Detroit teachers want broken schools fixed

January 26, 2016

Alan Maass reports on how teachers in Detroit are battling a man-made disaster that has made the schools where they teach hazardous to the health of their students.

DETROIT TEACHERS are putting the shameful conditions of the schools where they must teach--and where their students are somehow supposed to learn--before the eyes of the world.

A mass sick-out by union teachers closed all but eight of the 96 schools in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system on January 20--the same day that Barack Obama made a trip to Detroit to appear at the North American International Auto Show and brag about how he saved the U.S. auto industry from financial collapse at the start of his presidency.

The teachers' action--which included a sick-out that closed 60 schools earlier in the month and rolling stay-aways since December--told a very different story than Obama about the fate of the city that was once the country's fifth-largest and the main citadel of U.S. industry.

Teachers describe working in filthy buildings, infested with mice and rats--and the images they shared on social media prove they aren't exaggerating. The Twitter stream for the hashtag #SupportDPSteachers shows stairwells missing stairs, buckled floors, fungus growing from a bathroom floor, collapsing ceilings and broken toilets covered with hazardous materials warning signs.

Detroit public school buildings have become hazardous to the health of students
Detroit public school buildings have become hazardous to the health of students (#SupportDPSteachers)
In the Washington Post, Shalon Miller, a 15-year veteran of the DPS system, described classrooms where "we have to wear winter coats in class until lunchtime. In other rooms, it can be ridiculously hot. Both temperature conditions are extremely distracting to the educational process...

"When it rains, water leaks into the classrooms from the roof. We have had to place buckets under the leaks and pray for dry weather. Unfixed structural damage causes water-soaked tiles to frequently fall from the ceiling of classrooms. The carpet has an ever-present moldy smell."

Teachers are also protesting massively overcrowded classrooms as a result of continuing cuts, school closures, public funds siphoned off to charter operators--plus frustrated teachers giving up on a broken system. Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) interim President Ivy Bailey estimated that the district had close to 4,000 teachers for the 2014-15 school year, and close to 500 fewer this school year.

The grim result of all of this could be read on a sign held by a teacher during one of the recent protests: "I have 39 first-graders in my classroom."

On Monday, lawyers for the school district were in court to argue for an injunction to stop teachers from taking further action. DPS at first named several dozen individual teachers in its lawsuit, a clear intimidation tactic--it now says the suit is directed at the union, its interim president Bailey and former DFT President Steve Conn.

Last week, Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens refused to impose an immediate restraining order against the teachers. On Monday, she set a court date of February 16 for further arguments on the injunction.


THE CONDITIONS in Detroit public schools are a consequence of decades of economic devastation caused by the very corporations that Obama was celebrating in his Detroit appearance. But the destruction has been magnified by the austerity drive underway in governments at all levels--and kicked into overdrive in Michigan by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder is using laws passed through a lame-duck session of the state legislature in late 2012 to dispense with democracy. Using the excuse of budget shortfalls caused by the long neoliberal era of spending cuts and pro-corporate tax breaks, the law allows the governor to impose an emergency financial manager to run city and county governments and various agencies by fiat.

In Detroit, Snyder promptly appointed Kevyn Orr, a corporate lawyer and bankruptcy specialist, to take over from the elected mayor and City Council in Detroit. Of the six cities where emergency managers were put in place after the 2012 law passed, five have majority Black populations.

The Detroit Public Schools have been run by a state-appointed administrator for even longer, but Snyder added insult to injury when he appointed Darnell Earley to take over last year. Earley came fresh from his previous position as the emergency financial manager of the city of Flint--where he was responsible for the decision to change the source of the city's water supply that has led to a catastrophic crisis of lead poisoning.

At DPS, Earley is only the latest in a series of financial managers--dating back to the former governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, by the way--to strip power from local authorities, while failing to improve the deteriorating conditions of schools. In fact, the system's debt burden has continued to skyrocket--while teachers have gone without a raise or step increase in 10 years and suffered continuous concessions, wrote Detroit teacher Nina Chacker at the Solidarity website.

And there is worse to come if Snyder gets his way, according to Chacker:

Legislation was recently introduced that would reframe DPS as an "old company," and create a "new company" to replace it. The old company would retain the school board and be responsible solely for paying off the $515 million of debt that the emergency managers have managed to accrue; when that process was completed the district would be dissolved. The new company would run the schools under a board appointed by the governor and mayor, and one can only imagine how long they would choose to keep most of the public schools around when given the chance to open more for-profit charter schools.


BITTERNESS AT the callous attitude of state officials and the DPS administration is driving force behind the teachers' sick-outs.

As Kimberly Jackson, a seventh-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, told rally participants on January 11: "No other district...would allow their children to be inside a school building under those conditions. Many of our (classes) are way oversized--some with as many as 50 children inside one classroom. It's time out for that. It's time out for biz as usual, it's time out for working in deplorable schools."

Earley has had the gall to criticize teachers who participated in the sick-out for not caring about the fate of their students--this from the man who has yet to take the slightest responsibility for his gross incompetence in Flint that led to the poisoning of a major American city.

In fact, the teachers are making a stand for their jobs and for their students. Union activists say the initiative for the sick-outs is coming from the rank and file of the union, not from local leaders, though they remain supportive.

Parents of DPS students like Jaime Diaz-Herrara know which side they're on. As Diaz-Herrara said in a statement quoted by the DFT:

I wouldn't consider a classroom of 45 kids conducive to teaching and learning. I wouldn't say that a classroom with black mold creeping up the walls is conductive to teaching and learning. I wouldn't say that roaches and rats scampering through hallways are conducive to teaching and learning. It's disgusting, unsafe, unhealthy and not the way we should be educating our kids in Detroit or anywhere else.

In her national op-ed article, teacher Shalon Miller concluded with a loud-and-clear message that has been underlined by the action of determined teachers across Detroit:

It's not okay to tell 47,000 kids that they're not important enough to warrant decent educational environments. It's not okay to have beautiful suburban schools in the state of Michigan and let Detroit schools rot. It's not okay to ignore the community's plea for help. It's not okay to disrespect teachers by refusing to give them a pay raise in over a decade. It's not okay to take control of Detroit schools and let things go from bad to worse.

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