DPS chief says teacher sickouts hurt students, district

James David Dickson, Francis X. Donnelly, and Michael Wayland

Detroit — The state-appointed leader of Detroit Public Schools said Thursday that repeated school closures caused by teacher sickouts are hurting students and impeding efforts to solve the district’s financial problems.

Darnell Earley, Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools speaks with the media, Thursday Jan. 7, 2016 at King High School in Detroit.

Darnell Earley, the district’s emergency manager, addressed the unscheduled closures Thursday during an afternoon news conference at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, one of two DPS buildings closed Thursday after large numbers of teachers called off. Renaissance High School also was closed.

“These actions caused by a minority of teachers ... disrupt the efforts intended for those who can ill-afford to lose instruction time,” Earley said.

Teachers upset by large class sizes, pay and benefit concessions, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to create a new, debt-free Detroit school district have staged a series of sickouts in recent months.

“Let me just state for the record that I don’t disagree with anyone’s right to protest,” Earley said. “But I do disagree with the negative impact this is having on our students and our families because of the way it is being orchestrated. ... Using students as pawns ... in my opinion, is not only unacceptable, it is also very unethical.”

Earley also expressed concern that the sickouts and the resulting school closures could cost the district support in Lansing as lawmakers consider the district’s future. DPS is carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and Snyder is lobbying legislators to approve a $715 million package to pay off the debt and restructure education in Detroit.

“My purpose here today is not to indict, slam or criticize anyone,” Earley said. “It’s to sound a message of urgency: The time for nonsense is over.”

Steve Conn, the elected-then-removed president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, took credit for the sickouts. Conn said he and a contingent of teachers would be meeting on Sunday at Gracious Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church to discuss further actions, including a full-blown strike.

Ivy Bailey, current president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, could not be reached.

The closures at King and at Renaissance, which DPS describes as one of its “premier” college-prep high schools, come two days after another top Detroit high school, Cass Tech, was closed due to a teacher sickout — mass numbers of teachers calling off work, closing school for the day in lieu of an actual strike, which is illegal under state law.

Teacher sickouts resulted in several school closures in December, including Bates Academy, Mason Elementary, West Side Academy and Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School. District officials at the time sent “notices of investigation” to teachers thought to be involved in sickouts on Nov. 3, Dec. 1, Dec. 10 and Dec. 11, according to the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union representing the district’s educators.

Mayor Mike Duggan responded Thursday to the sickouts, saying: “We’ve got to get on top of this issue. It’s an issue in Lansing. I think as everybody knows, the state has been running the school system since (Gov.) Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency manager about six years ago and things have only gotten worse.”

The city does not run Detroit Public Schools, but the quality of schools in the city is thought to be a major factor as Detroit tries to regain population.

Duggan said he and the state’s education coalition have put forward a proposal to have a local education commission that would set standards for all public and charter schools, but it’s up to officials in Lansing to make the next move.

“The longer Lansing takes, the more of these issues we’re going to have. It’s very, very frustrating — especially for parents who get a phone call and are maybe going to work that their kids aren’t going to school today. It’s a bad situation.

“I’m working as hard as I can, but we’re dealing with a Republican governor, a Republican House, a Republican Senate. I can work as hard as I can but at the end of the day, the leadership in Lansing has to have the will to get this done.”

At Earley’s press conference, the grandmother of a student at King High said teachers should set a good example for students by showing them how to resolve problems without resorting to sickouts.

Carol Summers said she was concerned the sickout could continue to spread to other schools.

“I’m imploring everyone to understand how important it is (for students) not to miss school,” she said.

Because of a high number of teacher absences, Renaissance High School is closed on Thursday. It’s the second teacher sickout this week in Detroit Public Schools. Cass Tech was closed on Tuesday.

Renaissance, like Cass Tech, is considered one of Detroit’s best public high schools. It has been recognized both by the state and the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School.

The chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee on School Aid called on the state school superintendent to impose sanctions on the teachers’ union.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, said Superintendent Brian Whiston should consider “all available options.”

“This is selfish behavior and a blatant attempt to circumvent the law barring the DFT from walking away from their responsibilities and striking,” Kelly said in a statement.

Students aren’t assigned to Renaissance on the basis of geography, but by applying as eighth-graders, a process that requires an entrance exam. Once admitted, students are required to maintain a 2.5 grade point average. The attendance rate at the high school is 97 percent for the last two years for which numbers were available, according to DPS. Just over 1,100 students attend Renaissance, the district says. The school is on the west side, at 6565 W. Outer Drive, between McNichols and Seven Mile.

If class were in session on Thursday, about 88 percent of King’s 1,400-plus students would show up, according to DPS figures. King is on the east side, at 3200 E. Lafayette, between Chene and Mount Elliott.

Tina Boyd, a junior at King, comes to King from 10 Mile and Harper in St. Clair Shores. That’s a choice that comes at a cost. Each week, Boyd has to give her grandmother $20 for rides to and from the school, “even if her tank is already full.”

“She says it teaches responsibility,” Boyd explained. “This week, I should’ve kept my money.”

Boyd was one of several students who arrived at the school only to find that class was canceled for the day.

“They call my house when I miss a day of school, but when school is closed I didn’t get a call,” Boyd said.

When Claire Varner, a junior at King, heard that Renaissance was closed through a media announcement earlier Thursday, she kept listening, hoping to hear her school mentioned next.

“Please say King, please say King,” Varner said. But her school wasn’t mentioned. It wasn’t until she approached the building that she learned the school was closed for the day. While she was happy to have the day off, Varner said the timing wasn’t ideal with final exams next week.

Varner walked to school Thursday with three freshmen. The group yelled to approaching students, telling them that school was closed. Some turned away. Some waited to catch a city bus back home. Some joined the group briefly to talk about how they’d spend their day.

LaMonica Stallings, a King freshman, said she had heard the school was closed but “wanted to see for myself. That’s one thing my mom is gonna say: Did you see it for yourself?”

Stallings missed classes in U.S. history and French, among others, but was concerned most that she’d be missing band class. With the school’s MLK Day celebration coming up and the band playing a big part, Stallings said practice time was important.

Varner told the freshmen that by the time they were juniors, they would welcome an unexpected day off.

Two security guards stood at an entrance, allowing teachers to enter the building but telling students to turn back.

“Enjoy your day,” a security guard said as a car approached King’s entrance at about 8:15 a.m. after the school day would have started. “School’s closed.”