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Union leaders denounce "third world" conditions, as Detroit teachers stage largest protest yet

Detroit Federation of Teachers

The Detroit Federation of Teachers spoke out Monday about what union officials called “third world” conditions in some Detroit Public Schools buildings.

The DFT has largely stood on the sidelines while its members have staged escalating “sickout” protests in recent weeks. More than 60 Detroit schools were closed Monday.

But the DFT is now denouncing what it calls “toxic” conditions in many Detroit schools.

Those range from health hazards—including black mold and rodent problems--to oversized classes and a lack of supplies.

DFT interim president Ivy Bailey says the union can’t force the nearly-broke, state-run district to act, “But our members are telling us what’s going on in the schools. And I think it’s about time that somebody started listening.”

DFT administrator Ann Mitchell, who is running the union in trusteeship for the American Federation of Teachers after its board ousted ex-President Steve Conn, said someone needs to answer for the “deplorable” conditions.

“We want some answers,” said Mitchell, calling for school-by-school public hearings on the issue. “We want to know what the district and the emergency manager Darnell Earley, is going to do about these issues. We want action.”

In a statement, DPS spokesperson Michelle Zdrodowski said the district “work[s] every day to ensure that our school buildings are safe, clean and in good repair."

“When issues are brought to our attention, we investigate and take the appropriate actions to address them in as timely a manner as possible – even in the face of the very serious budget constraints necessitated by the District’s financial crisis.”

Other officials had a stronger response.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston said he called Earley to “set up a meeting with district officials, and all appropriate state and local agencies, to respond to health and safety issues at Detroit school buildings."

While condemning the sickouts, Whiston said in a statement that “any issues regarding unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the buildings need to be addressed quickly.  Students need to be in school to learn and, in many cases, get their only nutritious meals of the day.”

For his part, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said that “children need our teachers in the classrooms,” but also pointedly criticized the district’s fiscal and functional deterioration under four emergency managers over six years.

Duggan also pledged to visit a number of schools with reported “substandard conditions” with city building inspectors Tuesday, to “make sure all Detroit Public Schools are compliant with all health and building codes.”

In the meantime, some Republican state lawmakers contemplated sanctioning Detroit teachers who participate in the ongoing sickouts, which they call illegal strikes. They say the protests only harm DPS students and their parents, and jeopardize the district's chance of getting a financial lifeline from Lansing.

The DFT has not organized the sickouts, and has not formally condoned them. However, Mitchell said teachers needed to do something “bold and brash” to get anyone to pay attention to these issues.

“These teachers are standing up for their kids,” Mitchell said. “So blaming the teachers, and focusing on that and trying to do sanctions, is not going to get the schools together.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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