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Bridge Michigan
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Detroit teacher ‘sickout’ was a call for attention and help

It would be unthinkable for a school in wealthy Grosse Pointe or Troy to have the kind of health, safety and learning conditions that Detroit public school students and educators are subjected to every single day. There is toxic mold, rats, exposed wiring, classrooms either stiflingly hot or so cold that kids wear coats, overcrowding because of teacher vacancies, and too few textbooks. Sadly, there is too much neglect by officials who are in charge but ignore the shameful and downright dangerous conditions.

Teachers and others have been reporting these deplorable details, sought action and begged for improvements, but it all fell on deaf ears. For the sake of their students, many took the bull by the horns and took sick days to bring attention to the long-lingering problems.

The rolling sickouts in Detroit Public Schools occurred sporadically, but reached critical mass when 64 out of 100 schools closed Jan. 11. Finally, the conditions that Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Gov. Rick Snyder wanted kept quiet were out in the open for all to see. Now people across the state understand why teachers and others felt enough is enough.

Here’s the reality:

  • Spain Elementary-Middle School is probably the poster child for what’s wrong. The black mold that covers half the gym floor was simply covered with a tarp. The floor on the other half is so warped from water damage that the buckling looks like little hills. The swimming pool has been closed for years and the playground is off-limits because of a geyser of searing steam. Gym class means walking or running through the halls.
  • There is no heat at Dossin Elementary School and Jerry L. White Center.
  • DPS has 170 teacher vacancies leading to overcrowding in classrooms.
  • Some great teachers have left for districts providing better teaching and learning conditions.
  • DPS teachers are making 10 percent less than they did in 2009 and narrowly averted another 10 percent cut in 2014. With higher deductions for insurance and pension payments, teachers’ take home pay is at 1999 levels.
  • A teacher from the Detroit School of Arts, a premier high school, told us there have been no teachers in 10th-grade science or English all year. "Parents are unaware that these positions are vacant because the school still lists the name of the teachers that quit in September," the teacher said. “There is no teacher but students are being assigned grades.”

Mayor Mike Duggan took a tour of several schools to see for himself. Most "heartbreaking,” he said, was seeing students wearing coats in cold classrooms. He just announced his team will visit every single school in the district. That’s interest in the situation that we’d like to see by the officials who actually run our district – Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

Earley’s excuse is that there’s no money to fix the problems. Frankly, it’s a matter of priorities. There are a slew of tax breaks for corporations. State lottery money for education just replaces (but doesn’t add to) state education funding. The state has been cutting school funding for years. There was a $40 million no-bid contract for books kids can't use. Today, there are 204 school district administrators with just 47,000 public school students; when the district had 100,000 students, there were 200 administrators.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is calling for school-by-school public hearings to reveal the abysmal conditions. And we want the Emergency Manager to not only be at those hearings, but announce how he intends to mitigate the problems.

The state, rightfully, holds teachers accountable for the job they do. The public also believes that the state, which runs the schools, must be held accountable for the job it does.

Enough is enough. Wrong is wrong. It’s time to listen to those who are in the schools every single day and make things right for our kids.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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