Judge to decide DPS sickout case by July 24

Evan Carter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Michigan Court of Claims judge said Friday she will issue a written ruling by July 24 on Detroit Public Schools’ request for an injunction against two teachers over sickouts that shut dozens of schools earlier this year.

The district is suing teachers Steve Conn and Nicole Conaway, alleging they violated the Public Employment Relations Act of 1947 by making statements the district says publicly urged teachers to take part in the sickouts.

Conn is the former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and told The News on Friday that he believes he is still the local’s rightful president.

The announcement by Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens came after more than two hours of testimony and questioning by the district’s attorney, George Butler, and from Shanta Driver, attorney for Conn and Conaway.

In closing statements, Driver laid out what she believed would be the results of the judge granting the district an injunction.

“If the injunction is granted, it will have a chilling effect on the speech of all teachers, not just Mr. Conn and Ms. Conaway,” Driver said. “There has to be some real relationship between someone advocating for someone (else) and someone taking action for something to be established.”

Butler declined to make a closing statement.

Conn said he thought the hearing went “great.”

“They don’t have any basis in law to issue any injunction,” Conn said. “I think all this is, is (Gov. Rick) Snyder suppressing ... anybody who opposes his horrible plans against the city of Detroit.”

During the hearing’s testimony period, Butler called up a number of witnesses, including WJR talk show host Frank Beckmann, Western International High School principal Angel Garcia and former DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.

The questions surrounding Earley’s testimony were the most contentious of the hearing. During his questioning of Earley, Butler stated that the district lost $2 million in funding due to the number of instruction days lost to sickouts.

Near the end of her cross-examination, Driver asked Earley if he believes his actions improved the status of the district. She referenced Earley’s stint as emergency manager of Flint, where a switch in the city’s municipal water source resulted in widespread lead contamination.

“Do you believe shutting down public education in Detroit was acceptable because poisoning children in Flint was acceptable?” she said.

Earley did not directly respond.

In January, the district sued Conn, Conaway, more than 20 other teachers, DFT and its interim president, Ivy Bailey, and organized sickout supporters such as DPS Teachers Fight Back and By Any Means Necessary.

DPS filed the complaint after periodic sickouts starting in November that closed dozens of schools in the state’s largest district. DPS argued that the teacher actions amounted to illegal strikes under state law. All of the defendants except Conn and Conaway have been dismissed from the suit.

The sickouts forced parents alter plans and attempt to make up for class time missed by their students.

The sickouts even got the attention of President Barack Obama, who called the school district and its teachers union to “resolve their differences.”

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