Rhodes offers few answers to DPS board, but backs audit

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — The elected Detroit Public Schools board finally had its meeting Wednesday with the district’s interim emergency manager, but they got few of the answers they were seeking.

DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes answers a question during Wednesday’s meeting.

Former bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, did, however say that he would agree to a forensic audit of the public school district’s finances, but questioned whether any money was available to undertake the “herculean task.”

Rhodes, despite repeated calls from the audience to “answer the questions,” took notes on what board members and the audience wanted to know and said his answers would be posted to the district’s website “within a few days.”

That dismayed many in the audience of almost 200 at Frederick Douglass Academy, many of whom yelled “Really?” and “Stay and answer the questions today.”

Rhodes initially rejected a request from the board for the meeting. He then agreed to a private meeting before finally announcing the gathering would be open to the public.

Parent Yolanda Peoples was frustrated and disappointed by Rhodes’ appearance of about an hour.

“I took the day off from work and pulled my son out of school because I wanted Judge Rhodes to see my son,” she said. “He is totally distanced from the people, including the students of Detroit and I thought maybe he would have a change of heart if he actually saw and heard from one of the students.”

She said since she rearranged her schedule, Rhodes should also have committed to spend more than an hour with the board.

“I am insulted, and with the heavy police presence here, I am disheartened by it all,” she said.

Detroit Public Schools officers were stationed throughout the auditorium.

Rhodes was accompanied by interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather and other administration staff. It is his first meeting with the board since his appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 1.

“We are here so we can listen to your questions and ideas, and we want to hear your thoughts on how to have the best school district, and how to transition DPS back to local control — an idea we all share,” he said.

The DPS board has been largely sidelined from decision-making in the state’s largest school district, which has been run by state-appointed emergency managers since March 2009.

Board members asked questions ranging from how to restore the Davis Aerospace Academy to who now is writing policy for the district. He also was invited by board member Tawanna Simpson to attend future board meetings.

“I want to come back and I will come back,” Rhodes promised.

The majority of questions centered around the district’s financial crisis. Specifically, board members wanted to know what happened to the district’s money.

Board member LaMar Lemmons asked if Rhodes would support a forensic audit. Board president Herman Davis clarified later that it would be an audit specifically of contracts over $10,000 from 2009 to the present.

Rhodes hesitated.

“I am not opposed to a forensic audit,” he said. “But you have to be careful about the phraseology of ‘forensic audit.’ I know what they do and it would be a herculean task to do a general forensic audit.

“I won’t oppose it, but I don’t know who would pay for it.”

Davis asked if Rhodes would support an audit if the board would allocate the money for it, Rhodes finally said: “I will support it, but DPS does not have money to pay for a forensic audit of any kind.”

After Rhodes left at 10 a.m., Davis told The Detroit News, when asked how he would come up with the money to pay for the forensic audit, he said the board has been in discussions with some foundations “who will chip in money to make it happen.”

Despite four previous emergency managers, the district continues to grapple with a financial crisis.

DPS is projected to accumulate general obligation debts totaling $515 million by June. The state House and Senate have passed competing plans to pay off the debt, with the more generous Senate plan providing $200 million in startup costs.

Asked how he felt about Rhodes’ presence at the board meeting, Davis said he was satisfied.

“We knew he would only be here an hour and we didn’t want to get into a question and answer session with the audience because they would have taken up all of his time.”

Board member Ida Short said it was not the first time they’ve met with any of the district’s emergency managers. There have been four before Rhodes.

“All of them have come to a meeting at least once,” she said. “And they all say they will get back to us. If we do hear from him again, he will be the first.”

The next DPS school board meeting is scheduled for June 9. Rhodes told the board he would clear his schedule and try to make upcoming board meetings.


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