Detroit teachers' protest shuts schools, draws fire

Shawn D. Lewis, and Chad Livengood

Detroit — As Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled his plan to overhaul Detroit's fractured school system Thursday, 18 city schools were closed after hundreds of unionized teachers took the day off to protest in Lansing and Detroit.

The mass teacher absence and protests sparked criticism from the district, state lawmakers and Snyder himself.

At a Detroit news conference where he discussed his proposal to split Detroit Public Schools into "new" and "old" districts, the governor said the teachers were "protesting without having heard what I have to say. I'm not sure how their being out there protesting is helping the kids."

About 300 members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers rallied at the state Capitol in Lansing ahead of Snyder's midday announcement, and a group of about 20 picketed outside Cadillac Place as the governor spoke on the 15th floor.

The president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Steve Conn, called the closings and the demonstrations "a testament of the teachers union's power and their determination to fight for the future of their students and the people of Detroit."

In Lansing, teachers said they wanted an end to state control of DPS, restoration of a 10 percent pay cut and a cap on class sizes of 35.

DPS officials said they had to close the schools because there weren't enough teachers on hand. In a statement, Emergency Manager Darnell Earley said about 500 teachers were absent, out of slightly more than 2,800.

"This unplanned turn of events is seriously misguided and directly harms our students — taking away a day in the classroom that students can ill-afford given the school days already missed due to our severe weather this past winter," Earley said.

Earley said a majority of the absent teachers took "personal business days" under their contract. "The district, however, reserves the right to investigate instances of suspected abuse of leave," he said.

The schools closed Thursday were Pasteur, Brewer, JR King, Western, Mackenzie, Ron Brown, Bates, Wright, Nichols, Neinas, Dixon, Sampson, Frederick Douglass, DCP @ NWHS, Durfee, Gompers, Emerson and Thirke.

Earley said the district is looking into how the missed day will be handled for students at those schools. Bill Disessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said DPS could apply for a snow day waiver.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter condemned the protest.

"Today's careless political maneuvering by the Detroit Federation of Teachers is another example of the selfish attitude that has put the demands of adults above the needs of Detroit's kids for decades," he said.

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