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Teacher sickouts may complicate DPS bailout

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A wave of recent mass teacher sick days that have forced school closures in Detroit may complicate Gov. Rick Snyder’s effort to bail out the city’s cash-strapped school district, a Republican lawmaker said Wednesday.

“The DPS fix is challenging to begin with, and all they’re doing is adding another layer of complexity to it, and it’s not helping their cause,” said Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Pavlov is developing legislation that would treat mass sickouts as a form of illegal strike and levy sanctions against teachers, including a possible suspension of their state teaching certification. “We’ve gotten additional legal opinions, and these are clearly strikes,” Pavlov said. “They’re violations of state law.”

More than half of all Detroit Public Schools closed Monday as a result of sickouts, and at least 24 schools closed on Tuesday when another round of teachers called in sick. On Wednesday, sickouts closed five DPS schools.

The teacher protests — designed to draw attention to conditions such as poor building conditions, large class sizes and supply shortages — come as lawmakers return from winter break and gear up for a major debate over plans to help the district pay off crippling debt and avoid insolvency.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, is preparing to introduce Thursday a pair of bills that would split DPS into two districts, allowing an existing millage to pay down long-term debt while the new district focuses on education.

The bills will complement Snyder’s Detroit school district plan, which could cost the state as much as $715 million over 10 years. Hansen acknowledged the teacher sickouts could make an already difficult lift that much harder.

“I’ve had a lot of phone calls about the events, because there are concerns,” he said Wednesday.

Retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who helped oversee Detroit’s bankruptcy case in 2014, met with some lawmakers Wednesday to discuss the district’s debt and the potential ramifications of default, said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“The debt is the priority, because it’s an emergency situation Detroit schools are looking at, I believe in April, where they could run out of money,” Hansen said.

The debt relief legislation is unlikely to be tied to any sickout penalties, Hansen said, but House Speaker Kevin Cotter said he could push to see the two issues linked in his chamber.

“We need to keep the focus on the kids, and the quality of education they’re receiving,” said Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “I think what you’re seeing with these sickouts is not putting the focus on children. It’s putting the focus on the wants and needs of the adults, and it’s actually setting the kids back.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, downplayed frustration over the sickouts.

“I’m angry that the students are not getting the quality education they deserve,” he said, “and I think everyone in the state of Michigan should be more angry about that than whether teachers take a sick day or not.”

State Rep. Harvey Santana, a Detroit Democrat, said he stands with Detroit teachers this week.

“If you’re mad at teachers for doing these sickouts, you should have been mad 20 years ago, or 16 years ago, when state government intervened in local affairs and destroyed the public school system,” he said, referencing a mayoral-appointed “reform board” with one gubernatorial appointee and emergency managers who have long overseen the school district.

Santana has taken Republican lawmakers on tours of Detroit, including public and charter schools, and said teachers are giving voice to legitimate concerns.

“These protests are a reflection of us ignoring them,” he said.

Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, agreed. “I think extreme times call for extreme measures,” she said.

Pavlov, however, suggested teachers should find ways to voice concerns without keeping kids from class.

He’s among a handful of Republicans who could introduce sickout language in coming weeks, according to Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. “I think people all over are angry,” he said.