Steven Rhodes Tapped to Pull Detroit Schools Out of Debt

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The same federal judge who handled Detroit’s bankruptcy is going to assist the city’s financially strapped public schools as well. Having retired from the US District Court in 2015, Steven Rhodes is set to become the transition manager of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) as state legislators work to produce bills to reform the district’s finances and academic performance.

Reuters reports that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder explained that Rhodes was the “natural choice” for the position. He added that the former judge would oversee the operations and finances of the largest public school district in Michigan. In the meantime, the search will be on for an interim superintendent to head DPS’ academic matters.

“(Rhodes) is highly respected in the city and was invaluable in leading Detroit out of bankruptcy. Detroit needs strong public schools for the city’s economic comeback to continue through its neighborhoods,” Snyder said.

In December of 2014, Rhodes led Detroit out of the largest ever city bankruptcy by approving a plan for the city to have $7 billion of its $18 billion debt and obligations dismissed.

DPS, with 97 schools and roughly 47,000 students, has debt of $3.5 billion, $1.7 billion of which is made up of bonds backed by property taxes. At the same time, the district is watching its enrollment decline. The school district is heading toward running out of money this spring.

The latest DPS emergency manager, Darnell Earley, will be leaving his post this week. Earley was also the emergency manager of Flint, Michigan, which is dealing with a scandal involving lead levels in the city’s water supply.

Measures waiting to be addressed in the state legislature are aimed at creating two groups. The first would be the Detroit Community District, which would be the operations entity. The current DPS would remain intact to retire debt.

The governor is hoping for $72 million each year over ten years to fund the plan. The money would come from the state’s share of a nationwide US tobacco companies settlement. He also asked for $50 million from legislators forthwith to pay vendors and staff.

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars to DPS, said she felt the new leadership for the district should not come from outside the district. She added that she thought the district needed a “revolt from the inside,” writes Rochelle Riley for the Detroit Free Press.

Rhodes has said that although the superintendent will have him as a boss, he wants whoever takes the position to “partner with me in running Detroit schools.”

Detroit’s problems aren’t a surprise. There have been four DPS emergency managers since 2009. And recently, thanks to teacher sick-outs, the district began working on refurbishing unsafe, poorly maintained buildings within the DPS district.

In an interview with Devin Scillian of Graham Media Group, Rhodes shared:

“We want to make sure the district’s resources are best spent in the classroom helping students and teachers. The district has great challenges ahead, but we can work together to face them and help Detroit students get the education they need to reach their potential.”

Rhodes received his undergraduate degree from Purdue University and was a law clerk for District Judge John Feikens and was an assistant US attorney and a US magistrate. He served on the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Sixth Circuit and taught at the University of Michigan Law School from 1992-2002.