Leave it to retired Judge Steven Rhodes, now the “transition” manager for Detroit Public Schools, to sharpen the point.

The guy who muscled Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy to a speedy conclusion is striking a vaguely prosecutorial tone in his lobbying campaign for Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million DPS rescue package — a chief reason the governor asked the former U.S. bankruptcy judge to take the state’s most thankless job.

“Every person in this state has a moral and constitutional obligation to educate every kid in the state,” Rhodes told WDIV’s Devin Scillian on Flashpoint last Sunday. “Whatever the problems were — and I understand there were a lot — they were not the kids’ fault.

“This is not the time for drawing lines in the sand. It’s not the time for old grievances and political differences to trump our moral obligation, our constitutional obligation, to educate kids.”

He’s right. Michigan’s constitution does obligate the state (i.e., its citizens and the people who represent them) to provide a public education for all children, not just those fortunate enough to live in wealthier communities or those sufficiently removed from the petty adult squabbles over power and control that have weighed on DPS for years.

He’s also right that airing old grievances and fixing blame, time-honored traditions in this town, won’t fix problems growing worse with time. DPS administrators and teachers unions share blame; the state and its financial decision-makers share blame; parents and former school board members share blame; the district’s culture of corruption shares blame; Republicans angling to squeeze labor and Democrats determined to protect the status quo share blame.

A state rescue package can only be part of the solution for a district plagued with abysmal test scores and rampant absenteeism, among other academic markers. As much as DPS interests don’t want to hear it, the price of a legislative fix will need to include academic reforms and governance oversight that combine with a financial restructuring to improve the chances for success.

The district is on track to run out of cash early next month, Rhodes told the state House Appropriations Committee. Payless paydays risk triggering a cascade that could close schools, cause a teacher walk-out, trip the district into federal court, force bondholders to begin calling district debt backed by the taxpayers of Michigan, or all of the above.

Cutting a legislative deal is likely to be far less expensive than a downward spiral that would expose taxpayers to liabilities of at least $1.5 billion; further undermine public education in Detroit; harm efforts to stabilize administration and oversight in a district desperately in need of consistent leadership.

The stakes are rising, complicated by a Flint Water Crisis that is likely to reach another national plateau next week when Snyder testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington — not exactly the kind of publicity the state needs.

After seven years of automotive recovery and a Detroit restructuring that exceeded expectations, the widely touted “comeback” of Michigan and its largest city is increasingly imperiled by self-inflicted crises in Flint and Detroit schools that business leaders fear will revive a national narrative of dysfunction and neglect.

The optics are as bad as the reality, and both matter. This week’s presidential primary and its traveling media show underscored once again just how enduring negative perceptions of Detroit and Michigan remain. Tainted water and collapsing schools in the state’s two largest minority-majority cities don’t reverse that negativity; they reinforce it.

The “Detroit Two-Step” — one forward, two back — still lives. Leadership turnover in the Legislature, alleged “Detroit fatigue” and political desire to exact a price from Detroit for aid from Lansing is colliding with Rhodes’ contention that now “is not the time for drawing lines in the sand.”

Except he’s doing just that. The collapse of the state’s largest school district into payless paydays, or federal court, or both would be a referendum on the Republican majority’s stewardship of the state’s largest district in its largest minority-majority city under nearly 15 years of state-supervised emergency management.

The symbolism should be uncomfortable, but reality is even worse. And leaders of character sworn to uphold the state constitution should know it.


(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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