Senate GOP leader blasts Rhodes over teacher contract

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein

Lansing — Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof says he has “lost confidence” in Detroit schools emergency manager Steven Rhodes, criticizing a new teacher contract expected to cost the district $8.3 million.

The rebuke is the latest sign of a budding buyer’s remorse from state legislative Republicans who helped approve a $617 million bailout for the cash-strapped school district.

Meekhof, R-West Olive, and House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, had urged a state review board composed of several appointees of Gov. Rick Snyder to reject the contract, which was instead unanimously approved last week.

“I’m very disappointed, and I’ve lost confidence that the judge is going to be able to protect the taxpayers in this process going forward,” Meekhof told reporters on Wednesday. “If he had $10 million, why didn’t he fix some more buildings?”

The rescue package Snyder supported and signed in June included $467 million to help pay off district debt and $150 million in startup funding to create the new debt-free community schools district.

In a statement, Rhodes said he insisted on “conservative budget estimates” showing the district can afford “the modest pay increase.” The Detroit Financial Review Commission, which includes a member appointed by Meekhof, gave final approval.

Competitive salaries are necessary to attract and retain high-quality teachers, Rhodes said. Detroit teachers had not received a raise since 2009 and took a 10 percent pay cut in 2013.

“Now that DPSCD is fiscally stable and on a path to our goal of excellence in academics, I concluded that the simple notion of fairness required us to do what we could for our teachers,” he explained.

The new collective bargaining agreement includes $4.4 million in one-time bonuses for teachers who are not at the top of the pay scale, $3.6 million in raises and $250,000 to be divided among teachers with excessive class sizes.

Meekhof said Wednesday that legislators did not intend to finance teacher bonuses when they agreed to the Detroit schools rescue package, a process complicated by questions over actual district finances. “We obviously have a system here that hasn’t performed well for a number of years,” Meekhof said. “If there was another $10 million, maybe we would have appropriated $10 million less in our package.”

Rhodes’ office provided updated revenue projections to the review board prior to the vote. Negotiations continue over $14.8 million in rent owed by the Education Achievement Authority.

Treasurer Nick Khouri signed off on the teacher contract before the vote, saying it would not “endanger the financial situation” of the district. Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Thursday the administration is confident the deal was allowed.

“We looked at it, and Judge Rhodes has the authority to be able to enter into that contract,” Adler said. “He can’t bind the new board to anything, so when a new school board comes in, if they wish to negotiate with teachers, they can do so.”

Rhodes, appointed by Snyder in February, is expected to run the district until the new school board takes office in January. He signed a contract extension this week, according to the Michigan Treasury Department.

In a letter to the review commission, Meekhof argued Rhodes was exploiting a “loophole” by agreeing to a contract that could effectively run through June 2017.

Cotter said Thursday he shares Meekhof’s concerns and remains frustrated by the administration’s reliance on a third-party memo suggesting the state cannot close struggling Detroit schools for at least three years.

“We’re having a lot of conversations as members about (how) this isn’t what we feel we put together when we really walked out on that limb to pass the package,” he said. “There are certainly increasing concerns ... about what the next couple of months look like” in Detroit schools.

The rescue package transferred Detroit schools to a new debt-free district, effectively restarting a mandatory three-year process to close the state’s worst-performing schools, according to a Miller Canfield analysis provided to Rhodes.

Meekhof and Cotter have asked Attorney General Bill Schuette for a formal opinion on the matter, arguing the Miller Canfield memo “attempts to rewrite” the school reforms.

Schuette said Thursday he expects to deliver the opinion soon.

“I’m glad they sent me that letter,” Schuette told reporters. “We’re reviewing it right now and pronto mundo we’ll have a decision out. ... We need to make sure that parents and teachers can go to the school they want, and they ought to have choices as much as they can.”