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Not So Simple

News about the bureaucrats running Detroit Public Schools continues to frustrate.

Despite state intervention, layoffs and wide-ranging budget cuts, the Detroit Public Schools' deficit may continue until 2014, according to DPS budget projections.

A DPS deficit-elimination plan filed with the state last month projects the district will end this school year with a deficit of $332 million, up from $218.9 million last year.

Nobody thought DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb would have it easy, of course — unless you're talking about all the voters, media personalities, politicians, philanthropists and parents who hailed him as a savior the day he showed up for the job.

After all, nowhere in America do people seem more addicted to the oversimplification of complex problems than in Detroit.

We love the Big Promise and are always quick to hug the easy solutions and uncomplicated storylines, especially when they come from people who are expected to help answer some of our most intractable woes. We think film companies that go bust in a year will garner us billions in tax revenue. We think poverty should be solvable with a slogan or an amorphous demand for federal dollars or the opening of new casinos. We think violence will end if we bring prayer back into the schools and kick rap music out, if these boys would just pull up their pants and stop wearing cornrows. We think schools will be better if we can only find someone to weed out those criminal lunch aides and talk tough to the teachers' union.

Meanwhile, we grow poorer, our streets run redder, our children fall further behind.

But the search for the Chosen One goes on. In a town as overrun with preachers and churches as it is with drugs and liquor stores, we continue to look heavenward — or at least to Lansing and D.C. — thinking that someday soon our municipal messiah will come. And when that knight-in-shining-policy arrives, dressed as a mayor or councilman or state appointee, the message will suddenly be made manifest, accessible to all, easy to digest and implemented with swift and stunning efficiency and success.

And so, we get the politicians we deserve -- the weak-ass, dithering bureaucrats who smell this lust for simplicity and sate it by selling us policy snake oil and charmers dressed up as revolutionaries. Who has time to think ahead about the education of our children when there are elections to win, cabinet appointments to pursue and pockets to line? Why make a long-term investment in the state's largest, most troubled district when selling it out for the short-term is so much easier?

Gov. Granholm basically did just this when, rather than grapple with the thorny issues of how public schools get funded in this state, she chose only to appoint Bobb to "clean up" Detroit. So what if reform is what we really need? Education-funding reform is too complex for feint-hearted pols, doesn't easily lend itself to bumper stickers and speeches to the Economic Club. But everyone can understand the idea of "a new sheriff" in town. (Not that we don't need a firm administrative hand, mind you, but we need real reform even more.)

Meanwhile, in the city, Bobb has done his part to advance the state-sanctioned narrative, with his non-stop press conferences and show pony firings and chest-thumping predictions that, under his leadership, a district long-plagued with devastating structural issues would see a $17-million surplus within a year. All it would take was his iron-clad will, he intimated. Now, though, there's this...

Last year, Bobb cut spending to get the deficit to $218.9 million, and then submitted a 2009-10 budget that projected the district deficit would not grow, but have a $17-million surplus. But by October, that budget was overspent by $20 million. The deficit has ballooned since then; next year's budget is expected to start off with a $332-million deficit, according to the monthly report.

Still, no worries, we're being told. Bobb's got this. DPS will have it all under control by, oh, 2013 — assuming, of course, he's around to keep implementing his plan. Which he almost certainly won't be.

So when all the smoke and mirrors have finally been cleared out, DPS will likely still have a humongous budget deficit. And lousy schools. And buffoons for board members. And thousands of children unfit to compete in the 19th Century, let alone the 21st.

The problems will remain even after the politicians elected to solve them have moved on. And while consultants, contractors, real-estate swindlers and everyone else gets over by pimping easy solutions to our complex problems, our children and our collective future will continue to pay the price.

Really, it's just that simple.

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