Detroit teachers call for better pay, building upgrades as superintendent scraps new school calendar
Detroit — More than 400 teachers and union employees from Detroit public schools turned out for Tuesday night's board of education meeting to demand increases in teacher pay, improved building conditions and more classroom resources.
Donning red union T-shirts, teachers protested outside the school board meeting and took turns inside during the meeting to ask for changes, including an increase in salaries in the district, which ended nearly a decade of state control in 2017.
The board meeting was at Renaissance High School, where the standing- room-only audience had teachers shouting out their concerns and receiving widespread applause.
Lakia Wilson, a 22 year teacher in the district and member of the DFT executive board, told the school board and Vitti that she is standing up for changes and against ineffective systems.
"Together we stand against an ineffective student of code that has not improved climate and culture," Wilson said. "We stand up against bullying principals. Together we stand for real (pay) increases."
Earlier in the day, Detroit Public School Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, told The Detroit News a new school calendar for Detroit's public schools that had included a pre-Labor Day start, recognition of a Muslim holiday and increased professional development days for teachers had been rescinded.
Vitti said that despite a verbal agreement from the teacher's union leadership approving the 2019-20 calendar and weeks of negotiations with teachers after concerns were raised, the district has been unable to reach a formal agreement with the teachers union and will use the same calendar as this school year.
"We need to move on to plan for professional development this summer and to provide families and staff with clarity on next year’s calendar," Vitti said on Tuesday. "We have been negotiating the calendar for five months. I, the district, respect the collective bargaining agreement, and that means honoring it even when you disagree with aspects of it."
Union members say they opposed the calendar for several reasons, including an additional five work days for teachers, a pre-Labor Day start and a shortened winter break from five to two days.
In late April, about a week after the board approved the new calendar, about 250 teachers voted unanimously to oppose it at a union meeting. The district has about 3,000 teachers.
Detroit Federation of Teachers president Terrence Martin issued a statement in response to the calendar change: "The union did not agree to the proposed academic calendar. Our members have spoken," adding the union "is happy" with the way the calendar was changed.
At a protest rally Tuesday outside Renaissance High, where 200 people gathered, Martin said there never was a verbal agreement by union leadership on the calendar, despite Vitti’s claim.
Martin said he questioned why Vitti took the calendar to the school board on April 16 when the DFT had not agreed to changes.
“We had a number of conversations with no agreement,” Martin said of talks between his executive board and Vitti’ s executive board. Martin said neither he nor Vitti were at the table for those talks.
Teacher Steve Conn said Tuesday he interprets the decision to rescind the new calendar a victory for teachers who stood up.
"It shows that when teachers stand up, they win. Now we're demanding a pay raise and smaller class size," said Conn, who teaches at Western International High School.
Vitti said the upcoming school calendar will be the same as the current 2018-19 calendar with the same five professional development days, a full mid-winter break and no recognition of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
DFT, along with unions representing DPSCD employees, had agreed to the new calendar that was approved by the board in April, Vitti said.
"Historically, this is a verbal agreement, not a signed agreement," Vitti said. Moving forward, the district will change that expectation to a full signature, he added.
Vitti said the move to add more professional development days was for all employees and included paying them a higher rate than their daily rate for attending.
"We will still offer professional development this summer but through the (professional development) stipend rate. This is a lost opportunity to increase teacher pay," Vitti said.
Under the rescinded calendar, the first day of school for students was to be Aug. 26 and the first day of work for teachers was Aug. 19. The calendar had included five professional development days in August before the school year began and five more days during the school year.
Ben Royal and Nicole Conaway, teachers and union members, say boosting teacher pay, reducing class sizes and eliminating a school rating system are among concerns.
Teachers also asked the district to provide immediate funds for upgrades to deteriorating school buildings, a 20% raise for every step to achieve parity with other districts, reduce class sizes in every grade, offer freedom for teachers to plan and make curriculum decisions, restore due process for teachers and eliminate the Detroit A-F rankings of schools.
The Detroit News last month reported on unaddressed facilities conditions across the district, which needs $543 million in repairs to address inoperable boilers, corroded plumbing fixtures, missing ceiling tiles in classrooms, roof leaks and other problems.
On Tuesday, Vitti said the district has limited resources, just allocated nearly $10 million for facility improvements and is engaging the state and city on the need to secure district borrowing.
Vitti also said the district has reduced class sizes and "decreasing class size more requires being fully staffed and increases in revenue funding to add more teacher positions to schools."
Royal also said teachers must be paid more and offered a list of wages at other Metro Detroit districts.
The most common reason cited by teachers leaving the education profession is low pay, Royal said.
"A 20% raise for each step of the salary schedule will make Detroit more attractive compared to other local districts for new teachers to begin their careers," said Royal, and it will also ensure that teaching in Detroit remains competitive for more experienced teachers."
Vitti said he agreed teachers should be paid more, but that disparity in wages is due to state funding formulas. He suggests teachers take their concerns to the state leaders who determine district funding.