Stir it up: At DPS, an emergency manager by another name 

If the law says that Detroit Public Schools transition manager Steven Rhodes has to give a report and hold a public meeting within 45 days of his appointment, then he's going to do it. He's a retired federal bankruptcy judge and adheres to the letter of the law.

When Rhodes held the public hearing last week to roll out his plan for the district, along with his appointed school superintendent Alycia Meriweather, an audiuence member asked him what moral authority he was working from as emergency manager. Rhodes replied that his moral authority comes from the emergency manager law.

Apparently Rhodes has confused his moral authority with his legal authority. Or maybe he thinks that if it's legal, then it's moral. The Michigan emergency manager law was rejected by state voters, but Gov. Sneaky Rick Snyder used trickery to establish it under a budgetary procedure to get it passed without public input. Apparently the democratic process was too slow and inconvenient. The bottom line is that there is little in the way of moral authority coming from that direction.

Or maybe Rhodes is just playing word games with us. Like when he calls himself a transition manager in order to highlight his stated purpose of returning DPS to the people of Detroit. What's actually happening is that DPS is being phased out and replaced with a new school district.

Also, the title of transition manager that Rhodes claims is a misdirecting bit of rhetoric. The title of transition manager doesn't exist. His authority stems from the emergency manager law, and there is no provision for a transition manager in the law. He is indeed an emergency manager, no matter how distasteful the title may seem to him.

Another game that Rhodes is playing here is the I'm-not-qualified-to-run-a-school-district-so-I'm-going-to-give-you-my-plan-and-get-out game. It's another bit of rhetoric used to charm and disarm. But when an audience member asked Rhodes, seeing that he is admittedly unqualified, how he knows the plan is a good one, the emergency manager had not a word in response and called for the next question.

Someone else pointed out that Rhodes is paid $18,000 per month to work part time at a job that he is admittedly not qualified to do.

Time and again during the public comment section of the meeting, and at points earlier during Rhodes' talk, people called for a forensic audit of DPS books going back to 1999, when Gov. John Engler took over the system with his hand-picked school board — a few billion dollars back in the budget world. Rhodes replied that DPS audits its books every year. But that's not a forensic audit. A forensic audit seeks possible evidence of wrongdoing that can be used in a court of law.

Rhodes' answer was to say if anyone has evidence of wrongdoing, they should turn it over to his office and he will pursue it. It was an if-you-can-prove-it-I'll-do-something-about-it moment. That's kind of like what happened in Flint with the poisoned water. Authorities wouldn't even admit there was a problem until it was independently proven and widely publicized.

Rhodes is taking the similar to Snyder route with his relentless optimism, and an attitude that this is not the time to point fingers. It seems to me that there is plenty of finger pointing when the state is ready to take over a city or a school district. But when things go awry in the process, suddenly finger pointing is a bad thing.

When WSU professor Thomas Pedroni spoke at the meeting, he brought up the example of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who served as chief academic and accountability officer for DPS from May 2009 to June 2011 under emergency manager Robert Bobb. She pleaded guilty last year to defrauding schools in Chicago — where she worked after leaving Detroit — for steering a $23 million book contract to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and receiving a $2.3 million kickback. Federal investigators are now looking at a $40 million deal she made with the same book company for DPS.

She was in charge of accountability? That would have me taking a closer look at what went down during Bobb's tenure. FBI agent Joseph Jensen wrote that there was "probable cause" to believe that Byrd-Bennett committed fraud, theft, and conspiracy in Detroit. Maybe Rhodes is waiting for the feds to prove it before he does anything. Maybe he will have transitioned out of the emergency manager position before that happens.

And by the way, there was widespread unhappiness among teachers about low quality of information in the books DPS bought for $40 million.

Pedroni was seemingly the only audience member who said something that seemed to move Rhodes. A number of people pointed out that Rhodes had refused to meet with the elected school board, which has been disenfranchised. Pedroni said many school board members were elected by the same voters who voted Mayor Mike Duggan into office in the same election, saying: "They represent the elected will of Detroiters."

Then Rhodes said, "You make a very persuasive argument," and announced that he was willing to meet with the school board under the condition that it be a civil meeting. Although it was not exactly clear what "civil" meant in this context. Did it mean nobody could tell him something he didn't want to hear?

The meeting is planned with no more than five school board members at once so that it can bypass the state's Open Meetings Act by not having a full quorum of the school board. By law, it takes six of the 11 school board members to constitute a quorum. DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski says the meeting doesn't have to be open because no decisions will be made.

That seemed to be the single point that Rhodes gave any ground on.

There was another important point made that Rhodes didn't respond to. Brenda Watson, the mother of a DPS student, asked why no one is talking about a state Department of Human Services recommendation that many DPS buildings be closed because of lead and asbestos contamination.

"You can see when lead levels go up the incarceration rate goes up," she told me later.

I don't know if Watson's claim is true. I couldn't find any public record of that. I wouldn't be suprised given the deplorable condition of DPS buildings. One teacher from Spain K-8 showed me pictures of floorboards warped from water leaks, mold on walls, broken pipes, and more. Students had to wear coats in classrooms in order to keep warm. Numerous complaints by teachers to state agencies were ignored. Sounds a little like the attitude toward Flint citizens to me.

Rhodes, who oversaw the Detroit bankruptcy, is complicit with Snyder in administering the immoral emergency manager law. If he didn't want to be an emergency manager, then he shouldn't have accepted the job. If he really wants to be seen as a transition manager, then he has to do a better job of engaging with the community. Meeting with the full school board would be a good start.

And stop playing word games. My experience is the fancier the rhetoric you get from authority figures, the less substance there is to what they are saying.

More by Larry Gabriel

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