Judge Rhodes meets with Detroit Board of Education, leaves before public comments

May 18, 2016 at 4:26 pm
On Wednesday, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager, Judge Steven Rhodes, met with members of the district's elected — but ultimately powerless — school board. 

The gathering was scheduled after a chaotic district-wide meeting last week, where Rhodes clashed with board members — originally telling them he had no intentions to meet with them. After Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University pushed the former judge to meet with the board, Rhodes backtracked and agreed to Wednesday's meeting. (Watch clips from last week's meeting below) 

EM Rhodes public meeting, May 2016 from Kate Levy on Vimeo.

Hosted like a traditional board meeting, the gathering at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men was run by the board president Herman Davis. Board members had the opportunity to share with Rhodes issues they saw within the district and ask questions about DPS' ever-ballooning debt — one that has blossomed under the state's appointed emergency managers. 

At the meeting, board members asked if Rhodes would sign onto a federal lawsuit that was recently filed on behalf of the powerless board against the state. He said he would "study" it.  

Members also asked the Emergency Manager if he would support a forensic audit of the district — something many teachers and parents have been pushing for in order to understand where funds have gone since the state originally took over the district in 1999. 

To this Rhodes said he was "not opposed" to an audit, but that he would not go on the record supporting it, specifically as the request currently stands. "It would be a Herculean task to do a general forensic audit," he said, saying the district, at the time, doesn't have the money to pay for such an expense. 

While the general mood of the meeting was far more polite or, shall we say, "civil" then last week's meeting, there was once again an awkward tension around the fact the Rhodes seemed to be most open to listening to the opinions of Pedroni, an academic who is not on the board. 

After the professor spoke, at the request of Board President Davis, Rhodes commented on how "articulate" Pedroni was and invited him to come to Lansing to speak with more influential people about problems with the Senate bill's Detroit Education Commission — an appointed board in charge of monitoring openings and closing of schools. 

As one attendee, William Davis, remarked later in the public comments section, "What is this, 1954?" While Davis noted that he personally respects Pedroni and understands that the professor is an ally, he was still trying to rationalize why Rhodes was most open to listening to a white, non-Detroit resident (10 out of the 11 board members are African American). 

Rhodes, however, did not hear Davis's comment. Following Pedroni's speech, the first in the public comments section, he left — walking out in the middle of a statement from Helen Moore, a DPS advocate and mentor, who Pedroni said he wanted to take to Lansing for discussions if he went with Rhodes (minutes before walking out in the middle of Moore's comment, Rhodes told Pedroni that he had planned to ask Moore to come to Lansing as well). 

At this point the generally amicable audience began grumbling with dismay. 

"Change your schedule!" "He's going to lunch!" and "He's so insincere" are just a few of utterances that came from the public.

Comments ranged from calls for a forensic audit, specific problems with a principal at one DPS school, and frustrations with the fact that Rhodes — the one with the power to formally address their concerns — left so early. 

"I am beyond being upset. I cannot express enough," said Yolanda Peoples, a DPS parent who pulled her son out of school today so he could see Rhodes and understand how democracy works in the city. "The police presence here, that would never happen in Detroit. We are coming here to voice our opinions, to give our expectations, and for children to be able to demand some respect."

For the board's part there are mixed feelings with how the meeting went. 

"What has happened is we have forced Judge Rhodes to recognize the board because it seems lately that they act like we don't exist or we don't have a role to play," said Tawanna Simpson, the board member who was originally ignored by Rhodes last week when she asked when he would meet with them. "I am glad that he had a chance to actually meet some of the board members and realize we have some of the same concerns that he has." 

While she was pleased that that board finally had a platform on which to speak, Simpson remained frustrated — like many of the parents — with the EM's early departure. 

"I noticed before the end of the last public comment, there was nobody here from his administration," said Simpson, who had asked Rhodes to leave behind someone from his team to record the public comments. "I was disappointed that he just gave me lip service, because the community is very important and it's who we represent."