Retired Bankruptcy Judge Takes Over Struggling Detroit Schools
By Ann Zaniewski
On his first full day leading Detroit Public Schools, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes laid out his vision for launching a financially sound school district that will be able to aggressively compete for students.
His top goals include addressing a severe teacher shortage, restoring local control as soon as August and ensuring that pending education reform legislation gets passed.
"This is not the time for lines in the sand. This is the time for compromise," Rhodes told the Free Press Wednesday. "This is the time to put long-standing grievances and differences aside and not to let them trump the moral and constitutional obligations we have to our children. That's my message. I have confidence that the message will be heard and the legislation will pass."
Rhodes, 67, took the reins as DPS transition manager Tuesday. But he has been working for weeks trying to convince lawmakers to act fast before the 46,000-student district runs out of cash this spring.
"There is no Plan B," he reiterated. "We need this legislation really, within a month. That's our clock. ... This is urgent."
In fact, Rhodes said he had negotiated a clause in his contract that says it will expire June 1 if legislation isn't passed. Otherwise, the contract expires Sept. 30.
"I told the governor that I was not going to be just another emergency manager. This is (about the) transition to local control," he said.
Rhodes, who has the powers of an emergency manager, said he plans to name an interim superintendent next week.
He also said he would like to see a new school board elected in August, sooner than the November time frame outlined in legislation that is pending in the Senate. The package of bills, which would create a new debt-free school district, calls for Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint an interim school board that would hire a new superintendent. Then, voters would elect a school board in the fall.
To ensure that the new district gets the best possible school board, Rhodes said members of the community should reach out to highly qualified candidates and encourage them to run for the office. He said he also supports training for new school board members.
Rhodes appeared confident that the legislation in Lansing would pass even though sticking points remain. A competing package of bills in the House wouldn't fully restore local control to the district for eight years.
Rhodes said he plans to be open and transparent in his work, partly to try to counteract some of the distrust that has built up over years surrounding the management of DPS. The district has been run by state-appointed emergency managers since 2009. It is facing a $515 million operating debt.
He also said he wants to have an open-door policy and is happy to talk with teachers' groups that want to meet with him.
"My processes in dealing with the stakeholders of Detroit Public Schools will be open, it will be accessible, it will be inclusive, it will be responsive. But all with a goal toward transitioning the school system back to local control," he said.
One of his top concerns is the district's worsening teacher shortage.
"I'm very concerned about how to recruit qualified teachers and pay them appropriately, and in sufficient numbers to deal with the enrollment we have and the enrollment we'd like to have," he said.
Asked about whether schools would be closed to deal with declines in enrollment, Rhodes said DPS administrators had already launched a school capacity study before he came on board. But he said before any schools would close, there would be a transparent process in which parents, students and teachers could share their input.
"We also have to understand that in the context of school capacity, that our goal here is to compete with the charters. Our goal here is to win that competition," he said, noting that his ultimate goal is to increase enrollment.
Under his contract, Rhodes will be paid $18,750 a month -- the same amount former emergency manager Darnell Earley earned. The contract says his DPS duties will require about 60% of his professional time, or about 96 hours a month.
"I can already see that it's going to take a lot more time than that," Rhodes said.
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