Most Detroit Public Schools closed because of teacher ‘sickout’ over pay

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DETROIT, Mich. — Teachers at all but three of Detroit’s 97 public schools called in sick Monday in protest after finding out they may not get paid after June, officials said.

Ninety-four Detroit Public Schools were closed Monday, school district spokeswoman Michelle A. Zdrodowski said. Over the weekend, teachers learned the district would run out of money June 30, according to Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

“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,” Bailey said. “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.”

It’s unclear how many students Monday’s sickout affects, but about 46,000 students are enrolled in Detroit Public Schools, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The sickouts aren’t necessary, said district official Steven Rhodes.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Rhodes, a retired bankruptcy judge, in February to be the transition manager for Detroit Public Schools as state lawmakers work on improving academics and finances in the state’s largest school district, according to Snyder’s office.

The district has been in crisis for months. It has about $515 million in operating debt, the governor’s office has said, and is spending about $1,100 per student on debt service annually. Michigan state Sen. Goeff Hansen has introduced legislation to help bail out Detroit Public Schools, his spokesman Peter Wills said Monday. That bill passed the Senate and is now before the House, Wills said.

Rhodes was sympathetic on Sunday. It is “unfortunate” that teachers chose to protest this way, he said, but “I am on record as saying that I cannot in good conscience ask anyone to work without pay.

“Wages that are owed to teachers should be paid,” Rhodes added. “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.”

Parent: I’m frustrated with the adults

A solution to the school crisis is not happening fast enough for Detroit parent Tony Kinsey. He is well aware of the district’s financial problems and how they’ve affected his sons, who attend 11th and 9th grade in public school.

“I support the teachers on getting a fair deal. They’re educators,” he said. “I’m frustrated with the adults, the leadership. Our children are the ones suffering.”

Kinsey works at home. On Sunday evening, one of his sons told him that he heard school wasn’t going to be in session on Monday. “My son put it on my radar,” he said. “I didn’t get a robo-call or any notification from the district. But knowing what he told me, I Googled it this morning and found the information.” He had to break away from work three or four times to cajole his sons to do schoolwork because he was determined not to just let them have a free day.

His 11th grader needs to prepare for the SAT, he said. And he gave them reading assignments to work on.

“I gave them a couple choices, as long as it was learning,” he said. “They think this is a vacation. My oldest wants to go to the movies and the mall. It’s been a lot of negotiating, going back and forth and empathizing with them. It’s been tough.”

Sharlonda Buckman, the CEO of Detroit Parents Network, an organization of parents with children in all city schools, not just public ones, said she felt an “instant splitting headache” when she heard about the sickout.

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

It’s not the first time Detroit public school teachers have protested by calling in sick en masse. In January, reacting to dilapidated and dangerously unsanitary conditions, teachers staged a sickout, forcing the closure of dozens of schools. Teachers also threatened in March to hold another sickout.

The problems described earlier this year included rat and roach infestations, black mold and pieces of ceiling falling.

Steve Conn, a local labor leader who organized the January sickout, told CNN that safety hazards, appalling building conditions, overcrowded classes and equipment shortages were serious concerns. “The conditions are terrible in the schools,” he said.

Buckman has nieces and nephews in the public school system. She points out that not every parent has the flexibility to stay home from work or to be late when faced with closed schools, and for some that means children are babysat by older children or left entirely alone.

“This creates a safety issue,” Buckman said, “when you have unsupervised children.”

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