An Open Letter to Judge Steven Rhodes, Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools

8 May 2016

Judge Rhodes,

Detroit Public Schools is indeed in a fragile state. It's long-term survival depends on the integrity, skill and dedication of its employees, but also on many factors outside their control. It therefore needs a champion at the top of the organization who can forcefully advocate for its benefit to those who do exert control. Unfortunately for all concerned, your actions since you assumed the position of Emergency Manager make me doubtful that you are the right person for that role.

You began your tenure with an address to DPS employees at Cass Technical High School. During that address ...
- You stated that your role did not include advocating to the state legislature about what a financial assistance package should look like - that your role was to take the legislation they pass and make the best of it. A DPS leader who does not try to shape a legislative package that is all about DPS is not doing his job.
- You also stated that you would not concern yourself with charter schools operating in the city. A DPS leader who fails to recognize the long-term damage done to educational opportunity in the city, indeed in any district, by lightly regulated charter schools is operating with blinders on, whether intentional or not.

Allow me to present some further facts about your performance so far:
- You asked for and received $49 million from the state in order to satisfy the financial needs of DPS through the end of June. Somehow, however, you failed to realize that most salaries, although payable after June 30th, were earned prior to that date. Accrued liabilities are Accounting 101. How does an Emergency Manager not know that?
- On almost the very day that DPS employees had completed 5/6 of their working days for the year, you announced that 5/6 of their salaries was all that they would be getting for the year. You subsequently proceeded to label their protest a "strike" when it could reasonably be considered a lockout based on your refusal to pay them for any further work.
- When you subsequently backtracked on pay and promised employees that their paychecks would indeed be issued, you failed to divulge what entities would not be getting paid. If the money's running out June 30th, and employees just got moved to the front of the line, someone or something else is now at the back. Who is that now? "The process of reforming DPS must include full transparency," I remember someone saying.
- To help move the 90% black Detroit school system back to local control, you announced a transition team that included no educators and was composed almost entirely of white suburbanites; this in an environment that has seen fifty years, fifty years!, of conflict between Detroit and its suburbs.
- You hastily published an open letter saying the pay lockout/protest had alienated state legislators, when a more seasoned evaluation would have noted the criticism that the state House's retaliatory bills have received, some of it from within their own party leadership. In fact, your letter does not mention at all the positive response the protest received, especially from parents of DPS schoolchildren.

I was hopeful when you took this job. I thought, here is an accomplished judge taking on a tough assignment. He could be someone who is willing to speak truth to those in power. He would be a "decider", not a functionary executing someone else's plan. It appears I was wrong.

If you're not good at managing money, and you're not willing to tell the legislature what they need to do, and you don't recognize charter schools' potential to wreck any plan to save DPS, why did you take this job?


William F. Lucas
Cass Technical High School

posted 11:17:45 on 05/08/16 by blucas - General - comments

Detroit's Future, Fractured

So, Detroit is bankrupt.

It's somebody's fault. It's lots of people's faults. It has 100,000 creditors. Some are more important than others and need to be made more whole.

Regardless of who's at fault or who comes away less scalped, Detroit needs to be left in a functional, sustainable state at the end of the process. It can't be left in a condition that forces it into another insolvency some years ahead.

How do we envision a post-bankruptcy Detroit? What solution would enable it to have enough revenue to provide public safety, trash removal, elections, road maintenance, lighting, and administrative services?

The answer is that there is probably no set of conditions that can be reasonably expected to provide that outcome. There is no way that the remaining residents and businesses can provide enough tax revenue to run a city as large and with as much aging infrastructure as Detroit. But that isn't a plan. We still need one.

When corporations go bankrupt and are restructured, separate viable operations are often split off and sold to the highest bidder. A theory is that under more focused management, these parts can thrive where they were previously overlooked and disregarded. The similar model may be applicable to a city that's too large to support itself. This is not to say that parts of Detroit should be sold to other communities. Rather, those parts of the city which can be considered cohesive sets of neighborhoods and business areas with similar needs could be better off as cities in and of themselves, no longer as parts of Detroit.

That Detroit concentrated its development on certain areas like downtown and midtown while ignoring vast residential tracts is not disputed, not for the last 30 or more years. If given a chance to govern themselves and control their own tax revenues, those outlying areas stand a better chance of focusing maintenance and development on their most pressing needs and most promising opportunities.

How many separate cities might Detroit be broken into, and where might the borders be drawn? One of the defining historical trends for Detroit has been the coursing of freeways through it. These freeways have been described as decimating formerly contiguous neighborhoods and hastening their fall. They now might be used to our advantage, however, as new city borders.

Let's pick as our first candidate for new-city status the East Side close to the Detroit River. Just using I-94 and I-75/I-375, plus maybe Riopelle to the water, we can define a mostly residential area of maybe 25 square miles that includes a high-utilization manufacturing corridor along Conner, the edgy-but-growing Eastern Market district at its west end, and an underutilized riverfront. (Let's leave Belle Isle out of the equation for now.) Advantages are a decent tax base, a long border with the high-population-density Pointes and the development potential of the riverfront. Disadvantages are the wide dispersion of decrepit, "gap-toothed" housing blocks in its midst and, if that weren't enough, the deteriorating hulk of the Packard Plant.

A second new-city candidate has to be Southwest Detroit. Using I-94 on the north, the Lodge on the east and the existing city border on the west, we can define a area of about 15-18 square miles that includes Mexicantown, the Motor City Casino, the Ambassador Bridge (and any city revenues derived from it), part of the Marathon refinery, an (again) underutilized riverfront, and the redevelopment potential of the well-known Tiger Stadium and Michigan Central Rail Terminal sites. Advantages are a decent tax base and the experience and success of the Mexican-American community in keeping an at-risk area alive. Disadvantages are (again) wide dispersion of dead residential areas, the Michigan Central Rail Terminal (it plays both on sides), and the greed and power of Matty Moroun and the Detroit International Bridge Co., which might try to take controlling ownership of the newly downsized new-city in which it operates.

An obvious pick for another new-city is the central business district (CBD) and the Woodward corridor up to Highland Park. East and west borders would be I-75 and the Lodge, respectively. This area of 5 or so square miles has already received the most attention for the past few decades and thus has many advantages: a downtown, a large university and cultural center, banks, sports venues, casinos, and entertainment districts. Disadvantages are few, but would include a relatively low residential population whose needs might be subject to dominance from business interests.

The next obvious area is everything on the west side that isn't Southwest Detroit. The whole area is bisected by the Lodge, Jeffries, and Southfield freeways. If we stuck with the freeways-as-borders paradigm here it would result in five new-cities. That's probably too many. One solution might be splitting it approximately in half along the Jeffries freeway and Davison Avenue. This would leave two of Detroit's richest neighborhoods, Palmer Park and Rosedale Park, in the northern half. Alternatively, we could split the area three ways using the Jeffries and and Lodge as dividers, but this somewhat elongates the middle new-city. However, if we took the easternmost part of that, the 5-6 square mile area bordered by the Lodge, I-94, I-96, and Davison Avenue, and "gave" it to the the CBD, that would bring the sizes of the three more in line with each other, at about 13 to 25 square miles, and give the CBD some of the population and size it was lacking. And it wouldn't hurt the CBD to be responsible for an area that is hurting economically (and which was at the core of the 1967 riots). The advantages, and disadvantages, of the Northwest side new-cities are their high concentration of single family homes sites. It's a positive when those homes are standing and lived in, negative when they're empty, deterioriating, or gone.

Now to the Northeast side. Bounded by 8 Mile, I-75, Hamtramck, I-94, and Harper Woods, this area does not have much going for it. The percentage of abandoned, dilapidated, or demolished properties here is highest in Detroit. With some imagination, however, its desolation could be to its advantage. The Davison freeway could be extended through gap-toothed neighborhoods to join up with the southern ends of Mound and Groesbeck and create a new shortcut to the manufacturing centers of the northeast suburbs. The new corridor could be a source of genuinely new investment. Similarly, the too-small City Airport could expand, not along the existing runway line, which is hemmed in by cemeteries at both ends, but just west of that line. The neighborhood through which it would hypothetically run is one of the most sparsely populated in the city and has zero chance of making a comeback on its own. And if northern suburbs (read "Warren") have a problem with cargo jets flying over them, tough. They have done nothing for Detroit in decades except raise generations of white racists to badmouth Detroit.

Last but not least is Belle isle. If this park were to go to any one new-city, the others would complain. It should probably be offered to the state at a price of $2bn cash, and maybe settle for $1bn. Alternatively, it should stay in the shared possession of all the new-cities, with a per person charge to enter it, but free to (ex-)Detroit senior citizens. Long-term, it may make financial sense to turn the eastern half of it into an area of luxury homes and condos. No one goes canoeing through those woods anymore anyway.

These new-cities would not automatically have more taxing power and revenue than a one-piece Detroit. However, we're looking at an outcome that HAS to occur: land and homes will still be there, people will still be living in them, and services will have to be provided to them. We need the best option for all areas within the current city borders to bring about stability and growth.

Separate new cities covering the former Detroit land mass probably have the best chance of reducing the risk that we'll all be dealing with another financial failure in Detroit in 20 years.

posted 23:02:57 on 07/27/13 by blucas - General - comments

I'm Going to Change Michigan's Constitution

[03/23/2013 edit: Keep reading if you like, but the "official" web site for the project is now here:]

I hope to place on the ballot in 2014 a proposal to amend Michigan's constitution. It will be a proposal to expand the power of referendum.

If you remember from Government class, referendum is where a new law is allowed to go before the voters for their approval before it becomes effective.

In Michigan, the power of referendum is reserved only for laws which do not contain appropriations (spending). The specific passage in the state constitution says:

"The power of referendum does not extend to acts making appropriations for state institutions or to meet deficiencies in state funds and must be invoked in the manner prescribed by law within 90 days following the final adjournment of the legislative session at which the law was enacted."

My proposal will be to remove all the words from "... does not extend ..." to "... state funds and ...", leaving in that sentence just the text that states how soon it must be invoked.

The final proposal could consist of just that change. However, in my research of other states' referendum rights, I was impressed by a provision in Oklahoma's constitution concerning what in a law might be challenged. They allow parts of a law to be challenged, leaving the rest of the law to become effective as scheduled. Therefore, another option is (in addition to removing the text mentioned above) adding this type of statement:

"The power of referendum may be invoked by the people against one or more parts or sections of any law in the same manner in which such power may be invoked against a whole law."

Not wanting to cause the people of the state to become victims of the law of unintended consequences, I was thinking about what damage might be caused to state finances if a minority of citizens petitioned for referendum against law which contained the state budget. Without the immunity from referendum enjoyed by laws with appropriations, only eight percent of voters could freeze spending. This is not unfathomable in an environment where deficit hawks have no qualms about shutting down government to make their case. Accordingly, a third option for the proposal is to include language which protects and authorizes appropriations even if the law containing them is challenged. This leads to the third option (to be added to the others above):

"If a law as to which the power of referendum has been invoked contains appropriations for state institutions or to meet deficiencies in state funds, such appropriations shall become become usable as specified in the law and without regard to the referendum."

To facilitate my campaign I've registered a ballot question committee ("Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum"), reserved a domain name, created a committee bank account, and engaged the state Bureau of Elections on ballot petition language. Yet to come are a web site (which I'll develop), a P.O. Box, approval of petition forms by the state Board of Canvassers, and printing enough forms to collect the required 323,000 valid signatures to place it on the ballot.

I hope to receive your support on this effort over the next few months. The web site, P.O. Box, and forms are going to cost about $600-700 combined. You can help by donating to the campaign through Paypal. You can use the button below to get directly to my committee "storefront" on Paypal:

Thank you for taking the time to read about this effort.

posted 14:20:33 on 01/09/13 by blucas - General - comments

Poisoning the Well

I have read many times recently that Democrat's use of the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform will "poison the well' for any future cooperation with Republicans in getting legislation passed. I fail to see how this is much of a threat. Republicans have shown so little appetite for compromise on any legislative efforts, their opposition is assumed. Threatening to withhold future cooperation only means they're going to continue the status quo. Democrats need to call their bluff and finish the legislation.

There was a time a few months ago when there was an opportunity for a grand bargain along the lines of the "group of 14" that broke a logjam on federal court nominations. That group consisted of seven Democrats and seven Rebublicans who broke party lines and agreed to end Democratic filibusters of certain Bush nominees in return for Rebublicans ending their consideration of doing away with the filibuster rule (funny how filibuster fortunes have turned).

When the health care reform bills were languishing a while back, Rebublicans were at the peak of their bargaining power. What a few Republican senators should have proposed at the time was an agreement to prevent filibusters of certain other Obama administration priorities in return for Democrats' agreement not to use the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform. It would never have passed, but the administration could have been confident that other legislation would get through.

Now it's too late. Obama's very public second effort to save health care reform means they will not step back from this priority. Republican opposition to every bill will continue. The importance of the senators from Maine will rise again, and recruiting of Sen. Brown of Massachusetts on individual bills will be hot and heavy. The Democratic senators from Montana and Arkansas will bring home new highways and farm subsidies, and Sen. Schumer will get lots of practice on keeping the others in line. Little else will get passed. All that's left is the competing spin about who's to blame.

posted 20:00:00 on 03/15/10 by blucas - General - comments

Supreme Court Inherits the Wind Passed by William Jennings Bryan

The Supreme Court's recent majority decision to grant a stay prohibiting the closed circuit broadcast of the proceedings of the Proposition 8 (gay marriage ban) trial in California was presented as being simply based upon the trial court's failure to follow its own guidelines for amending court rules. You have to read the dissent, however, to realize how political the majority had to have been to take the action they did. The dissent states that by six criteria the Supreme Court should have refused the stay.

Rather than address the merits of the case, I'll just say that the dissent appears to be more grounded in law and precedent. So why would the majority have ruled to keep the trial off the airwaves?

The Proposition 8 trial is a constitutional challenge against a California law passed by referendum which prohibits same-sex marriage. Its defenders are primarily Christian conservatives claiming to be protecting the historical definition and "sanctity of marriage". The challengers are led by gay rights activists bringing an equal protection argument against a law they believe is based on social bias.

Similarly, in 1925 the Scopes trial amounted to a constitutional challenge against a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in school. Assisting in the prosecution of a teacher charged under the law, and by extension defending the law, was Williams Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee. The trial was highly publicized and was broadcast throughout the country. Bryan actually became a witness and set himself up (or was set up) as defender of the view that the Bible fully described man's creation. Although his testimony was legally meaningless and the judge terminated his cross-examination after only a couple of hours, the trial is partly remembered for the bombast of his testimony. Thirty years later the play "Inherit the Wind" was written based on the events of the Scopes trial.

The Supreme Court majority's decision to disallow broadcast of the Prop 8 trial should be seen as their cover of protection to anti-gay-marriage witnesses from any embarrassment they might suffer at the airing of their views at trial.

posted 23:00:00 on 02/13/10 by blucas - General - comments

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