Officials’ tour at DPS school leads to confrontation

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

As Detroit Public Schools teachers considered whether to stage another sickout over poor building conditions, four school board members and a union representative toured Spain Elementary-Middle School Tuesday and found problems ranging from a lack of classroom heat to a gym padlocked because of water damage.

Among the problems board members and a union representative found at the school were broken flooring and lack of heat.

The visit led to a confrontation between the board members and DPS police officers from the state-run district, who threatened them with arrest if they tried to enter the gym.

During their tour, board members Herman Davis, Ida Short, LaMar Lemmons and Tawanna Simpson, and Lakia Wilson, a building representative with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, saw preschoolers in one classroom wearing coats and hats while being served a taco lunch. A chunk of floor tile was missing at the entrance to the classroom, where teacher Kimberly Collins stood in a coat and hat.

“It’s unfortunate that children have to come to school under these conditions,” Collins said as she dipped chicken taco meat into whole wheat tortillas. “Being so cold every day interferes with their learning, because it’s hard for them to concentrate.”

In another preschool classroom, teacher Tamika Smith rotated three portable heaters around the room as the youngsters played and talked while waiting for lunch.

“The staff, parents and students are the best, but this is the worst building, physically, I’ve ever worked in,” she said. “My students are constantly absent because they’re always sick.”

The visitors also saw children running and playing ball in a hallway because the school’s gym was padlocked.

Preschoolers play in the hallway of Spain Elementary-Middle School.”

“This is the first time we’re actually seeing inside the building because neither the emergency manager or anybody else told us about it,” Lemmons said.

The gym was closed because of water damage to the floor and “health issues,” DPS spokeswomen said Tuesday.

During the board members’ tour, they questioned why a lock on a door to the gym had been changed, preventing a janitor from opening it so they could go inside.

Davis threatened to break the lock with an instrument from his car, and DPS police were called.

With several officers standing by, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson addressed the board members by speaker phone: “There is no entry to that area. If you enter illegally, you are trespassing. The door is locked to ensure the safety of our students while the area is being repaired.”

Short responded: “That was a good speech, but children in this school have been exposed to these unsafe conditions for over a year ... They are breathing air from the same ventilation system, so how is this helping?”

DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district has put dehumidifiers and air scrubber machines in the gym, sealed air intakes, returns and doors with plastic sheeting and closed off the pool wing.

Zdrodowski also said the district is “developing a plan” to address some violations at Spain cited by city inspectors, including replacement of missing ceiling tiles, missing floor tiles and loose door frames. She said repairs to fix the heating issue that affected the two classrooms at Spain would be finished Wednesday.

However, she said the district lacks funding for roof and window replacement, “which would cost upwards of $5.4 million,” and that it’s “unlikely” DPS can fix all of the problems in the gym without aid from the state, such as the $715 million package sought by Gov. Rick Snyder.

“It has been very well documented that given the tenuous financial condition of the district over the last several years, its capital and maintenance programs have been lacking in some areas,” Zdrodowski said. “This is exacerbated by the fact that DPS is essentially insolvent, and if projections carry forward as expected, the district will run out of cash in April.”

The visit came a week after Mayor Mike Duggan toured several schools in the wake of repeated teacher sickouts that closed dozens of schools. Teachers said they stayed home to protest broken boilers, leaky roofs and other problems in DPS schools.

Detroit school board president Herman Davis studies a padlocked door to an area of Spain Elementary-Middle School that has been damaged.

During his visits, the mayor saw students bundled up in coats to ward off 50 degree temperatures. In one classroom at Spain, he saw a dead mouse.

The city began inspections of all DPS schools last week, with visits to the 20 most problematic buildings to be completed this month, and the rest by the end of April.

Tuesday, teachers interviewed by The Detroit News said they and their colleagues were discussing whether to launch another sickout. Some say last week’s sickout succeeded by getting the city and DPS to react to building problems.

Vanessa Dawson, a sixth-grade teacher at Paul Robeson-Malcolm X Academy, belongs to the group DPS Teachers Fight Back, which she called “a union within a union.” Dawson said she planned to show up to teach Wednesday but others might call in sick.

“We’re not recommending a sickout next week because we now have the attention of the parents and the nation and I think there are other forms of protest,” she said. “We’ve made progress and I don’t want to lose that.”

Dawson said conditions are not bad overall at her school, except for a lack of climate control.

“I have rheumatoid arthritis and I have to put tape around the windows and stuff them with rags to keep the cold winds out,” she said. “Cold air is constantly blowing on me. And when the heat does come in, it’s often too hot.”

Smith, who also belongs to the protest group, said teachers planned to vote building by building whether to call in sick Wednesday.

Ousted DFT president Steve Conn, who has a hearing Wednesday with the American Federation of Teachers on his bid to be reinstated, said his supporters will rally at Cobo Center afterward and vote whether to strike.

In a statement Tuesday night, Conn said, “Most DPS schools will be closed tomorrow, Wednesday, as teachers continue to sick out in protest of the governor’s plans to continue attacking public education in Detroit.”

Dawson said she and other members of DPS Teachers Fight Back share some of Conn’s goals but “never even mentioned striking.”

“Nothing we have done is outside of the DFT,” she said.

“I’m not blaming any single entity. I blame the teachers because we sat back too long without doing anything,” Dawson said. “We are just beat up and can’t take it any more. This is bringing me to tears.”