After hearing that most Detroit teachers might not get paid for work they performed, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) on May 2 and May 3 staged a two-day sick-out.
The teachers refused to go to work until they received a guarantee from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) governor-appointed emergency manager that they would be paid in full.
After initially refusing to provide such a guarantee, Judge Steve Rhodes, DPS’ emergency manager, in a May 3 letter to the union wrote, “DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.”
That appeared to satisfy the union’s demand for a guarantee, and the union’s leadership urged its members to return to class on May 4.
While the teachers were conducting their sickout, The Michigan House Appropriations Committee passed a bill authorizing $548 million to fund Detroit schools.
The bill, which had been stalled in committee, appropriates less than the $715 million that the state senate had approved in a similar appropriations bill. The two bills will have to be reconciled before the legislature can pass and send the reconciled bill to the governor for his approval.
The fact that the appropriation bill had been stalled in committee set in motion events that led to the sickout.
When it looked like no action would be taken on the bill, Judge Rhodes let it be known that without funding from the legislature, teacher pay would be in jeopardy.
The school district, according to Judge Rhodes, was running out of money, and if the House failed to pass the appropriations bill, there would not be enough money to pay teachers during the months of July and August.
About two-thirds of DPS teachers had elected to stretch their nine months worth of pay over a 12 month period, so that they would continue to receive a paycheck during the time school was out.
If no paychecks were issued in July or August, teachers who elected the 12-month pay plan would have been shorted two months worth of pay.
The union told DPS’ administrators that if they could not guarantee paychecks for July and August, union members were not about to work for free.
While legislative inaction may have precipitated the events that led up to the sickout, it is only one in a series of missteps that has put Detroit schools in a permanent state of crisis.
Like the city of Detroit, DPS’ problems can be traced back to problems in the US auto industry.
In the early aughts, Detroit was hit hard when US auto makers stumbled on tough times. Companies that supplied parts to the Big Three auto makers went out of business or moved production overseas reducing the property tax base that supported public schools.
Layoffs at auto and auto parts plants hit the working class hard, which further reduced revenue available to the public schools.
In 2009, the State of Michigan took control of Detroit’s schools, supposedly to put the school district’s financial house in order.
But things only got worse. Even though the state was now in control of Detroit’s schools, the state legislature failed to adequately fund the schools.
The lack of adequate state funding coupled with a decline in local tax revenue left DPS in even worse financial shape.
A succession of emergency managers appointed by Michigan governors tried to keep the schools open by borrowing heavily.
According to the Detroit Free Press, at the end of the school year, the school district’s debt will be $320 million, which doesn’t include $5 billion in long-term debt owed by DPS.
While state leaders were failing to fund Detroit’s schools, they were also pushing to expand charter schools in Detroit, a project that DPS’s emergency managers embraced.
As a result about half of Detroit’s school children now attend privately operated charter schools, which drain resources away from public schools.
The results have been devastating. Without adequate funding, DPS has been unable to properly maintain and repair its schools.
As a result, many students go to dilapidated schools that are poorly maintained.
The situation became so dire, that teachers held sick-ins in January to protest the filth and squalor of the buildings where they taught and where children were supposed to learn.
The lack of funding has also caused class sizes to increase well beyond a reasonable size for good learning opportunities.
The New York Times reports that “the planned class size in Grades 6 to 12 (for Detroit schools) is 38 students.”
Whatever amount that the legislature appropriates, it will not be enough to turn around Detroit’s schools because much of the money will go toward paying off creditors.
When school starts again in the fall, Detroit’s teachers, its students, and their parents will be the one’s left to deal with the residue of past decisions that crippled public education in the city.