Teachers union: DPS barred our inspectors from schools

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Calling district officials obtrusive to health concerns, the Detroit Federation of Teachers lambasted Detroit Public Schools for blocking its health inspectors from investigating conditions at nine schools Wednesday.

DFT Interim president Ivy Bailey speaks outside of Spain Elementary on Wednesday over the district’s refusal to let health inspectors enter classroom buildings.

Standing in front of Spain Elementary-Middle School near Midtown, DFT officials complained that the conditions throughout the district are at dangerous levels and that teachers and students deserve to know about suspected health hazards such as lead and mold spores.

“The district ... will not allow us to have (inspectors) in the building,” said Ivy Bailey, DFT interim president, who was flanked by union health inspectors and officials. “Our members are demanding that we give them specific answers to what’s going on in their schools.”

DFT officials, who brought in union health inspectors from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, said they plan to file an emergency motion in Wayne County Circuit Court to force DPS to allow them entry into the buildings. The DFT already has a lawsuit pending against the district over poor building conditions.

The union inspectors had planned to check conditions at Spain, Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, Mann Learning Community, Carleton Elementary School, Detroit International Academy for Young Women, Dossin Elementary-Middle School, Gardner Elementary School, Noble Elementary-Middle School and Sampson-Webber Leadership Academy.

DFT officials admit that their findings are preliminary but say there have been numerous complaints about roof problems, possible asbestos and other issues in DPS schools.

They estimate as many as 40 percent of students in DPS may be suffering from a respiratory illness that can be exacerbated by mold in buildings. A survey is going out Wednesday to ask teachers and staff for specific observations in schools or illnesses they have been diagnosed as having.

Reports of problems ranging from mold and water damage to rodent infestations and a lack of heat led teachers to conduct a series of sickouts, forcing dozens of district schools to close.

Beginning last month, the city of Detroit has sent inspectors to DPS schools, with plans to check all 97 buildings in the next few months. The district said this week it is addressing some of the violations found so far.

Robert Fetter, an attorney representing the DFT, said the union is pleased with the city’s inspection efforts but they don’t focus on “the health consequences to the people inside those buildings, the students, the teachers, the employees.”

One preschool teacher, Kimberly Collins, held up a tiny water bottle full of an unknown sediment that she claimed was collected from a faucet in her classroom. “We don’t know what it is,” she said. “But we use this water for a lot of things.”

Fetter said the goal is to “supplement what the city is doing” and give more resources to address problems.

“We want to help DPS provide solutions to the problems that they are facing,” he said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t allow us to help. It would be like in Flint if the citizens there said we are on our own, we are going to go pay for the top experts in the country to help you with the water situation and them saying no, we don’t need that. DPS is not in a position to deny help that they don’t have to pay for.”

Kimberly Collins a pre-school teacher at Spain Elementary-Middle School holds a bottle of water with sediment taken from a classroom faucet.

In an email, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district believes the union inspections are not necessary because of the ongoing visits from city inspectors.

“Detroit Public Schools has been, and will continue to work closely with the city of Detroit, which has regulatory jurisdiction over the District’s 97 school buildings as it relates to compliance with property maintenance and safety regulations,” she said.

“The AFT/DFT has access to the inspection reports completed by the city,” Zdrodowski continued. “Additional teams of people in the school buildings complicate the district’s efforts to fully comply with state and local regulations. Further, the DFT/AFT were seeking to have teams of unknown individuals come into our school buildings without proper or reasonable prior notice to administration and staff.”

Ann Mitchell, who works for the American Federation of Teachers national office, which was dispatched to help the DFT with the health inspections, said concerns about building conditions are not only coming from members but from parents and students too.

“We’re very concerned about the health and safety environment,” Mitchell said. “And we really applaud what the city has done, going in and making sure that these tests are starting. These experts have expertise. They know solutions. They know how to deal with these problems and can provide answers.”

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