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Detroit Schools Ask Why Manager|Takes Money From Charter Groups

(CN) - The Detroit Board of Education and community groups say private foundations are paying the head of the city's ailing public school system $145,000 a year in exchange for his support of charter schools - a glaring conflict of interest. The board says that Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, is violating Michigan laws and its constitution by accepting the privately funded portion of his $425,000 annual salary.

Bobb is the only defendant in the complaint in Wayne County Court, Detroit.

The board, two community groups and 26 people say the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which "aggressively promotes the spread of charter schools nationwide," pays Bobb $56,000, with the remaining $89,000 coming from "undisclosed private sources."

Last year Bobb made $84,000 in such "supplemental compensation."

"By their provision of one-third of Bobb's salary, these foundations have rewarded Bobb for his past efforts and provided a strong incentive for his future efforts to carry out their publicly stated agenda for 'transforming' urban schools by closing traditional schools and opening privately managed charter schools," the groups say.

As proof that the Broad Foundation expects something for its money, the plaintiffs cite a 2009 Wall Street Journal article in which Eli Broad said he was in the "venture philanthropy business."

"Because Bobb has sole and virtually unreviewable control over the $1.4 billion DPS budget, it is especially dangerous to allow the Broad Foundation and similar 'venture philanthropists' to fund one-third of his salary," the complaint states.

The Broad Foundation disagrees. The foundation gave Bobb the money at the request of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and it "comes without requirement or restriction," Broad spokeswoman Erica Lepping said in an e-mail.

"Our interest is in seeing dramatic increases in student academic achievement across America, particularly for inner city low-income and minority students who have not traditionally been served well," Lepping added.

But the school board says it can already see the money's influence.

"In Bobb's first year in office, he has acted in a manner consistent with the agenda of the Broad Foundation by closing public schools, contracting with charter companies, and granting contracts to other private companies, often without a valid bidding process," the complaint states.

The board says that Bobb's contract could set a dangerous precedent, as it "paves the way for private payments to purchase influence with members of school boards, the governor, the attorney general, or any other elected or appointed official whom a private organization wants to subsidize in order to support actions that they believe are consistent with their interests."

Plaintiffs include the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights, Fight For Equality By Any Means Necessary aka BAMN; Defend Public Education/Save Our Students; and 26 teachers, parents and citizens.

They seek injunctive relief voiding Bobb's contract and prohibiting him from accepting money from private organizations. They are represented by George Washington with Scheff & Washington.

The lawsuit came on the eve of another public school controversy that made national news. The Kansas City, Mo., Board of Education voted on Wednesday to close nearly half of the city's public schools, to close a $50 million budget shortfall caused in part by declining enrollment.

The KC board voted 5-4 to close 28 of its 61 public schools and cut 700 of its 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers. Superintendent John Covington says the drastic action should balance the district's $300 million budget.

Taking a cue from Congress' penchant to stick cheerful labels on alarming legislation, Covington calls it the "Right Size" plan.

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