Education

Detroit Teachers Fed Up With Unsafe School Conditions Hold Massive ‘Sickout’

CREDIT: Carlos Osorio, AP

In a photo from May 16, 2013 at Crosman School in Detroit, water pools on the warped tile of what was once a basketball court. No one knows how long the water has flowed through the moldy bowels of the massive building a few miles north of downtown, but Crosman has been closed since 2007. It’s not the only empty structure where city water steadily fills dark basements or runs into the gutter, wasting money and creating safety hazards.

Detroit’s public school teachers are staging mass “sickouts” — which involves large groups of teachers across the city all calling in sick to work — to protest against what they call “deplorable conditions,” such as mold, warped floors, and dead rats.

The sickouts first started on January 11 and have gained momentum since then. As many as 91 percent of Detroit Public Schools were closed on Wednesday because there weren’t enough teachers available.

But Detroit Public Schools is determined to open its public schools again. An attorney for DPS filed an emergency court motion on Wednesday for a restraining order and preliminary injuction that would stop teachers from continuing the sickout, according to the Detroit News.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers, 23 teachers, activists supporting the sickout, and several union officials were named in the filing. “DPS has requested the court’s intervention in addressing the ongoing teacher sick outs that are plaguing the district. There will be no further comment until we receive direction from the court,” said executive director of communications for DPS, Michelle A. Zdrodowski.

“It would be so much more productive to actually do something to fix Detroit schools rather than file restraining orders against those who expose the miserable conditions,” Detroit Federation Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey said in response to the motion. “If Mr. Earley — the same emergency manager responsible for the Flint water crisis — wants to come after teachers, we’re ready for a fight.”

The ongoing Flint water crisis, in which residents’ drinking water became contaminated with lead after the city changed its supply source, is inextricably linked to the Detroit Public Schools sickouts. Teachers are angry that Darnell Earley — the same person who served as emergency manager for Flint from 2013 until just earlier this month — recently assumed office as the school system’s emergency manager. Earley’s move caused acrimony among teachers who are already concerned about school conditions.

Detroit Public Schools is also in a lot of debt. Next month, the school system will have to pay $26 million per month to service over $260 million in loans that were taken out to keep the schools functioning, a substantial increase from the roughly $15 million in monthly debt payments Detroit Public Schools had last year, and these payments don’t even cover all of the school’s debt. DPS could face bankruptcy.

Earley has said that closing schools during the sickout “further jeopardizes the limited resources the district has available to educate its students and address the many challenges it faces.”

Steve Conn, the former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union — who was recently ousted after he was found guilty of misconduct in August — has indicated the group he leads, the Detroit Strike to Win Committee, will vote on a strike demand to remove Earley. Conn said the committee will meet Thursday night to vote on a list of strike demands. Protesters also called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) ordered a district-wide inspection of every school.

The longer the sickouts continue, the more attention Detroit is receiving for the school conditions the union describes. Detroit teachers continue to tweet out photos of the conditions of Detroit schools under the Twitter handle @teachDetroit.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton commented on the sickouts in a tweet sent Thursday morning, pointing out that these school conditions wouldn’t be tolerated in more affluent parts of the country.

Students are suffering academically in these conditions as well. Detroit’s academic performance has been in last place along large city school districts for every year since 2012, The New York Times reported. Among fourth-graders, only 27 percent are proficient in reading and 36 percent are proficient in math.

As of 8:30 a.m., the Detroit Free Press reports there have been no signs of sickouts continuing today.