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The task was daunting and unpopular. Save the cash-strapped, heavily indebted Detroit school district as he helped oversee the city of Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy.

Gov. Rick Snyder presented the challenge to retired federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who handled the city’s case that saw Detroit emerge from federal protection at the end of 2014. Rhodes accepted the invitation, came out of retirement and became the school district’s fifth emergency manager — with the official title “transition manager” — on March 1 for a salary of $18,750 a month.

Nearly 10 months later, a Detroit district plagued by about $515 million in operating debt has been replaced with a new, debt-free Detroit district, courtesy of a $617 million bailout for which Rhodes lobbied the Republican-led Legislature. But the legacy of Rhodes, who is set to depart Saturday, remains a controversy.

Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr., co-chair of the Coalition for Future of Detroit Schoolchildren that pushed for the state bailout and other educational reforms that weren’t adopted, gives the transition manager an “A.”

“He was the perfect guy for the transition because he had the perfect temperament,” Rakolta said. “He was dedicated to the cause. It was a tough, tough job with serious structural issues that needed to be resolved, and there was no easy solution.”

But fourth-grade teacher Tracy Brown, a critic, gives the retired judge a grade of D.

“I don’t think things are better, and in many ways, they are worse,” said Brown, who teaches at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School. “Especially the conditions of our building.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers interim president Ivy Bailey was brief in her assessment.

“There is still much work to be done,” Bailey said.

A changing district

Rhodes leaves all that behind as he departs the position Saturday. But he won’t be idle.

“He will retire again and join an arbitration and mediation firm in Detroit in the spring,” said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

Rhodes is joining Gerald Rosen, chief judge of Detroit’s U.S District Court, to create a new Detroit office of the national firm Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, according to the district.

A newly elected, seven-member school board will be sworn in Jan. 11, but the district of more than 45,000 students remains under the oversight of the state-appointed Financial Review Commission.

The judge leaves the district with a new name — the Detroit Public Schools Community District — and interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather. One of the board’s main tasks will be to select a superintendent.

Among the accomplishments Rhodes listed in an email statement to The Detroit News were refocusing the district on academic performance, negotiating “fair” contracts with the district’s unions, creating “stability in its operations” and “maintaining a balanced budget for the first time in years.”

To Snyder, the emergency manager he appointed leaves a legacy of accomplishment.

“Judge Rhodes was appointed to help transform Detroit Public Schools from a district with financial struggles and academic underperformance to a district where every student has a real opportunity to learn,” he said.

“During his time with DPS, he was accountable, accessible and worked with Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to address the concerns of parents and students as they set the framework for a brand-new school district without legacy debt.”

When Rhodes started the job, the Detroit Public Schools was spending about $1,100 per student on its debt service annually. The debt had accumulated before and during oversight of the district by state-appointed emergency managers since 2009.

More than three weeks into the job, Rhodes learned of a federal investigation that uncovered a 13-year, $2.7 million kickback and bribery scheme by a school vendor and more than a dozen principals. But the corruption did not start on Rhodes’ watch.

‘Not ... much interaction’

In the schools and community, critics said Rhodes failed to make a significant difference. Brown, a teacher, said custodians don’t even have basic supplies like brooms, and students do not have soap in the restrooms.

Spokeswoman Wilson disputes the claims. “I contacted our facilities group and they said there are no findings of the teacher’s allegations,” she said.

Spain Elementary-Middle School union representative Lakia Wilson said the emergency manager was “average.”

She described Rhodes as a “low-key person who did not have much interaction with teachers or the rest of the community.”

“Even though he was open to listening to union leadership, he still had a responsibility to interact with his constituency, and I think he fell down there,” she said. “The community didn’t really know him.”

Rhodes tried to make amends with the teachers union, negotiating a new contract with pay raises that is expected to cost the district about $8.3 million.

“Teachers would like to be fully restored to the way it was previous to the emergency managers,” Wilson said. “However, I think we are in a good position upon his departure to make reparations whole.”

Strain with lawmakers

The new contract angered Republican legislative leaders, who were lobbied to include an extra $150 million in “start-up funding” in the bailout package to help improve Detroit school buildings and make other fixes.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said in September he had “lost confidence” in Rhodes after he and House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, had urged a state review board composed of several Snyder appointees to reject the contract, which was instead unanimously approved.

“If he had $10 million, why didn’t he fix some more buildings?” Meekhof asked.

At the time, Rhodes said he insisted on “conservative budget estimates” showing the district could afford “the modest pay increase.”

In an email received Thursday, the emergency manager said relations with state lawmakers remain the Detroit district’s biggest challenge.

“My greatest challenge as transition manager has been to find a way to open the lines of communication between the district and Lansing, and to begin to tell our story about the educational challenges we face and steps we are taking and will take to overcome them,” Rhodes said. “I believe that the new board and the staff understands this challenge and will continue to address it with the necessary urgency.”

State Rep. Fred Durhal III of Detroit is one of the Democrats who voted against the rescue package, which narrowly passed 55-53 in the House and 19-18 in the Senate. Many Democrats opposed the legislation because it didn’t include a proposed Detroit Education Commission that would have regulated the location of traditional and charter schools in the city — a proposal Rhodes backed.

Durhal said the judge did the best job he could do.

“Being thrust into the position of emergency manager is a difficult position for anyone,” he said. “There were times he provided open dialogue where we could speak with him regarding issues we were facing with funding issues for the district.”

Attorney Isaac Robinson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Future Political Action Committee and a 1993 graduate of Renaissance High School, said he doesn’t think Rhodes had enough time to “demonstrate his administrative skills.”

“But he was charged with overseeing the district’s finances and operations and should have pushed for a forensic audit to help us better understand the state’s 16 years of mismanagement,” he said. “... As another Snyder appointee during the ongoing Flint crisis, the community never trusted him.”

A representative of the pro-charter school Great Lakes Education Project said the transition manager could have closed buildings to help the district’s financial situation but overall did a good job.

“Judge Rhodes was very professional in handling his position with DPS,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “He was candid, responsive and even-tempered, and he will be missed.”

slewis@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2296

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