Judge Rhodes admits error with transition team selection, plans correction
Last week, DPS Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes generated some unwanted headlines when he released a list of candidates he had selected to serve on his hand-selected transition team. The transition team will be saddled with the sweat-inducing responsibility of bridging the (unbelievably huge) gap that yawns between where DPS is right now and where he hopes it will be in the fall, which remains the goal for when DPS will once again have a publicly elected school board. The problem with what Judge Rhodes now says was only a partial list is that all the listed candidates except for one were white, and hardly any of them actually lived in Detroit.
So yes. That was a problem. Not the only problem, to be sure, but certainly a problem.
To his credit, once the rather glaring omission was brought to Judge Rhodes’ attention, he wasted little time reaching out to various and assorted community leaders and shapers of opinion to acknowledge the mistake and to say that he immediately planned to take steps to rectify what he himself acknowledged was a rather large and embarrassing oversight in the context of a city that is more than 80 percent African American, and a school system that hovers closer to the 100 percent mark. What remains troubling however, regardless of how good his intentions may have been, is an automatic thought process on the part of the Judge that didn’t consider the ramifications or the optics of choosing a ‘transition’ team that looked nothing like the community it was supposed to be helping transition.
But that’s done. So we move on.
On Friday morning, I was one of several local media folks who responded to Rhodes’ call to have a roundtable discussion at his office on the 14th floor of the Fisher Building to talk about his intentions and to clarify his vision for DPS, to whatever degree he can affect real change in the brief time he plans to remain in the driver’s seat. Because as he himself said, once a new school board is elected, he is gone. And, as someone who has been pulled out of retirement twice to perform overly exhaustive heavy lifting, this third retirement will likely stick. Perhaps the most encouraging thing Judge Rhodes said during the course of the discussion (to me, not necessarily shared by others in the room) was that he fully supports democracy and local elections, and trusts the judgment of the people of Detroit to select their own leaders.
“What is the alternative? To keep me in office forever?” he said. “You don’t want that, and frankly I don’t either. I’m retired, remember? I’ve already retired twice. I believe in the willingness and the ability of the citizens of the City of Detroit to elect the best possible school board they can. That’s why I’m here. I believe in democracy. If you don’t believe in democracy, your alternative is one emergency manager after another. I am not just another emergency manager to babysit this school system for another 18 months. The governor asked me to do this on the premise that the legislation will pass, and that a school board will be elected in the fall. And when they’re elected, I’m done.”
Which, I would simply add, is why Detroiters should be allowed to elect their own school board that is not burdened with the additional bureaucratic layer of a Detroit Education Commission with the power to oversee the board and veto their decisions. Nor should the superintendent be appointed by anyone except the school board. If you’re going to give it back, just give it back.
The following are responses given by Judge Rhodes to questions presented by those present as well as his own unprompted speculations
On What Went Wrong with the Transition Team
I made a mistake, and I’m in the process of fixing it and correcting it. When I prepared my 45-day report, my financial and operating plan, I didn’t pay as much attention to that section of the report that dealt with the transition team as I should have. I should have said that was an incomplete list and that we are working very hard to include a cross section of Detroit and a representative of the entire community. That was certainly my intention all along.
The committee when it’s finally constituted will be between 60 and 80 people. And it has been my policy since I’ve been here to be open and accessible and responsive to the community. I’ve met with teachers, I’ve met with parents, I’ve met with community leaders. My conviction is that in order for DPS to succeed, and for this transition that this legislature is contemplating to succeed, it has to have the support of the Detroit community. And the way to get that support is to involve the community. And so that’s my intent.
I will make public very shortly the full list of who has committed to the transition team. It’s a very impressive list so far and will hopefully get more impressive.
I want to get away from some of the same old names and I really want to involve newer, younger up and coming members of our community. Because, you know, it won’t be long before they become responsible for the future.
Why Even Have a Transition Team?
OK, fair enough. That’s a really good question. Let’s start there. I have a transition team because the process of creating a new school district and transferring the responsibility of educating children to that new school district, is an immensely complex subject. And it’s too big for me, and it’s too big for the people that are here. I have been convinced, and I remain convinced, that the success of DPS in the future, just like the success of any school system, depends upon the support of the community. And the best way to get the support of the community is to involve them in its creation.
What are some of the major problems facing DPS now?
I’ve been around insolvency and bankruptcy for 30 years, and in every case of insolvency, there are bad books. And we have bad books. We need help. We need help with human resources. Perhaps the greatest need is the simple legalities involved in transferring property from what we are now calling Oldco to Newco. It’s something we don’t have the capability of doing, we need help.
Our finance department has been decimated by cuts.
Our communications staff has done a reasonably good job of doing what I will call keeping the trains running. But what we haven’t seen is a proactive communications plan that gets the good story out.
I would have thought that after I don’t know how many years of emergency management, our finances would have been in reasonably good shape. I don’t mean our finances I mean our books and records. They’re not. DPS does not even follow the basic core accounting principle to close its books every month. It closes them once a year. What does that mean? That means that right now, when I and my team are preparing the budget for next year our preparations are based on this year’s budget, not this year’s actuals.
I’ve got all but one of my collective bargaining agreements expiring on June 30. I need help doing that, and I’m going to get help from this transition team.
DPS needs a strategy to optimize its revenue, because our revenues do not cover our expenses. We’ve had budget deficits and we’re going to continue to have budget deficits until we optimize our revenue. Where we leave money on the table is with federal government grants and with philanthropic grants. And we leave money on the table in two specific ways; we don’t apply for money that we would get if we applied for them. And second, when we do apply for a grant and get it we administer it so badly that either we don’t get all the money in the grant we’re entitled to, or they demand some of it back. We need to do a better job of grant administration.
We do not have adequate safety and security and safety in our schools. I’ve heard principals talk to me about that, I’ve heard parents talk to me about that, and I’ve heard teachers talk to me about that.
We have an HR (Human Resources) department that is an utter disaster, so we’re starting from scratch to rebuild HR. Am I going to finish it by the time I leave? Probably not. But I have to put it on a path. I can’t let it sit the way it is.
It may well be that our finances won’t allow us to solve all of these problems. So what do we do when that happens? We have to go into the community and ask for that to be backfilled (meaning volunteers and community donations)
We need to be proactive about bringing the community to the support of DPS.
What does the future hold?
My goal, when I leave, and we’re in a constant debate about how long that’s going to be, is to leave DPS in the best condition I can with the greatest possible community support. That’s my goal.
We have a very aggressive time schedule of what needs to be done by what dates, all with the goal to get me a report by June 15.
Can you get this done in time? And will there be enough Detroit representation on transition team?
I have a somewhat broader view of DPS; my view is that this entire region has a stake in the outcome of DPS. Not just Detroit. Why do I say that? Because this entire region has a stake in the success of Detroit.
Maybe transition wasn’t the right word. Maybe we need a new word. Because it’s not transition, it’s rebuilding DPS.