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

Submitted by Bill Lucas on Sun, 05/08/2016 - 15:17

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