State superintendent calls on teachers to end sickouts

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan’s state school superintendent called Friday on Detroit teachers to stop the sickouts that have caused repeated school closures this week and over the past two months.

“I understand that teachers in Detroit Public Schools have real concerns about the financial, academic, and structural future of their schools, but for the sakes of their students, they need to be in the classrooms teaching,” Brian Whiston said in a statement issued after classes were canceled Friday at East English Village Preparatory Academy and Mann Learning Community.

Friday’s closures brought to five the number of DPS buildings that were closed at least one day this week because of teacher sickouts, a tactic former Detroit Federation of Teachers president Steve Conn takes credit for implementing.

“I am calling on teachers in Detroit public schools to end their systematic plans of not reporting to work. ...,” Whiston said. “I will be calling a meeting of state and local stakeholders to sit down, discuss the issues, and finally put together a viable solution that will move education forward for the children in the city of Detroit.”

Whiston issued his statement a day after the chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee on School Aid called on him to sanction the teachers union.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, said Whiston should consider “all available options” and called the sickout “selfish behavior and a blatant attempt to circumvent the law barring the DFT from walking away from their responsibilities and striking.”

The leader of a statewide association that advocates for school officials also called for the teachers to be punished.

“I think any time people use kids for a political statement, I think there has to be ramifications,” Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said Friday during a taping of the public affairs television show “Off the Record.”

“I’m not giving a broad brush over every teacher that they’re not there for kids, and probably even the teachers who are doing this are there for kids, but politics can’t take over what’s going on in the classroom, especially with the types of student achievement that we need to get in the city of Detroit,” Wigent said.

The sickouts have been staged by 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.

Conn said he and a contingent of DPS teachers will meet at 4 p.m. Sunday at Gracious Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church to plan their next moves, which might include a full-blown strike.

Conn was ousted as president of the DFT and expelled from the union in August after the local’s executive board found him guilty of internal misconduct charges.

In a statement issued Friday by the American Federation of Teachers, interim DFT president Ivy Bailey said Sunday’s meeting is not sanctioned by the union.

“The Detroit Federation of Teachers has learned that Steve Conn is holding a meeting on Sunday to talk about further actions,” Bailey said. “Let me be clear: This meeting is not a DFT-sponsored meeting, as has been mistakenly reported.”

Besides the two schools closed Friday, classes this week were canceled at Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School. That means roughly 6,730 students have missed class because of sickouts.

Teacher sickouts also resulted in several school closures in November and December, including Bates Academy, Mason Elementary, West Side Academy and Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School.

District officials at that time sent “notices of investigation” to teachers thought to be involved in sickouts on Nov. 3 and Dec. 1, 10 and 11, according to the DFT.

In a press conference Thursday at King High School, DPS emergency manager Darnell Earley said that while he did not begrudge teachers the right to protest working conditions, it is “unethical” for them to do it in a way that takes learning time away from students.

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

In a statement posted on the DFT’s website, Bailey criticized Earley for “blaming the teachers — the glue that holds this system together.”

“While we don’t condone the action taken by a small number of our members, we understand the utter frustration underlying it,” she said.

Chad Livengood contributed.