Detroit teachers take battle to new level

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The American Federation of Teachers could join the Detroit Federation of Teachers in a trusteeship to shore up the local union’s fight against Gov. Rick Snyder’s school reform proposal and other issues facing the district.

The AFT is calling the move to a trusteeship a “voluntary administratorship,” and it is already sparking controversy. The deal, which would include AFT organizers, communications specialists, political operatives, researchers and education policy experts, has not yet been signed.

At least one critic said the proposal for a trusteeship has nothing to do with helping Detroit teachers.

“It is a desperate move on the part of the AFT and DFT bureaucracy ... to stop Detroit teachers from waging an all-out fight against the governor’s so-called New DPS/Old DPS plan, which seeks to end public education in Detroit,” said ousted DFT President Steven Conn.

The plan is expected to be voted on by the AFT executive council either Monday or Tuesday, said retired DFT president and current AFT Vice President Keith Johnson.

The union has taken a stand against Snyder’s Detroit schools reform plans, which propose paying off millions of DPS debt and creating a new district for Detroit schoolchildren. It also has balked at increased employee health care costs and the Education Achievement Authority, the school system created by Snyder in 2011 to turn around failing Detroit schools.

In a letter to members dated Dec. 4 on the DFT website, DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey said she wrote to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in October, saying all that the union has done to fight for educators and their schools has not been enough.

“The crisis we face is growing larger and growing closer,” wrote Bailey. “While we have reason to be proud of our engagement, we must not underestimate the resources we will need to win this fight.

“So, on Oct. 14, I wrote to President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, our national union. In my letter, I wrote about the attacks on our healthcare benefits, the continued abuses of the emergency manager, and the harm done to our community by his unilateral decision-making. I also raised the alarm about widespread characterization and neighborhood school closures, as well as efforts by the governor and national corporate interests to privatize and take apart, piece by piece, our public school system. Then I asked for help.”

In the email, Bailey said Weingarten flew to Detroit to meet with the DFT executive board on Oct. 23. On Nov. 2, Weingarten, in a letter to Bailey, suggested “a voluntary administratorship for the DFT as the most effective way at this moment to address our challenges.”

“This voluntary administratorship would be a form of partnership between the AFT and the DFT. Central to the voluntary administratorship is a comprehensive campaign, with AFT organizers, communications specialists, political operatives, researchers and education policy experts, working together to reach and involve every DFT member, strengthen our ties with community partners, fight back against the attacks, and create a path to a stronger future for our members and the communities served by our schools.”

On Sunday, Bailey said the partnership will mean “we will have a vibrant future.”

“When the dust clears, the Detroit Federation of Teachers will still stand united and strong,” she said in an emailed statement. “We will be an organization with a greater ability to fight for our community and the students we serve, because we will have engaged, organized and mobilized entities throughout the city of Detroit who put children first.”

Weingarten did not responded Sunday to a request for comment.

Conn pointed to a sickout last week by teachers at three Detroit schools, calling it a “huge success” that was worrisome to DFT leaders.

“ ... Teacher strike plans are developing rapidly,” Conn said. “Weingarten, Bailey and (Executive Vice President Terrance) Martin are frantically trying to derail these strike preparations. A strike is the only thing that can mobilize the people of Detroit to our side and defeat the governor’s plans to destroy public education in Detroit.”

Conn also said the trusteeship means canceling DFT presidential elections.

Johnson, who said trusteeship is a prudent move, explained AFT would be responsible for day-to-day operations of the union. “But Ivy Bailey will still handle supervising the office staff, labor relations and she will make decisions,” said Johnson. “The trustee will help make sure we have everything we need by helping with both human resources and financial resources.”

Johnson denied Conn’s claims that the move was in support of Snyder’s plan to reinvent Detroit schools.

“It is exactly the opposite,” he said. “This is fortifying our fight against Snyder’s plan.”

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