Coalition heads urge state: Fix DPS finances, buildings

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — As a teacher sickout closed some Detroit Public Schools for a third straight day, leaders of a coalition pushing to overhaul the city’s education system said state officials must act quickly to fix the district’s finances and dilapidated school buildings.

According to the district, five schools were closed Wednesday because too many teachers called off. A sixth school was closed because of a power outage.

The mass teacher absences, sparked by anger over class sizes and health and safety issues in district buildings, among other concerns, forced DPS to shut 24 schools Tuesday and 64 on Monday.

Wednesday, co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren said time is running out to address the district’s problems, including hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

“The financial solution is not there,” John Rakolta Jr. said during a a media call-in session. “This will take a significant amount of money and there is no easy place to go to get the money. The big issue unresolved is over the amount of debt and the amount of money needed to reform it.”

He continued: “The Legislature has two choices: to do nothing, which they’ve done for a year – we submitted our recommendations in March – or declare bankruptcy, which is as bad as it will get. It will be a catastrophe for the state. There is $3.6 billion of debt the state is responsible for and nobody has that money.”

Recommendations from the coalition last year included returning DPS from state to local control, putting Education Achievement Authority schools back in the district and having the state pay off the district’s debt.

Tonya Allen, another coalition co-chair, said Mayor Mike Duggan’s tour of Detroit schools Tuesday brought fresh attention to building conditions in the state’s largest district. Duggan reported seeing a dead mouse in one building and students wearing coats in a chilly classroom.

“As Mayor Duggan noted yesterday after touring several schools, we’ve long known that classroom conditions in many Detroit schools — DPS and charter — are heartbreaking,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “The city’s education system as a whole is failing its students. Those who serve our kids every day must respond to a higher calling. It’s time for us all to hear that call. We need everyone in the game — parents, teachers, the mayor and the governor and the legislature.”

Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, also cited building conditions in a statement Wednesday.

“Teachers are continuing to show their frustration because they have heard no response about the deplorable conditions in which DPS students and staff are subjected,” she said.

In a statement late Wednesday, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district met Tuesday with the Detroit Federation of Teachers and organizers of Monday’s sickout “to discuss their concerns.”

“During the meeting a substantive conversation occurred and a number of viable solutions related to the issues that could be immediately addressed were put forth,” she said. “Our plan is to continue to work through these solutions, but we were disappointed when the sickouts continued, and with the apparent dismissal of the issues our team left the meeting thinking were all in agreement on.”

Bailey, who attended the meeting, said there is more work to do to address teachers’ concerns.

“The meeting was agreeable,” she said in a statement. “But one conversation won’t resolve years of compounded issues.”

slewis@detroitnews.com