Detroit teachers union protests DPS health care changes

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Dozens of teachers and supporters rallied Thursday outside Detroit Public Schools headquarters, demanding the district drop plans to change their health care coverage.

They then worked their way up to district offices on the 10th floor of the Fisher Building.

“We began boarding the elevators and one of the security guards tried to turn off the elevators,” Detroit Federation of Teachers President Steve Conn said. “We went up to the 10th floor and continued chanting. We were demanding that they take the petitions, and I explained this was just the initial batch.”

Conn said he presented the petitions to the executive staff and waited for a receipt.

“I asked to meet with (DPS Emergency Manager Darnell) Earley, but I was told he was unavailable,” he said.

Conn said he is going to continue to push for meetings with Earley: “He has refused to meet with any union personnel and we’re demanding that he start meeting with us.”

DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said Earley has “regular dialogue” with union leaders.

“Mr. Earley ... has met in person with them all, including Mr. Conn, at least once,” she said.

One of the protesters, Jose Cardiel, 19, a Wayne State University college student, said he and other protesters left the executive floor to return outside to continue marching and chanting.

“When we originally began protesting, there were two police officers on bikes, asking me who was in charge and how long we’d be out there,” Cardiel said. “But when we came back outside, there now were 20 police officers. I counted them. They were standing there, many with their hands on their guns. I thought that was unnecessary. I just kept my eyes on their hands.”

Earlier, the protesters signed petitions with the headline, “Stop Driving Teachers and Students Out of Detroit Schools.”

“We’re fighting the governor’s attempt to destroy public education,” Conn said. “With all the cuts, including our health care, he’s making it so nobody will want to teach here. He’s driving teachers out, like the school closings were an effort to drive students and families out.”

The teachers object to reductions in health care benefits proposed by DPS, which is struggling to close a $170 million deficit.

A plan announced this spring by Earley would raise the deductibles of health insurance plans for DPS employees from $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families to as much as $4,000 and $8,000, respectively. It also would hike co-pays for doctor’s visits, prescription drugs and hospital trips, according to Conn.

The petitions say the district’s plan would deny teachers and their families access to health care.

Besides fighting the health care changes, the union also wants DPS to give teachers their fall class assignments now, instead of later in the summer, and an end to school “reconstitutions” that force instructors to reapply for jobs.

DPS announced last month it would revamp academic offerings and make other changes at eight low-performing schools this summer.

“The eight schools have consistently been listed on (the state’s) priority schools list, with many being classified in the lowest 5 percent for three years,” Zdrodowski said. “We made the decision to restructure in order to improve academic rigor and performance.”

She also disputed the petitions’ health care claims.

“It is misleading to say that the proposed redesign of the district’s health care plan would deny employees coverage,” Zdrodowski said. “In addition to the fact that employee contributions will, in most cases not increase, the new plan promotes wellness and encourages employees to take an active role in all of their health care decisions.”

Tracy Brown, who teaches fifth grade at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School, attended the protest wearing a pink T-shirt that read: “Proud defender of public education.”

“I’ve been teaching for over two decades and I’ve seen the deterioration under the emergency managers, including declining teacher salaries, hostile work environments, increasing class size. I think some of these actions are deliberate attempts to run away good teachers so we’ll eventually become like Highland Park and have to close the district,” she said.

School board member the Rev. David Murray said he was there to support the students and teachers.

“These are the hardest working teachers in America,” he said. “They’re not just teaching academics, they’re feeding the students, buying them clothing and then, they don’t just work eight hours. When they get home they’re grading papers, calling parents. They have to be teachers, social workers, counselors — they have to do everything.”

East English Village High School teacher Nicole Conaway said she attended to preserve public education.

“We’re here to stop any plans for driving teachers and students away from DPS,” she said. “This is a united struggle. It’s not just about our health care or our pay. This is about the future of public education, which means it’s about the lives of young people.”

(313) 222-2296