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Rhodes faces skepticism, defiance as he takes DPS reins

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Retired bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ appointment Monday as transition manager of Detroit Public Schools’ was greeted with a mix of hope, skepticism and defiance by stakeholders in the state’s largest school district.

Gov. Rick Snyder officially announced Rhodes, who presided over the city of Detroit’s trip through bankruptcy, as the new leader of DPS, which is in danger of running out of money in April.

Although some argue it’s a matter of semantics, Rhodes is not an emergency manager but will handle most, if not all, of the duties previously assigned to Darnell Earley, the emergency manager whose resignation took effect Monday.

Rhodes’ tenure is expected to run through July 1. By that date, the Snyder administration hopes to have won approval from state lawmakers for a $715 million plan to rescue and restructure DPS.

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, said Rhodes will be paid a pro-rated amount of the same $225,000 annual salary paid to Earley.

Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, expressed cautious optimism that Rhodes can improve conditions in DPS, which is struggling with millions of dollars in debt, low test scores and poor conditions in many of its school buildings.

“Rhodes has signaled support for local control and a willingness to listen to and work with educators, parents and the community,” she said. “This is in contrast to the approach of past school leaders, which included filing lawsuits against educators, banning health inspectors from hazardous public school buildings, and racking up a school debt of a half-billion dollars with no accountability.”

Teachers cited health and safety problems in some DPS schools, including water damage, rodent infestations and a lack of heating, for triggering a series of sickouts that closed dozens of schools between November and January.

Bailey said the DFT hopes to work with Rhodes but issued a warning.

“We will not stop fighting until school conditions improve, Lansing pays off the debt incurred under the state’s appointed emergency managers, classrooms are adequately resourced and our students get the high-quality education they deserve,” she said.

Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan and a critic of emergency management, questioned how much change Rhodes will be able to bring to DPS in four months, especially in light of the uncertainty over the district’s future.

“Based upon what has happened in the past, perhaps not much, at least from an educational point of view, is likely to be accomplished during this period,” Bates said. “Everyone seems to be in agreement that something has to be done for the children and parents of the Detroit Public Schools. What and how seem to be the central questions.”

Bates said the district needs to be returned from state to local control. A Senate version of Snyder’s plan would restore power to an elected school board by November, but a bill being considered in the House would phase-in local control over eight years.

“The format that has been previously used did not bring about the desired results,” Bates said. “Continuing in this direction and expecting different results does not seem reasonable.”

Rep. Amanda Price, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, praised the appointment in a statement Monday.

“Judge Rhodes is certainly familiar with the financial obstacles facing Detroit Public Schools and has acquainted himself with the academic challenges as well,” said Price, R-Park Township. “I have had conversations with him about the need for academic improvements in addition to long term financial stability.”

Others with ties to the district condemned Rhodes’ appointment as more of the same in a district that has been under state control for seven years.

Steve Conn, the former DFT president who has advocated sickouts as a way to force change in DPS, had a blunt response when asked what Rhodes could accomplish by July.

“To resign,” Conn said. “That’s the only legitimate thing he can do. If not, we guarantee a city-wide rebellion.”

He continued, “Rhodes is completely illegitimate. He is nothing more than an agent of Snyder, clearly sent to dismantle public education in Detroit. If he doesn’t leave now, we promise him rebellion and we will continue to build for a strike.”

Lakia Wilson is a counselor at Spain Elementary-Middle School, which received international exposure last month for problems that included mold, broken glass and a water-damaged gym.

She does not think the district will flourish under a transition manager.

“Any appointment made by Gov. Snyder is simply an extension of the emergency manager,” Wilson said. “At this point, Lansing has failed DPS.”

Wilson said she’s weary of what she described as “outsiders” coming into the district to take over.

“They’re always seeking a leader who has not walked in the trenches with us,” she said. “We have many qualified leaders within the district.”

Herman Davis, president of the Detroit Public Schools board, said the appointment of Rhodes is just another name for an emergency manager.

“I’ve lost respect for him because he has put himself into a position that is not democratic, and allowed himself, in his retirement, to destroy his credibility,” said Davis. “No longer can this community look up to him as a decent person.”

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