Rhodes, DPS board members to meet in private next week

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

A long-awaited meeting between Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes and members of the school board is set for May 18. But the public is not invited.

“Per Judge Rhodes, the meeting will be private so that they may have an open and frank discussion,” DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski wrote in an email to The Detroit News.

Zdrodowski said the session can be closed under the state’s Open Meetings Act because no decisions will be made.

“This is an information sharing meeting only, and Judge Rhodes is not asking the Board to take any action and therefore the public meetings act does not apply,” she said.

Detroit Schools to defer employee contract talks

The state’s Open Meetings Act states that “all deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meeting open to the public” except for specified exceptions. They include discussing discipline of employees or students, considering real estate transactions, conferring with an attorney about litigation, discussing material privileged under state and federal law, and considering employment applications under certain circumstances.

Board president Herman Davis said he was disappointed the session, to be at 9 a.m. in Rhodes’ 14th floor office in the Fisher Building, will not be open. The board has been largely sidelined from decision-making since the state took control of DPS in 2009.

“I found out it was not an open meeting when several people called (Rhodes’) secretary asking if it was open and they were told no,” he said.

Davis said no more than five of 11 members would meet Rhodes at once. Under a school board policy from 2008, six members are needed to reach a quorum and conduct official business.

Two other school board members told The News they object to the meeting being closed.

“Detroit school board members, unlike the parties who make decisions about expenditures, openings and closings of schools, letting of millions of dollars of contracts, are subject to the Open Meetings Act,” Elena Herrada said. “We will not meet with the emergency manager in a closed meeting.”

“All board meetings, whether informational or not, must be held in public,” Ida Short said.

She added: “I don’t think the majority of board members are willing to meet behind closed doors.”

Rhodes had previously refused to meet with the board but expressed a willingness to do so during Tuesday’s public hearing.

In his report to the state treasurer, Rhodes wrote: “The success of the future of public education in Detroit depends on the full involvement of all interested parties — parents, educators, DPS unions and Detroit residents and businesses. From the beginning, I have sought to solicit that full involvement. I seek processes that are open, accessible, responsive, responsible and honest.”

Tom Pedroni, an associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University, said a closed-door meeting “would likely violate the Open Meetings Act and certainly flies in the face of Rhodes’ belated commitment to respect the democratic will of the Detroit electorate and ‘open the books’ for public inspection.”

Also Thursday, Rhodes said he would defer talks with seven of the district’s eight unions whose contracts expire June 30 — the day he has warned DPS will run out of money unless lawmakers agree on a rescue package. The state Senate has approved $715 million in aid, but the House has allocated just $500 million.

Rhodes said it makes sense to wait until the parties “have a real understanding of the resources that will be available to make the kind of commitments required in the bargaining process.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers interim President Ivy Bailey called that “a disappointment.”

“While we realize legislative action is necessary for Detroit Public Schools to be financially viable, there are many other issues impacting the education of our students that we should be discussing,” she said in an email.