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.

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Fri, 01/15/2016 - 3:04pm
"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." First, please don't ever equate Grosse Pointe with Troy again. Second, the reason why Grosse Pointe will never have the same experience that the Detroit Public School System is facing is because we have managed our assets well. Whereas, in Detroit, not only did they have considerable cyclical headwinds to face, they had grossly incompetent leadership. Let me make this point even clearer. Detroit elected people who ran their school system into the ground. No one else is responsible, except for Detroit. Now that that the bill is coming due, you want to push the onus of your idiocy onto the state and the Emergency Manager - who shouldn't have been needed in the first place. Why can't you just take responsibility for your actions? Please stop. Please accept responsibility for this mess and volunteer to help clean it up. Don't just stand next to your wrecked car and swear to me that the tree jumped out into the middle of the road. I am GP For Life and I will hold you accountable to the truth.
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 12:48pm
The reason Grosse Pointe has better conditions and more money than Detroit is Grosse Pointe gets to have property tax increases due to the Headlee amendment of proposal a of 1994. Detroit and most other school districts aren't included in this amendment.
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 9:03am
"Headlee amendment of proposal a of 1994"This sounds about as knowledgeable as Gov. Snyder's pressers attempting to explain how lead got into the Flint Water supply. And people wonder why Detroit even went bankrupt in the first place?
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 6:27am
So prop A didn't end up hurting public schools? Back in the day communities could raise money via millages or bonds if they wanted. The millage option was removed, but bonds remain. The drawback to prop A is that now school money is sent to Lansing a redistributed to districts. This allows whomever is in power to play politics.
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:43am
Reread my post again. There is NO SUCH thing as “Headlee amendment of proposal a of 1994″This sound suspiciously like a "Strike to Win" speaking point ("Strike to Win" is the group led by union free rider Steve Conn which is organizing these "sickouts"). OABTW, there is no such restriction on sinking bond millages (which goes towards school buildings only and nothing else). Schools have been passing sinking millages for years now (people often "forget" about the $1.5-billion Proposal S in Detroit back in 2009 and a previous $1.5-billion bond millage back in 1994). $3-billion was more than enough to fix everything Supt. Bailey mentioned above and then some.
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 12:52pm
Also, the state if Michigan has managed Detroit Public Schools for over a decade. The "elected" people you speak of are in Lansing. You're Grosse Pointe ignorance and arrogance isn't winning any hearts or minds.
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 12:52pm
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 7:45am
Agreed. Anyone who has worked-even remotely with DPS-knows where the problem lies. And it is not the state! Sadly, Detroits' children are the recipient.
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 8:32am
Regardless of how things got this way, it is reprehensible that children are forced to work in these conditions. Why point fingers and look for a cause when we should be working toward a feasible solution?
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 7:37pm
To "GP for life": Regardless of who started the problem, an emergency manager was appointed to FIX it which they have not done. It doesn't matter who started the problem, those responsible to fix it have done absolutely nothing.
Fri, 01/15/2016 - 5:56pm
No, the "sickouts" were an illegal action which state elected officials are wrestling over how to handle (including yanking their teaching certification). OABTW, let us know when Steve Conn gets his old office back next week.
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 10:05am
Ms. Bailey, the teachers in Detroit didn't need to stage rolling sickouts to call attention to the deplorable conditions caused by DPS staff not doing their jobs. All it would have taken was an invitation to one or more reporters from the Free Press, with a few photos such as those that came to light after the "Mayor's Tour" the other day. Nor are these conditions unique to Detroit. I've seen lots of water-damaged ceilings and gym floors during my time as a volunteer in multiple school districts. And I've been the person trying to learn or to teach while sweltering or wearing my coat because the heating and ventilation system is either not working or not properly balanced. There was a huge bond millage passed in late 2009 intended to provide money to repair or replace roofs and heating systems in most Detroit Public Schools. What happened to all that money? As for filth and bugs in restrooms, classrooms, and hallways, that is entirely the responsibility of school staff and students. If the custodians don't clean restrooms, sweep or wash desks and cafeteria tables, the principal, teachers, aides and students should do it rather than sitting there complaining about the mess. I'm serious here. Making students responsible for the everyday maintenance of their own classroom and dining area is a common in expensive private pre-schools, and good training for life overall.
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 6:17am
What are the names of some of these other districts that you've seen such conditions? You know...during all those volunteer hours lol
DPS Employee
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 10:17pm
The above commentator, Anna, states that there was bond millage passed in late 2009. What happened to the money she asks? It's a good question. Possibly, we can figure out part of the answer when we consider that the state appointed Emergency Manager, Robert Bob, who was in total control of DPS in 2009, received a $280K salary, spent $40M on out-of-state consultants, $20M on out-of-state vendors to manage 17 schools AND $41.8M interest on 3 NEW LOANS. One can't help but wonder how much money was spent on negative publicity blaming the Detroit teachers for all the District's problems.
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 6:21am
A lot of that money went towards sprucing up Snyder's EAA schools.. cuz that experiment worked so great and only cost twice as much. The chancellor of the EAA is still pulling in $325k and has full time security to manage 7,000 students.
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 9:02am
It appears there's enough blame to go around. The focus should be on the students and their education. Please remember DPS holds these kids' futures in their hands. Mayor Duggan has done some great things for the City. Hopefully, he can help lead the charge to fix the schools! Holly
Robert Sparks
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 10:03am
Up to recently, I have had little sympathy or empathy for the DTU, their leaders or what they had to say about education in Detroit. But the latest sick-out has opened my eyes about the conditions in the DPS system. If we want to correct the ills in DPS, we mush address education of the children - resources, facilities, protection, opportunities etc. When we stop talking about pay and benefits for teachers, debt load, charter vs district schools, people will begin listening and want to fix the other problems noted earlier that focus on education. Until the City of Detroit is able to improve the public education system, people with families or professionals who want families will continue their migration to the suburbs.
David L Richards
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 10:42am
I don't have a problem with Detroit teachers protesting their working conditions. However, a "sickout" is likely to be counterproductive. Spending time in Lansing, following legislators to their home district, spending time communicating with and encouraging the media to report on conditions, are likely to be more effective. The closing of schools has brought attention, but it brings with it an excuse for legislators to resist requests for action.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 10:58am
The blame game goes on and on and on. The fact is that education for urban minority children in Michigan is not a priority. Truly sad.
Sun, 01/17/2016 - 12:45pm
Education for all children, majority or minority, should be a priority, but that priority begins in the home and that is something every individual can do something about.
Raymond D. Sweet
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 5:39am
You folks read this article and then many of you who made comments decided that teachers in Detroit destroyed their system. Even suggesting they should clean the schools. And one person suggested learning begins at home. No way Michigan and the rest of you from other places shouldn't be ashamed of your education.
Robert Burgess
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 11:52am
Not sure how any organization, school district or business, manages when facing a precipitous drop in students or customers. K-Mart and Sears have seen much better days. Do I have to remind folks in an automobile state that General Motors and Chrysler also had financial problems. In Michigan, schools are primarily funded by a per student foundation allowance grant from the state. The foundation allowance grant per student consists of state aid plus local business (non-homestead) property taxes. As a result, the drop in student enrollment has had a major impact on Detroit Schools ability to financially manage in a rapid enrollment decline which may be unprecedented in American schools. Here is Detroit Schools student counts per Michigan Department of Education data (rounded to nearest 100): 15 yrs ago - 2000-2001: 162,700 10 yrs ago - 2005-2006: 130,700 5 yrs ago - 2010-2011: 75,200 this year - 2015-2016: 46,300 In other words, Detroit Schools has lost over 70 percent of their students in 15 years time. On average, 7,000-8,000 students per year. That also equates to a loss of revenue to fund daily operations, such as, teacher salary and benefits, custodians, heat and lights, etc. Fact is Detroit's total state aid has declined by over $800 million in 15 years time. In 2000-2001, Detroit's state aid was about 1.2 billion. This year it is $357 million. Those are some of the facts. Sears and K-Mart face financial problems due to a whole host of problems: competition from target, Kohls, Meijer, Walmart, Amazon, etc. Mistakes made by management. Old stores, poor locations, etc. The financial problems of Detroit Schools are equally complex, maybe even more complex. Competition from Charters and schools of choice, loss of population in the city, some mistakes by management (be they the former school superintendents or emergency managers), etc. However, the 46,000 children currently in Detroit Schools and the teachers who serve them certainly deserve some attention to the problems they currently face. I can agree that I would have preferred that teachers not stage sick-outs. I also understand their frustration seeing some of the facility and operational (lack of textbooks, shortages of staff, etc.) that they face. It is important to ALL of Michigan that educational opportunities for all Detroit school children (and Flint, and Pontiac, and Benton Harbor, and Muskegon Heights, etc.) succeed. Yes, Ann Arbor, Okemos, Portage, Birmingham, etc. too. As a resident of West Michigan, I support additional funding for Detroit School children. I encourage our elected leaders in Lansing to listen respectfully to Detroiters as well as folks from Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Association of School Administrators and Business Officials, the PTAs and PTOs, etc. Maybe someone from the mayor's office. Maybe even someone like retired state superintendent Mike Flanagan. Nobody said it will be easy. But I for one am rooting for Detroit school children and teachers.
Steven Camron
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 5:23pm
Gracious and thorough commentary! There is no doubt in my mind that the combination of predatory charter school development (+80 charters surrounding DPS, on the sacrificial alter of "choice") and incompetent DPS leadership are responsible for the current deplorable conditions. We need concerted state and local-level leadership to set this ship aright, protecting the students and teachers made more vulnerable by circumstances beyond their control!
John Miller
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:21pm
You're blaming charter schools for this? Hilarious. What's wrong with a parent having a choice? Or do you, Steve Camron, get to decide where all the kids in Detroit will go to school?
Barbara Bradford
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 3:48pm
I am horrified by conditions in Detroit, including the schools. There are a multitude of reasons for what has happened. I have driven the mother's family story parallels Detroit's. My grandfather James C. Ritter started a grocery store on Gratiot Ave. Built the Rialto, Rivola, Russell, Boulevard movie theaters starting in 1911. All closed by 1958 demolished. Ritter lived on Canfield, Garfield, Field Avenues. All gone. In 1926 he built at 1329 Kensington, Grosse Pointe Park. This residence is intact. Homes he built in Grosse Poinre Farms for his son and daughter remain. From my 72 year old mind come answers from my experiences, maybe no good anymore. I taught in parochial schools...students felt honored to help with cleaning chores to supplement a single janitor for a K-12 school.....however these children are awash in poverty, drugs, broken families. Volunteers....years ago as State Director of Volunteer Services, I saw people transform their lives by volunteering. Where there's a will, there may be a piece of the way.
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 5:59pm
I can not believe the conditions of Detroit public schools! It is horrid that children and educators have been forced to work under these conditions. The citizens of MI should be ashamed at allowing the government to defund education to such an extent that this is the result! The state government, which is now republican controlled, has been in charge of the public schools there for over a decade. Elected officials are not in charge. The emergency manager that was previously in Flint is now in charge of the schools. What has been done to make improvements? What has been done to justify his hundreds of thousands a year salary? Republicans in MI are trying to destroy public education. They are not trying to improve anything. There is simply no excuse for abandoning these children. It doesn't matter how much or little these children's parents have, the citizens of MI need to provide a good quality education and safe environment for ALL our children! So, so shameful!
John S.
Mon, 01/18/2016 - 10:45pm
For decades it was the elected members of school boards focused only on how they could enrich themselves and their friends or pursue some hare brained agenda. They hired superintendents that they kept on a very tight leash and dismissed the instant that there was any effort to change the status quo. Unfortunately, state managers have been no better, seeing the enormity of the problem and likely throwing up their hands figuring that while they are here today, they'll be gone tomorrow. The scholar Terry Moe wrote years ago about how politics can disrupt public education. Where do you find a bright, experienced, public spirited school superintendent who can get a start on cleaning up the mess and also deal with school board members who seem to have multiple self-serving agendas? Would they want to come if they knew there was a Republican controlled legislature that wants further privatization (more charter schools)? Tragically, the teachers and the children they teach are the losers.
John Miller
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:27pm
It's laughable that Ivy is now trying to claim that these sickouts are about the deplorable conditions in DPS schools. When the first sickouts began in December, we didn't hear a word about deplorable conditions in the schools. It was all about not liking what Rick Snyder was supposedly doing to teachers, and them wanting more money from Lansing. Then, when that stupid strategy wasn't going anywhere, Steve Conn and his minions changed course and all of a sudden decided that the sickouts were actually about deplorable conditions in the schools! If you don't believe me, look it up. Look at the media coverage from the sickouts in December, and see if the focus was on "deplorable conditions." This is just about some union bosses trying to throw different pieces of rotten spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.