Latest Detroit Teacher Sickout Closes Nearly All Schools

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May 2, 2016; Detroit Free Press

As NPQ has reported, teachers in Detroit have begun using sickouts as a negotiating tactic since they began publicly protesting the deplorable conditions of school buildings in January. In part, the protests were “legitimized” after a judge refused to stop the sickouts earlier this year, over the pleas of the school district.

Over this past weekend, the teachers found out the district’s funds would run out by June 30th, meaning Detroit teachers might stop receiving a paycheck by the end of the month. Ninety-four of the district’s 97 schools were closed on Monday, and most were closed again on Tuesday, from sickout protests. When talks with district officials on Monday were fruitless, the teachers decided on Tuesday to strike again. Teachers are expected to return to work on Wednesday after receiving assurances that they would continue to be paid.

“There’s a basic agreement in America: When you put in a day’s work, you’ll receive a day’s pay. DPS (Detroit Public Schools) is breaking that deal,” said Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “Teachers want to be in the classroom giving children a chance to learn and reach their potential. Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms.”

On Monday, the Detroit Federation of Teachers called the district’s 2,600 teachers for the sickout, potentially affecting 46,000 students. In the background, the legislature is actively debating a $715 million education reform package. The Michigan Senate has already passed the legislation, but the bill is stalled in the House, where conservatives are concerned over some of the language that’s meant to control the expansion of charter schools. Without such a package, and with an operating deficit of $515 million, teachers will be left without paychecks and the district will be left without summer school or any other extended special education programs.

According to teachers, the legislature had already allocated $48.7 million to the district last month. Teachers say they were told that amount would carry the district through June and cover the summer pay for about two-thirds of the district’s teachers who are on the extended-pay plan. This plan allows teachers to be paid less during the school year so they can still be paid during the summer when school is out of session. In essence, the teachers are poised to lose their deferred pay, or about $9,700. (The average teacher in the district makes around $63,000.)

The school district’s transition manager, Steven Rhodes, who is also a retired bankruptcy judge and was appointed in February, has said this interpretation of the $50 million allocation is false. Instead, Rhodes tells a different story, primarily pushing the accountability off the district and onto the legislature. “We said all along that the $48 million…was only enough money to fund our expenditures through June and any expenditures we were obligated to pay after July 1 would have to come from the reform legislation.”

But some teachers call Rhodes’s version of the plan disrespectful and “hard to believe.” Sean Patton, an instrumental music teacher in the district, has raised the question of how the original $50 million allocation could fail to factor in the deferred pay of 75 percent of the district’s teachers. Why would the district or the legislature not inform teachers last month that there was the possibility of losing their deferred pay after June, yet continue to give them a reduced salary?

“It just baffles me—actually, it angers me,” said Patton, who has been teaching for more than 20 years. “It sounds as if we are being used as pawns….It seems there’s no accountability.”

Rhodes, members of the state legislature, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder have come out against Monday’s sickout. During a visit to Flint on Monday morning, Snyder said, “That’s not a constructive act with respect to getting legislation through. That probably raises more questions…with legislators.” Rhodes also said that the sickout was “unfortunate”; however, he did go “on record as saying that [he] cannot in good conscience ask anyone to work without pay.”

He went on to say, “I understand the frustration and anger that our teachers feel. I am, however, confident that the Legislature will support the request that will guarantee that teachers will receive the pay that is owed to them. The [union’s] choice for a drastic call to action was not necessary.”

Members of the legislature also took shots at the teachers for their behavior. “Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves,” said Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter.

Ironically, all of this is taking place during National Teacher Appreciation Week, which the Detroit school district has featured prominently on its website: “Let’s show our teachers how much they mean to us!” As teachers and officials hope for the best with the legislature, parents and students are being affected directly, both by the strikes and the financial crisis. At the very least, the financial crisis is disrupting the stability of the students’ lives.

“This is one of the most tumultuous school years our kids have experienced,” said Sharlonda Buckman, the CEO of Detroit Parents Network. “They aren’t getting what they need. It’s disturbing. First in January…we’re in May and this is still happening.”

Moreover, though school will end in June, any extended educational services, such as summer school or special education programs will end this summer without funding. “It’s going to devastate families,” said Marcie Lipsitt, the founder of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education. “The majority of families don’t have access to people like me to make sure the law is being followed. It’s going to devastate students who need these services.”

According to Rhodes, the district could lose $2 million if the Michigan Department of Education chooses to penalize the district for the lost school day.—Shafaq Hasan