DFT's new leader sparks debate with blunt tactics
Three months after taking office, the in-your-face leader of Detroit's teachers union is gearing up for the fight of his life — with the fate of Michigan's largest school district in the balance.
Steve Conn, elected in January as president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, vows not to back down from those he says want to "dismantle public education."
That list, as far as he's concerned, includes Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and a coalition that proposed giving a commission appointed by the mayor the power to open and close Detroit schools.
"Nobody is going to stand in my way," Conn said during a recent interview at his Detroit home. "We're going to defend public education in Detroit and fight for equal quality schools for the young people of this city."
Conn, 57, a longtime union activist who taught math at Cass Technical High School for 27 years, can be blunt and tenacious to a fault.
He ran repeatedly for president before being elected in a January runoff over executive vice president Edna Reaves. He once told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to his face that he should quit.
Conn's supporters include members of By Any Means Necessary, a civil rights group that has disrupted school board sessions, Democratic party meetings and union gatherings.
Local members and observers are divided on whether his take-no-prisoners style can work in a district that's mired in debt, and in a state where union influence appears to be waning with the 2012 passage of a right-to-work law.
"He has gone rogue as president of the DFT," said Conn's predecessor, Keith Johnson, who retired after six years leading the 4,000-member local. "His special meetings are not properly authorized, and he seems to believe he is the sole dictator of the DFT."
But Conn's supporters say they're fed up with smaller paychecks and larger class sizes since the state took control of the district six years ago. They also fear for the future of DPS, which has $2.1 billion in long-term debt, as state and local officials consider restructuring education in Detroit.
"By voting for Steve, teachers drew a line in the sand and declared their readiness to fight back against the continued attacks on public education in Detroit," said Nicole Conaway, a math teacher at East English Village Preparatory Academy. "Steve has represented the teachers well by adamantly telling the truth about so-called 'reform' models at every public opportunity."
The decline of DPS, which has struggled with low test scores, falling enrollment and persistent deficits, has led to a variety of proposals for fixing the city's fractured system of schools, which includes charters and the state-run Education Achievement Authority.
A 36-member coalition of community and business leaders spent three months studying education in Detroit and unveiled a report last month calling for broad changes. Many of the recommendations from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren mirror demands from Conn and his supporters.
Among them: Giving control of DPS back to an elected school board, returning EAA schools to the district and having the state relieve DPS of $350 million in debt.
Yet to Conn, the group's call for a citywide commission to decide school openings and closures is a nonstarter — he fears the panel would close more DPS schools and open more charters.
"A mayor who can't get the lights on or the roads fixed will have the power to open or shut any school he wants," Conn said.
Conn and supporters from BAMN tried to disrupt the March 30 news conference where the group unveiled its report, which he labeled "a total fraud."
It's not the first time Conn has charged into a gathering and interrupted proceedings, even those of his own union.
While protesting at a school board meeting in 2002, he and 13 others were hauled out by security guards and police. Two years later, Conn was arrested during a protest that impeded school buses from picking up children for summer classes.
In 2011, he was suspended from the DFT for seven months, accused of trying to thwart the swearing in of Johnson and other officers. A YouTube video showed Conn shouting at executive board members and David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, and knocking papers from their hands.
Hecker, a member of the school reform coalition, declined to comment on Conn specifically, but offered his thoughts on how the DFT should respond to challenges that include "laws designed to undercut working families and their unions."
He said pressure from the union last fall — when Johnson was still in office — helped persuade DPS to cancel a planned 10 percent pay reduction, on top of a 10 percent cut imposed in 2011.
"A union that engages with its members and the broader community will succeed," Hecker said.
DPS leadership has reacted cautiously to Conn's election. Earley, who took office the same month as Conn, met Wednesday with the new DFT leader.
District officials declined to discuss the meeting, but spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said in an earlier statement that the district "respects Mr. Conn's and the DFT's right to protest, as allowed by the U.S. Constitution and Michigan law."
Conn, for his part, defends his confrontational approach as necessary to improve conditions for Detroit's schoolchildren.
"The main issue is the betterment of education and conditions for all students, and the union is an excellent vehicle to accomplish that with all of its potential power," he said.
In contrast to his fiery public image, the DFT's new leader was the picture of domestic tranquility during a recent visit to his home.
Conn was relaxed and composed in a green Cass Tech T-shirt as he sliced potatoes in the kitchen while preparing dinner for his wife, former DPS teacher Heather Miller, and 18-year-old daughter, Edith Conn.
Most days, Conn is out the door by 7 a.m. and making the rounds of schools. Often, he doesn't return home until after 8 p.m., but Miller said his long hours are paying off by revitalizing the union and giving members hope.
"It's really important that people are inspired, and now, for the first time in a long time, we really feel we can win," she said.