Mich. school head to DPS: Address health, safety issues

James David Dickson, and Kim Kozlowski

With more than half of Detroit Public Schools closed Monday by a teacher sickout, Michigan’s top school official called for the district’s emergency manager to address health and safety issues in classroom buildings in response to teachers’ complaints.

State superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement that DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley should meet with district, state and local representatives in response to a press conference and a rally Monday where teachers expressed concern over schools with leaky roofs, broken boilers and shortages of books.

“I care deeply about the safety and well-being of teachers in Detroit, just as I do the students,” Whiston said. “They all still need to be in the classrooms teaching and learning, though. If buildings have health and safety issues, they need to be addressed immediately with the district administration and all appropriate agencies.”

DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district “places a top priority on creating a good working and learning environment for our students and staff.”

“As such we work every day to ensure that our school buildings are safe, clean and in good repair,” she said in a statement. “Our Operations Department works very closely with all regulatory agencies to ensure we meet their guidelines.”

Mayor Mike Duggan said in response to “substandard conditions in school buildings” reported by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, he plans Tuesday to visit “a number of those schools” with the heads of the Detroit Health Department and the Detroit Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department.

“Based on what we find, the City of Detroit will take whatever enforcement action is necessary to make sure all Detroit Public Schools are compliant with all health and building codes,” Duggan said in a statement.

Sixty-four of 104 schools were shut Monday, the largest in a series of teacher sickouts in the past two months in DPS.

Besides building problems, teachers are upset by large class sizes, pay and benefit cuts, and a state plan to split DPS in two and create a new, debt-free district. DPS, run by state-appointed emergency managers since March 2009, has $515 million in past debts and unpaid bills.

At a rally at DPS’ Fisher Building headquarters, teachers said students are jeopardized by poor building conditions and a shortage of educational materials.

Students lack textbooks and other supplies and are in buildings with leaky roofs and mold, said Kimberly Jackson, a seventh-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy. Some bathrooms don’t have toilet paper.

“We are set up for failure,” Jackson said. “No other district ... would allow their children to be inside a school building under those conditions.”

The rally, attended by about 200 teachers, parents and children, was organized by DPS Teachers Fight Back — a grassroots group formed a week ago, Jackson said.

“Our goal is not to shut the schools down,” she said. “Our goal is to have a quality education for our children.”

Joann Jackson attended the rally with her two grandchildren, 6-year-old Larry Price and 10-year-old Alayah Price, both students at Robeson.

“I am sick and tired of what is happening in Detroit Public School system,” Joanna Jackson said. “We are $4.5 billion in deficit. Every time I turn around, I am asking where’s the money? No one seems to know.”

Alayah, a fifth-grader, said she knows why she was not in school Monday: because there’s not enough money to get books that she needs. There are some books, but not all.

“When I am trying to do my school work, I want to do all of it, not some of it because we don’t have all of our books,” Alayah said.

Duggan said the state needs to address the district’s dire finances, saying that 30 percent to 40 percent of state funding for Detroit schools “is now going to pay debt instead of going to teaching our children.”

He also called for the sickouts to end.

“I understand the teachers’ frustration, but our children need our teachers in the classroom,” Duggan said in his statement.

The chairman of the state Senate Education Committee called the sickout “an illegal strike.”

“I’m actively working with my colleagues to address these escalating work stoppages, to hold individuals who break the law accountable, and to put Detroit students first,” Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, said in a statement.

Members of the state Legislature’s Detroit Caucus, all Democrats, said they support the teachers’ action and want Gov. Rick Snyder and Earley to “act immediately” to ensure safe, well-equipped classrooms.

“While I am a parent of a child enrolled in DPS who’s at home (Monday), I fully understand the angst that Detroit teachers and administrators face,” Sen. Bert Johnson said in a statement.

At a news conference, interim DFT president Ivy Bailey and other union officials, teachers and parents called for public hearings on building issues.

“We refuse to stand by while teachers, school support staff and students are exposed to conditions that one might expect in a Third World country, not the United States of America,” she said.

Bailey said health and safety hazards include rodent infestations, crumbling walls, holes in ceilings, cracked sidewalks and broken boilers. She also said DPS has 170 teaching vacancies and that some special education classrooms have no textbooks.

Steve Conn, ousted in August as president of the DFT by the union’s executive board, has been calling for teachers to stay home in protest of building conditions, pay and benefit cuts, and state control of DPS.

At a meeting with about 25 supporters Monday at Gracious Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church, Conn hailed the mass school closures.

“It’s a huge victory and step up in the spirit and energy and enthusiasm and fighting spirit of Detroit teachers,” he said. “It’s taken our movement a huge leap forward.”

Conn added, “It’s going to take the next step, a full-blown strike, to win our just demands to stop the full-scale destruction of our district, win the teacher pay and class-size reductions. This is a step toward that strike.”

Asked if teachers would be in school Tuesday, he said: “We’ll have to see.”

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said in a statement that “the best thing for Detroit children is to be in school and get the best education they can so they are able to reach their full potential.”

“We understand why some are frustrated. Gov. Snyder is working to improve academics and finances in Detroit schools,” he said. “Right now, the district pays a figure equal to $1,100 per child for debt service ... The Governor’s plan would (allow) that money to be better spent in the classroom.”


Schools closed on Monday

1. Bagley

2. Bates

3. Blackwell

4. Bow

5. Bunche

6. Burton International

7. Carleton

8. Carstens

9. Carver

10. Chrysler

11. Clarke Preparatory

12. Cody - APL

13. Cody - DIT

14. Cody - Medicine and Community Health

15. Coleman Young

16. Communication and Media Arts

17. Cooke

18. Davidson

19. DCP at Northwestern

20. Detroit International Academy

21. Detroit School of the Arts

22. Detroit Lions

23. Dixon

24. Dossin

25. Douglass Prep Academy

26. Earhart

27. Edison

28. Emerson

29. Fisher Lower

30. Fisher Upper


32. Gardner

33. Gompers

34. Greenfield Union

35. Henderson

36. AL Holmes

37. Hutchinson

38. Jerry L White

39. John R King

40. Ludington

41. MacKenzie

42. Marshall, Thurgood

43. Marquette

44. Mason

45. Maybury

46. Moses Field

47. Munger

48. Neinas

49. Nichols

50. Noble

51. Osborn College Prep

52. Osborn MST

53. Palmer Park

54. Pasteur

55. Pulaski

56. Randolph Center

57. Robeson

58. Sampson

59. Spain

60. Thirkell

61. Vernor

62. Wayne

63. West Side Academy

64. Wright, Charles