DPS Teachers Sick of Conditions

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 14, 2016

Many teachers in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have had enough. Amidst the budget crisis, enrollment woes, and low achievement scores, educators endure revolting working conditions that have provoked a drastic measure. On January 7, teachers at Renaissance and King High Schools closed due to a, “high volume of teacher absences.” Teachers at other schools soon got on board with the protest, and by January 11, 60 of Detroit’s roughly 100 schools were shut down by teachers taking sick days in order to demonstrate their disgust with the district and demand action.

Photo courtesy of Brian Knight

Photo courtesy of Brian Knight

Deplorable Conditions

Teachers protested what they called unsafe, dilapidated, rodent-infested and inadequately staffed buildings. Interim union president, Ivey Bailey, described the state in many of the schools: “The deplorable conditions in our schools have created a serious environmental and educational crisis that is being ignored. We refuse to stand by while teachers, school support staff, and students are exposed to conditions that one might expect in a Third World country, not the United States of America. The children of Detroit, Flint or any other community should not be exposed to atrocious, environmental hazards.”

Teachers are not only outraged about the conditions, however. They are also frustrated with the failure of state lawmakers to agree on a plan to rescue a system teetering on the edge of insolvency. Darnell Earley, the emergency financial manager in control of the district, acknowledges the concerns of teachers but calls the sick days “misguided.” “It’s clear that teachers are feeling an overwhelming sense of frustration over the challenges that they and all DPS employees face as they do their jobs each day,” Earley cautioned that the impromptu strike “serve[s] no purpose other than to harm and disrupt the efforts intended for those who can ill afford to lose instruction time, social building time and time in the classrooms.”

Earley’s concerns are also financial. The missed instructional days resulted in the absence of more than 31,000 of the 46,000 district students and according to Earley, these absences could cost the district more than $1 million in state funding that is based on attendance. Presumably, Earley is referring to the possibility of absences of this magnitude on Spring Count Day, which falls on the second Wednesday in February and determines 10% of the districts funding for the following year.

What’s Next?

It is unclear what the teacher’s long-term strategy will be. The protest, which was not organized or authorized by the union, was intended to pressure officials in Lansing into helping the schools. The group of teachers behind the sickout has been talking of the possibility of a full-fledged strike, and while the union has played down that possibility, it will likely be discussed at a membership meeting on Thursday.

Immediate, Decisive, and Comprehensive Attention

The sick-out clearly has the attention of public officials, however. Mayor Mike Duggan committed to touring the schools Tuesday, and State Superintendent Brian Whiston has called for health and safety concerns to be attended to as soon as possible. Hopefully, these are not empty promises.

While the sick-outs are communicating the largely ignored dire state of the infrastructure of DPS schools, we can’t ignore the impact these days have on students and families. As the Detroit Free Press’s Nancy Kaffer recently observed, these are students, “whose parents have jobs, family obligations or other responsibilities, and whose lives are structured around the school day. Thousands of parents, in a city with a 38% poverty rate, in a school district in which 81% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch — and that means parents with jobs less likely to offer paid time off, or the kind of flexibility that allows easy accommodation of an unexpected school closing.”

No matter which side of the debate one falls on, it’s hard to argue that these issues need immediate, decisive, and comprehensive attention.


Contact Kacy: kmartin@msu.edu

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.