DPS seeks restraining order against teachers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools is asking a judge to issue a restraining order and a preliminary injunction against teachers who engaged in alleged work strikes, ordering them to stop the sickouts and return to work.

The emergency motion, filed Wednesday in the Michigan Court of Claims, names 23 DPS teachers, the Detroit Federation of Teachers and its interim president, Ivy Bailey, and organized sickout supporters such as DPS Teachers Fight Back and By Any Means Necessary.

It asks for a court order requiring teachers to follow Michigan law, which prohibits strikes by public employees, as well as damages of more than $25,000.

Hundreds of teachers, activists and students gathered Wednesday outside Cobo Center to protest conditions at DPS buildings and the Flint water problems. Steve Conn, ousted president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, late Wednesday said he expects “close to all” schools to be shut Thursday.

In a statement released in the afternoon, a DPS official said 88 of the district’s 97 schools were closed due to the high volume of teacher absences.

“It is regrettable that the Detroit Public Schools seeks to punish those who speak out about the deplorable conditions in our schools,” Bailey said in a statement late Wednesday.

According to the district’s complaint, more than 31,000 of the district’s 46,000 students have missed a day of school or more as the result of teacher sickouts, and the closure at one time or another of more than half of all DPS buildings.

“Defendants have engaged in strikes, are intending to engage in additional strikes and have been and continue to encourage DPS teachers to engage in unlawful conduct,” the lawsuit says.

According to DPS, teachers engaged in “strikes” on April 30, Nov. 3, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, Dec. 11 and again on Jan. 4, Jan. 5, Jan. 7, Jan. 8 and every day from Jan. 11-14, all of which resulted in the closures of multiple schools across the district.

On Jan. 15, DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley issued an order directing all DPS teachers to refrain from work stoppages at the schools, according to the suit.

Under state law, it’s illegal for public employees to strike. Teachers have been calling in sick and organizing protests to draw attention to poor building conditions, large class sizes and supply shortages, among other issues.

The complaint alleges the strikes deprive the students of their right to attend school, adversely impact academic progress at DPS, cause DPS to potentially lose funds and cause a decline in enrollment.

The cumulative effect of the sickouts has resulted in the loss of at least seven instructional days across the district. Michigan law mandates at least 1,160 hours of instruction a year or at least 180 days.

The lawsuit says Conn has repeatedly called for a citywide strike “in spite of its illegality” and has called Jan. 20 “D-DAY.”

Shanta Driver, lawyer for Conn, said DPS has overreached by filing for a restraining order.

“Absolutely we’re going to respond. Detroit teachers calling in sick again tomorrow is our first response and our first priority,” she said. “You either stand your ground and fight, or if you don’t fight, you win nothing and will be punished by your opponent.”

Conn said the Detroit Strike to Win Committee has called for a 5 p.m. meeting Thursday “to vote on strike demands, including at an end to emergency management, no more charters, return EAA schools to DPS, restore democratic rights to the people of Detroit, lower class size, raise teacher pay, provide adequate books and supplies, restore art, music and phys ed in all our schools, and more.”

Some teachers have said the sickouts symbolized support for Conn. Protesters with BAMN have several demands, including the reinstatement of Conn as president of DFT and the restoration of an elected school board.

The DFT executive board removed Conn from office and expelled him from the union in August after finding him guilty of internal misconduct charges. The AFT national executive committee conducted a hearing Wednesday in Detroit on Conn’s appeal; a decision is not expected until next month.

A series of sickouts last week closed dozens of schools and drew attention to health and safety problems inside some DPS buildings. Mayor Mike Duggan toured several schools and announced inspections of all of the district’s buildings, a process that will last into April.

Earley said the district has requested the court’s intervention in addressing the continuing sickouts.

“These ongoing illegal actions chosen by teachers represent an extreme disservice to the more than 44,790 students and their families who today lost another day of instruction and were again inconvenienced or caused to lose wages due to these closures,” he said in a statement.

Teresa Curry, a substitute teacher at Mason Elementary School, which was among those closed Wednesday, was at Cobo Center participating in the protest. Curry said the sickout needs to take place not only because of building and classroom issues, but also for the loss of electives such as gym, music and the arts.

“If teachers don’t participate in the sickout, then what? These are the children who will one day be over my grandchildren. If they can’t read and write, then what?” Curry said.

Tanisha Murray, a mom with a 9-year-old daughter in the fourth grade at the closed Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, said the teachers are standing up for the children and for themselves.

“If they are getting pay cuts, and don’t have what they need in the classrooms, the only way for them to be heard is to take a stand,” Murray said.

Bailey said educators, parents and the community are fed up with Lansing’s inaction on the abysmal conditions that permeate DPS.

“Today’s action by teachers, though discouraged by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, was a cry for help,” she said.