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DPS emergency manager attends school board meeting, says he'll be back

May 18, 2016

The Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, met with the district’s elected board for the first time publicly Wednesday.

That board has been virtually powerless since emergency managers started running DPS in 2009.

Rhodes largely sat quietly, taking notes, as board members peppered him with questions about how the district got to the verge of bankruptcy. They’re pushing for a forensic audit of the district’s finances, particularly contracting practices, during the past seven years of state control.

Pressed to support that effort, Rhodes says he does in theory, but warned that such an audit would be a huge and costly undertaking.

“It would be a Herculean task to do a forensic audit for a chunk of time, years. Normally when you retain a forensic audit, it’s not only limited in time, it’s [to] look for a specific thing,” Rhodes said.

But when Board President Herman Davis asked if Rhodes would support it if the board could come up with funding, Rhodes replied: “Absolutely. Not only will I support it, but we will facilitate access to all the books and records they need.”

Board members also declared themselves “vehemently opposed” to the bankruptcy-style restructuring plan the state Senate passed that “dissolves” the district.

Rhodes, Gov. Snyder and others have championed that as the best path to rescue the district from insolvency after June 30. The “old” DPS would cease to exist except as a debt service arm, and a new district would start up in its place.

But the logistics of that transition, and how the new district would sustain itself financially, are still very unclear. And some are concerned that provisions in those bills prevent a return to full local control of schools.

Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University’s College of Education, pointed to its creation of a Detroit Education Commission . That group of mayoral appointees would have the power to decide which new schools open in the city, and where.

Though it’s touted — and criticized — by some as a way to check the proliferation of low-performing charter operators in Detroit, Pedroni says it would also leave a new elected school board less than fully empowered.

“I think everyone likes the idea of controlling charter schools. But the powers that the DEC would put over the elected board, could be very constraining to the elected board,” Pedroni said. “If too many powers are pulled away to other bodies, then the board cannot really be held accountable by the electorate.”

Rhodes told Pedroni those are concerns that "people in Lansing need to hear." He also pledged to attend future board meetings, and said the district will provide written answers to board members’ questions within a week.