Rhodes tells DPS meeting he’s next EM, attendees say

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes met Wednesday with Detroit Public Schools teachers, administrators and staff and told them he is the district’s next emergency manager — though he prefers to be known as a transition leader, according to those who attended the meeting.

The session, to discuss the future of the district, was held at Cass Technical High School and attended by hundreds of DPS employees.

The media was not allowed in the school during the session.

Afterward, many DPS staff expressed mixed feelings about Rhodes becoming the district’s fifth state-appointed leader. Though Rhodes said he wanted to be known as a transition leader, under state law he technically would be the emergency manager, those in the meeting reported.

Rhodes acknowledged that he doesn’t have an educational background but wanted to build a transition team that includes educators and create a new school district by fall, meeting attendees said.

“We are very, very concerned and we desperately want and need someone with an education background on that team,” said Terrence Martin, executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “Our students deserve it and it’s been a very long time since we talked about teaching and learning here in DPS. It’s mostly been money and as a result of that, the conditions of our school are deplorable and the education that our students are getting is not what they deserve.”

Rhodes, who oversaw the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy case, did not speak afterward with reporters, nor did he respond to an email seeking comment.

DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey called the future of the district “at a critical crossroads.”

“... Dialogue is an important first step for our school district,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “The judge met with Detroit public school employees, giving us the opportunity to ask about the direction he might take the school district and how it will affect jobs and the education of our students. There was a lot of honesty in the room and tough questions were asked, with educators venting their frustration about budget cuts that have devastated students and schools, and about the broken promises that were made to educators and the community ... We are ready to roll up our sleeves and hit the ground running.”

DPS is set to run out of cash by spring. State lawmakers are debating competing proposals that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the district to restructure and pay off its debt.

Both House and Senate versions would split DPS in two — an old district to service the debt and a new one to educate students. But the Senate bill would return control to an elected school board by November, while the House bill calls for an eight-year transition to local control.

“Everybody is leery,” said Cande Tellez-Uzarek, a social worker at Western International High School. “We have seen it, we’ve heard it all. People have a healthy suspicion given all that’s been done. But people were courteous and polite and respectful.”

Others, however, left the meeting unhappy.

“They are trying to euphemistically paint it as if he is something else, but under the law, he is emergency manager No. 5,” school board member LaMar Lemmons said. “It was like all the meetings with emergency managers. They all start off with good intentions but it’s like the Flint water crisis, the governor is ultimately in charge.”

The meeting came after DFT officials, teachers and school administrators met this week with Gov. Rick Snyder to discuss new leadership as Emergency Manager Darnell Earley leaves Monday.

In a posting on its website, the DFT said Rhodes asked Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, to join the transition team. But she was out of town and not at the meeting, her spokesman Bill Hanson said.