Union sues DPS over school buildings, asks judge to remove EM

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is asking a judge to oust Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager, saying his failure to address deteriorating buildings is putting students at risk.

The lawsuit against the district was filed Thursday on behalf of not only the DFT, but its affiliated state and national unions and several parents, two of whom attended an afternoon press conference at the American Federation of Teachers building in Detroit.

The lawsuit stems from ongoing frustration over the conditions of school buildings. The teachers union argues dangerous environments cause serious and irreparable harm to the health, safety and welfare of students.

The union is seeking the repair of building code violations, a capital plan for school facilities, restoration of local control over DPS and the immediate removal of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

Interim DFT President Ivy Bailey said that while the conditions of the school buildings have shocked the nation, they haven’t prompted Earley and DPS into taking action.

The suit says school officials and Earley have allowed the district to deteriorate to a crisis point, forcing students “to spend their young lives in deplorable surroundings, risking their health and safety in the process, and imposing on students and their teachers an atmosphere that interferes with their securing a minimally sufficient education.”

Bailey sat at a table Thursday flanked by two parents with students in DPS; Bob Fetter, the lawyer representing them; Ann Mitchell, DFT administrator; and Terrence Martin, DFT executive vice president.

Bailey and the others spoke passionately about what drove them to file the lawsuit. Bailey said all DPS teachers want the best for their students.

“We have teachers who have doctorate degrees,” she said. “They did what they did because they care about the students, and I think we should stand behind them.”

For nearly seven years, DPS has been controlled by four state-appointed emergency managers. The complaint alleges that DPS is in worse shape than before it was taken over by the state 15 years ago. Fiscally, the district faces a $515 million debt, and it may be unable to make payroll by April.

“Our pleas to have repairs made were ignored,” Bailey said. “We demand that DPS and Earley fix the environmental problems and create a capital improvement fund to bring all DPS schools into the 21st century.”

Earley responded Thursday, saying the focus of his work has been to prepare the district for financial sustainability and a return to “some form of local control.”

“My team and I have worked hard to develop and implement a comprehensive restructuring plan that has taken a financially broken educational system and transformed it into one that, but for its long-term debt, has eliminated its structural budget deficit,” Earley said in a statement.

Earley cited the district’s 2015 fiscal year audit report, “which documents the fact that if the annual $56 million in debt payments were resolved, the district would be able to operate within its projected revenues.”

“That is the role of an emergency manager,” he said. “We have achieved that objective, and now it is critical that the Michigan Legislature invest the critically necessary funds in the new Detroit Public School system that have been proposed in Gov. (Rick) Snyder’s education reform plan.”

Parent Shoniqua Kemp, who has two children at Osborn High School, criticized Snyder and Earley on Thursday.

“If you don’t want to do the job, you should leave,” she said.

“We will not stop until we get better conditions in the schools. Right is right and wrong is wrong. I challenge you, Darnell Earley, Mayor (Mike) Duggan and Gov. Snyder. Don’t just do a walkthrough in our schools. Spend a day in a school. The kids need the hope and strength that comes with great schools.”

Meanwhile, a series of sickouts this school year has closed dozens of schools and drawn attention to health and safety problems inside some DPS buildings. Duggan has toured several schools and announced inspections of all of the district’s buildings.

The lawsuit lists some of the conditions in Detroit’s schools, which include black mold, bacteria, freezing cold or overly hot classroom temperatures, rodent and insect infestations, exposed wiring and falling debris.

“The issue of the disrepair of some of the district’s buildings and a plan to address that is before the Legislature,” Earley said Thursday. “The investment of these funds will be necessary to implement a badly needed, districtwide long-term capital improvement plan. Meanwhile, we continue to address those matters that have been presented in the inspection reports from the city, and have been made aware of through our work order system, through a corrective action plan that provides available resources for these repairs.”

The suit contends teachers have already brought those conditions to the attention of the state.

The DFT said a Spain Elementary-Middle School teacher filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration in October about the dangers of inhaling mold from the gym.

DPS said it would fix the problem within 15 days and MIOSHA closed the investigation; yet, DFT says DPS did nothing and the mold remains there today.

Attorney Robert D. Fetter, representing the DFT and the other plaintiffs, called Earley “cavalier” in his responses to teacher complaints.

“He says, ‘Well, we only have so much money,’ ” Fetter said.

“He knows kids are getting sick and he knows this has gone on for a long time but his response is, ‘oh well,’ making kids sick, not educating kids, but, oh well, and I think that is disgusting.”

In response to the lawsuit, ousted elected DFT president Steve Conn added: “The only way we can defeat Snyder and Earley and win the schools that Detroit students deserve is by continuing the sickouts and walkouts.”

Snyder supports bills that would see an end to emergency managers and would create an appointed school board that eventually would become an elected board.

The governor proposes creating two separate entities to separate over $500 million in debt from a new district that then could use its money to educate rather than pay down debt. The Legislature has yet to vote on the reforming DPS bills.