Letter from Detroit — From the October 2016 issue

Held Back

Battling for the fate of a school district

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Three days had passed before I saw a police officer in Detroit. I’d covered miles of the city, by foot and by car. Twice I was advised not to bother calling the police in an emergency; they wouldn’t come. I only ever found them in one place: armed officers from the city’s police department and from Detroit Public Schools’ own security force were manning a gray metal detector at the door to Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, on East Lafayette Street. They were in position for a public meeting that night, in May, asking that everyone empty their pockets and bags. A line had formed: on the agenda was the presentation of a new financial plan for the city’s fraught public-school system, put forth by Steven Rhodes, a retired judge who had presided over Detroit’s bankruptcy and now serves as the fifth state-appointed emergency manager the district has seen in seven years.

Burton International Academy. All photographs with drawings from Detroit by Mischelle Moy

Burton International Academy. All photographs with drawings from Detroit by Mischelle Moy

When Rhodes came to office, this past March, the Detroit public-school system was contending with an operating debt of more than $500 million, and the Citizens Research Council of Michigan had estimated that the total debt topped $3.5 billion. For years, money intended for students has instead been paying off old loans, and academic achievement has consistently ranked among the worst in American cities. At many school buildings, much-needed repairs to walls and leaky roofs have gone unaddressed; in the worst cases, mice could be seen scampering across unheated classrooms. For thirteen of the past seventeen years, the state has controlled the city’s school district, and with the more recent addition of all-powerful emergency managers, Detroiters have had to pin their frustrations and hopes on a rotating cast of emissaries. At the meeting, Rhodes — who has adopted the title “transition manager” — would present his recommendations to the community.

In King’s atrium, district officials had set up a table piled with thick, stapled copies of the new forty-five-day financial and operating plan. Dozens of people streamed in — parents, pastors, and youth organizers, many of them public-school alumni. They picked up copies and greeted one another in the hallway. Some looked anxious, others moved like boxers gearing up for a rematch. Alongside them were teachers and school counselors who had left classrooms, coaching, and after-school club duties to be at the meeting. Several King students were there, too, chatting about the banalities of high-school life. As everyone entered the auditorium, they passed representatives of King’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, who were dressed in uniform.

First, some good news: Deborah Jenkins, King’s principal, gave a careful speech touting the school’s recent accomplishments. Last year, she said, her thin eyebrows raised, King was an exception to the district’s overall poor performance: one hundred percent of the graduating class had committed to college or the military, and the marching band had been invited to perform at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Greeting applause, Jenkins smiled. Then she shifted course. “Any individual not modeling the way for our students — meaning being disruptive — we may ask you to remove yourself or to calm yourself,” she said. “But if your behavior continues then you will have assistance from security to exit.” Groans of disapproval floated up from the front row.

Rhodes stood to take her place onstage. He wore metal-rimmed glasses and a navy sweater. When he stepped up to the podium, it dwarfed him. He looked past a silent audience and into the lenses of TV news cameras at the back of the room. Rhodes, who is white, was appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder to replace Darnell Earley, who had resigned after his performance was widely denounced; Earley, who is black, had previously been the emergency manager in Flint. African-Americans account for 80 percent of Detroit’s population, but only 14 percent of Michigan’s, and, as in Flint, the city’s crisis cannot be divorced from the realities of racial inequality. “I want to address why we are here,” Rhodes began. “We are here for two reasons. The first is that the law requires it.” He went on, “The second reason is I want to be here — I really do. I look for every opportunity that I can get to talk to people who are interested in the future of the Detroit Public Schools. I want to meet with parents; I want to meet with teachers; I want to meet with principals, educators.”

He turned to point out a member of Detroit’s city council. Voices from the crowd shouted back: “Elected board members are here!” “That we elected!” With the state in charge, the local school board has not had oversight of its own district, but a group of defrocked board members continues to meet, as a formality. A few were in the auditorium. Rhodes attempted to speak over interruptions — “Let me talk now about a financial update. We have two kinds of debt. There’s operational debt and there’s long-term, or legacy, debt” — but the noise rose to general commotion.

“We don’t know where the money went!” a woman cried out. “They looted it! They stole our money!”

Rhodes stopped. “Okay,” he said. “It’s time for a first warning.” A district employee jumped in to offer backup, reiterating the rules of meeting decorum. Someone began clapping loudly in defiance; the sound tore through the air. The cops held their position, their backs against a wall near the exit.

“That’s all garbage,” a woman said, full of contempt.

Rhodes pleaded that everyone listen to his plan, which would inform state legislation. “For D.P.S. to succeed, we need to have the legislation in Lansing enacted,” he said. “And we need to have it enacted soon.”

Eruptions continued until the floor was opened for questions. People sprang from their seats, jostling for spots around microphones. A digital timer set to two minutes ticked away on a large screen behind Rhodes. “How much money is needed to put our system back in order?” a woman asked. “I don’t want to be seeing this next year when you’re coming back and saying we have no school system.”

His answer didn’t impress her: “I’d like to have eight hundred million dollars, but two hundred million is the minimum amount we need.” She sulked back to her seat. “Don’t y’all fall for an okeydoke,” she said.

Elena Herrada, a member of the school board, stood to register her concerns; Rhodes didn’t recognize her. John Telford, who identified himself as the district’s “rightful superintendent” — he’d been the school board’s choice — said that the state’s approach to Detroit’s schools has been a disaster of genocidal proportions. “Overwhelmingly, it is African-American children who have been harmed,” he said. “We’ve got Jim Crow all over again.” The crowd cheered him on. Others pressed Rhodes on why he was earning a salary of $18,750 a month; one parent said that he and Governor Snyder belonged in jail. Nearly everyone demanded that Rhodes meet with the school board. He resisted until the seventy-five-minute mark. “The condition is, it has to be a civil meeting,” he said. “Are you willing to agree to that term?” The response: uproar, offense, despair. “ ‘Civil’ — what does that mean?” a woman called out. “We have to speak up for ourselves.”

Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:

I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?”

He went on, “There should not be any division. So for me, as a student, to see all our adults act a fool at a public meeting — it really hurts.”

Rhodes got the last word. “If you make me the issue, I can’t help you — your fight is not with me, your fight is with the legislature,” he said. “Please ask the legislature to give D.P.S. the resources that it needs to educate your children. Your children.” The meeting ended there. The crowd filtered out of the auditorium and into the hall. The police watched them leave. No one seemed satisfied.

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