Bobb gave himself a "B plus" for efforts such as eliminating millions in inefficiencies that would have driven the deficit to more than $547 million.

He may very well have prevented the shortfall from swelling. But if Bobb believes that adding $100 million to the district's deficit after predicting a $17-million surplus is B-plus work, I can only hope that he's not thinking of applying that same grading scale to our schoolchildren.

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