Sickouts to affect 3 dozen DPS schools, ex-leader warns

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Detroit – A former union leader who led teacher sickouts that closed five Detroit public schools last week said Sunday the job actions will continue this week.

Steve Conn, the ousted leader of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the rolling sickouts will affect three dozen schools Monday and possibly other schools later in the week.

“We’re saying that’s enough,” Conn said about teachers’ unhappiness with district administrators.

Conn, who met with 100 teachers for 90 minutes Sunday, said they’re also considering a districtwide strike.

Detroit Public Schools issued an alert Sunday warning parents the job action would likely lead to the closing of the affected schools, which weren’t identified by Conn.

Darnell Earley, emergency manager of the school district, said the sickouts will hurt DPS in its quest to receive financial aid from the state Legislature.

“Unfortunately, obtaining that support becomes more challenging with each closure of a school due to a teacher sickout,” he said in a prepared statement.

Conn spoke to the media Sunday after discussing possible job actions with teachers at Gracious Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Detroit

Teachers are upset by large class sizes, pay and benefit concessions, and a state plan to create a new, debt-free Detroit school district.

Union leaders stopped short of endorsing the sickout but said they share the frustration felt by the teachers involved in the job actions.

Interim DFT president Ivy Bailey said she was glad the sickouts were getting wide attention and may prompt administrators to address teachers’ concerns.

“Many issues are not being addressed,” said Bailey. “Teachers are trying to voice their concerns. But nobody is listening.”

As for the sickouts Monday, the school district said it will begin alerting parents about school closures no later than 6 a.m.

It encouraged students’ families to learn which specific schools are targeted by checking the DPS website or Facebook page or by following news reports.

Also, schools will send families an automated call if they need to close due to teacher absences.

The schools closed last week were Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School, Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, East English Village Preparatory Academy and Mann Learning Community.

The closings affected 6,730 students. The district has 46,325 students in its 107 school buildings.

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, 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,” said Earley.

On Friday the state school superintendent called on Detroit teachers to stop the sickouts.

“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.

“I am calling on teachers in Detroit public schools to end their systematic plans of not reporting to work.”

On Thursday, the chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee on School Aid called on Whiston 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.”

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.

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed.