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DPS sickouts put spotlight on a district in free fall

Detroit Federation of Teachers

For three straight days this week, some Detroit Public Schools buildings were closed because too many teachers called in sick.

These rolling “sickout” protests have picked up steam in recent weeks.

They’ve drawn some major backlash — and attention to a district in free fall.

“They’re making us suffer”                

Crystal Fischer saw it on the news Monday morning: Her five-year-old son’s school was closed because too many teachers had called in sick.

Fischer made do for that day.

But when she got the call on Tuesday — the school was closed again — the working single mom had to scramble. And she wasn’t too happy.

“It may be an issue with the teachers, but shoot, they’re causing issues with the parents,” said Fischer. “They’re making us suffer.”

Fischer didn’t really understand what the teachers were so upset about.

She has noticed one thing at her son’s school, though: “The classrooms are overcrowded. Too many kids to one teacher.”

Overcrowding is just one item on the long list of complaints Detroit teachers have right now.

In some other schools, it goes way beyond that.

“People leave every single week”

“I’ve seen some very well-maintained buildings. And I’ve seen some buildings that would break your heart,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Duggan took a hastily arranged tour of some DPS schools this week, in response to the Detroit Federation of Teachers’ calling out decrepit conditions in some buildings.

He toured some schools Tuesday, and vowed to fix the most egregious building problems: like black mold and collapsing ceilings.

But Duggan’s powers are limited. The state has run the Detroit Public Schools for almost seven years, through a series of emergency managers.

“And it’s been seven years of enrollment decline, deficits, test score decline … and now a third of the money coming in school is being diverted to debt,” Duggan said.

That’s $3.5 billion in debt — more than $500 million in short-term, operational borrowing run up by the emergency managers.

Under Michigan law, emergency managers are supposed to put cities and school district with budget deficits back in the black.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Angry parents and grandparents packed a community meeting about public education in Detroit this week.

But in some places — especially in school districts — emergency management has made bad situations even worse.

In this case, it’s put Detroit Public Schools on the brink of what the city of Detroit has already experienced: bankruptcy.

“The state has created debt after debt after debt that it can’t pay off,” said Nina Chacker, a special education teacher at Detroit’s Schulze Academy.

Chacker, who supports the sickouts, but hasn’t participated in one, says teachers are now at a breaking point. And with DPS struggling to fill 170 vacant positions already, many feel they’ve got nothing to lose by protesting.

“People leave every single week. And we have just kind of come to realize that they need us at this point,” Chacker said. “They cannot get people to work in Detroit.”

The Detroit Federation of Teachers leadership has its own internal political struggles. The union hasn’t organized or even formally condoned the sick-outs.

Chacker says the big push came from teachers at the school level. And she says they’re doing it for their students.

“They’re kids that are easy to take advantage of. And I will fight as hard as I can to ensure that that doesn’t happen,” Chacker said.

Another slow-motion crisis for Gov. Snyder

But that’s not how district and state officials see it.

They say the sickouts just hurt Detroit kids and parents like Crystal Fischer.

"People leave every single week. And we have just kind of come to realize that they need us at this point. They cannot get people to work in Detroit."

And they’ve accused the teachers of using them as “pawns,” and engaging in illegal wildcat strikes.

DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski says Emergency Manager Darnell Earley does understand Detroit teachers’ frustration.

“But when teachers continue to do these sickouts, it makes our efforts to talk to the legislature, and get them to say yes to investing in DPS, that much more difficult,” Zdrodowski said.

This week, bills for a bankruptcy-style DPS restructuring were finally introduced in Lansing.

That overhaul is basically Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the district.

But the response from lawmakers so far has been lukewarm at best.

And the governor is already caught up in another huge political crisis: Flint’s water contamination disaster.

He’s got to figure it out though. Otherwise, the Detroit Public Schools will go broke before the end of the school year.

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.