DPS sickouts up pressure on state plan

Shawn D. Lewis, Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Pressure is amping up on Michigan lawmakers to find more funding for Detroit Public Schools as the head of the teachers union called for another day of sickouts Tuesday over possible payless paydays for some employees this summer.

With most schools closed Monday, Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes urged state lawmakers to “promptly” pass a $715 million package to rescue the debt-ridden district.A union-sponsored protest Monday closed 94 of the district’s 97 schools.

But top legislative leaders, angered by the sickout, blasted teachers and warned the mass walkout would make it harder to win approval for a bailout of the state’s largest school district.

DPS teachers plan 2nd sickout Tuesday

A spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said the sickouts, which have occurred intermittently for months, make it harder to get “buy-in from members all over the state” who want assurances that the district will not squander state assistance.

“They want to know the district is actually going to be improved and be sustainable,” spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said. “When you see irrational and foolish decisions like this from so many people in leadership, it calls that into question.”

In a statement, Cotter slammed the Detroit Federation of Teachers for “once again putting the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children, specifically the 40,000 Detroit schoolchildren who were left out in the rain this morning.”

But Tuesday night, DFT interim president Ivy Bailey suggested teachers should call in sick Tuesday.

“It has come to our attention that many of you are uncertain as to how to proceed tomorrow,” Bailey wrote in an email to members. “Let us be clear. We are still locked out. We do not work for free and therefore we do not expect you to report to school tomorrow.”

Bailey said a 10 a.m. rally was planned; a membership meeting was set for 4:30 p.m. at Fellowship Chapel on Outer Drive in Detroit.

The district Monday night acknowledged in a message on its website that DFT had called for another sickout, but by 10 p.m. had not closed any schools.

Gov. Rick Snyder said Monday that DPS is running out of options to stay afloat.

“One of the challenges is short of legislative action, I’m not sure there’s a lot of stopgap options available,” he said. “I’m always trying to think about what Plan B and C are, but we’re going to keep working on Plan A at this point in terms of getting a comprehensive package.”

Rhodes, who warned over the weekend the district would run out of money June 30 and stop making payroll for employees who get paid over the summer, urged employees, parents and others Monday to press lawmakers to pass the rescue plan.

“The Legislature understands the urgency and importance of the situation and I believe they will act in a timely manner to ensure operations will continue,” Rhodes said at a news conference in the Fisher Building. “We will not be able to operate after June 30. Everyone who has a stake in this should urge the legislators to act promptly.”

The Senate has approved a version of the rescue plan proposed by Snyder, but action is stalled in the House, where there is resistance from conservatives to language in the Senate version aimed at controlling the proliferation of Detroit charter schools that compete for students with DPS.

“This action makes the likelihood of reaching a long-term solution for DPS more challenging,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. “The families who rely upon DPS continue to be let down by the union.”

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, said he empathizes with DPS teachers.

“This is the most frustrated I’ve ever been,” Santana said of the ongoing DPS rescue debate. He noted the Senate package calls for creation of a Detroit Education Commission to oversee the opening of traditional public and charter schools in the city, a concept opposed by many House Republicans but supported by Democrats, whose votes may be needed for passage.

“You’ve got teachers who are facing no pay, you’ve got kids suffering and you’ve got philosophical and ideological arguments getting launched back and forth,” said Santana, who has sided with Republicans on some large education reforms in recent years. “In the meantime, the situation is turning into utter chaos and there doesn’t seem to be any room for compromise.”

Teachers expressed outrage Monday at the prospect of not being paid this summer for their work, or a payless payday.

Bailey said Monday that teachers had no choice but to conduct the sickout: “Nobody should be asked to work and not get paid,” she said. “We consider this a lockout.”

In March, the Legislature approved $48.7 million in emergency aid to fund the cash-strapped district through the end of the school year — money many DFT members believed would ensure their paychecks would continue to be issued through the summer.

That was never the case, Rhodes said Monday.

“This issue of the inability of DPS to fund the 26 paychecks is not a new revelation,” he said. “We have known and the DFT has known for months this would be a problem. The $48 million is only enough to get us through June 30. ... That has been our crystal clear position.”

It was unclear Monday how much cash the district will have on hand on July 1 after the emergency state funding runs out.

DPS has not posted an updated monthly cash flow report for April or May on its website since the Legislature and Snyder approved the funds March 29. The district also has not yet published a proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins in less than two months.

The district did not respond to a request Monday from The Detroit News for a copy of its latest cash flow projections backing up Rhodes’ claim that DPS “will not be able to maintain operations after June 30” without additional state tax dollars.

Zdrodowski said Monday the district has 2,451 teachers who receive 26 paychecks a year and 816 who get paid 22 times during the school year. She said teachers on the 26-check schedule would miss four paychecks if the district was unable to pay them this summer, costing them an average of $9,700 or 15 percent of their pay.

LaShawn Pope is one of the teachers who signed up for 26 checks instead of 22.

“I am on step 3 and mind you, I have a master’s degree,” she said. “Before taxes, I bring home $1,400 every two weeks, so $1,400 times four checks is what I stand to lose before taxes.”

Outside the Fisher Building Monday morning, Pope and other protesters filled the sidewalks and spilled into the streets.

Michelle Broughton, who teaches in the computer lab at East English Village Academy High School, said she supports “my brothers and sisters for a fair wage for a fair day’s work.”

Asked if she was one of the teachers who spaced their paychecks out over the summer, Broughton said no: “I didn’t do it this year because I don’t trust the district.”

DPS parents expressed a mix of sympathy toward the teachers and frustration about another unplanned day off for their children.

“(The sickouts) are bad for everyone but you’re forcing their hands because you’re not going to pay them,” said parent Keva Williams, 42, of Clinton Township. Her 6-year-old daughter went to work with Williams for the day because her east side school, Mason Elementary, was closed.

Meanwhile, the DFT called over the weekend for a forensic audit of the district, an action endorsed Monday by state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit.

“We have learned that the debt of Detroit Public Schools is in excess of $800 million, and it is imperative, now more than ever, that an audit be conducted of DPS from 1999 through the present to find out exactly what happened,” Gay-Dagnogo said in a statement.

Asked if he would be open to an audit, Rhodes said Monday: “Our books are open. I’ve said that from the first day we got here. I want it to be open and accessible and I would welcome an audit, but we don’t have the money to pay for it.”

New questions about district’s management under Rhodes’ predecessors came to light recently when the school district disclosed to state officials that up to $30 million in federal aid earmarked for employee pensions was never sent to the state pension fund. The News reported April 26 that the matter is being investigated.

Unpaid pension bills account for a projected $157 million of $515 million in operating debt that DPS would be relieved of under Snyder’s financial rescue plan. Start-up funds of $200 million would go toward a new debt-free Detroit school district.

Rhodes said the lockout could cost the district $2 million because it puts DPS in danger of failing to meet the state’s minimum number of instructional hours for the school year. “If we don’t get in the minimum required number of instructional hours, the state can make a claim against the district for overpayment,” he said.

Zdrodowski said all districts have six “forgiveness” days. “We have used our six days before today so that’s where the $2 million could come from,” she said. “The Michigan Department of Education would determine if the $2 million would be assessed.”

(313) 222-2296

Holly Fournier and George Hunter contributed.

(313) 222-2296

Holly Fournier, George Hunter and the Associated Press contributed.