Our Editorial: Fire DPS strike ringleaders

The Detroit News

Ousted Detroit teachers union president Steve Conn should lose his teaching job. So should the other Detroit Public Schools’ teachers who have organized the recent string of sickouts, forcing the closure of dozens of schools and leaving kids with nowhere to go.

After three large high schools were closed last week due to these planned sickouts, Conn organized dozens of teachers over the weekend. This lead to more than half of DPS schools — 64 buildings — being closed on Monday.

Students should never be used as bargaining chips, and DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and the state should go after Conn with everything in their power.

These sickouts are strikes, which are illegal under state law. The law says striking teachers can lose their job or face fines. And the union behind the strike can be fined at an even heftier rate. But the law also makes it difficult on districts to prosecute teachers and the unions because of all the administrative hoops they have to jump through, meaning few teachers ever face punishment for striking.

Lawmakers have failed to strengthen the law in recent years, but they should make it a priority now.

This case seems pretty straight-forward. DPS administrators know the teachers who are behind these actions. And while the district can’t afford to fire all the striking teachers yet, it should see Conn and the other worst offenders out the door.

The leadership of the Detroit Federation of Teachers was smart enough to vote out Conn last summer, after his style of protesting turned his fellow union leaders against him. Conn’s close association with the radical group By Any Means Necessary was a turnoff for many union members.

Now, the district should follow suit. Earley has leeway under the emergency manager law, and it should be within his power to dismiss Conn. He should send out the appropriate notices to the organizers, and if they fail to comply and end their illegal actions, fire them.

Conn was directly behind multiple school closures last year, including in April and December. He claimed to be protesting Gov. Rick Snyder’s plans to financially bolster DPS, which is on the verge of insolvency. Conn also has it out for Earley or anyone in that role.

Interim president Ivy Bailey was so discouraged by the fractured state of the DFT that late last year she had to call in help from the national office. She says the DFT is not working with Conn in organizing these sickouts. Yet Bailey has stated she’d consider supporting a strike.

GOP lawmakers, who are in the middle of debating how to solve DPS’ growing fiscal problems, are not impressed by these teacher demonstrations. And it’s not going to make them more eager to send millions of dollars to Detroit schools. It also works against the teachers’ stated goal of calling attention to health and safety conditions in the schools, something officials should be examining and shouldn’t get lost in sickout backlash.

Rep. Tim Kelly, a member of the House Education Committee and chair of the House Appropriations Committee on School Aid, last week called on state Superintendent Brian Whiston to impose sanctions on the teachers. Given that Kelly has previously proposed dissolving DPS and giving parents vouchers, his distaste for the sickouts wasn’t surprising.

“These actions by certain DPS teachers do absolutely nothing to address or correct the problems tied to the district,” stated Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “All it’s doing is damaging the education of thousands of students.”

Lawmakers should make it easier to punish teachers who break the law. In the meantime, Conn and the other teachers behind these sickouts are at the root of Detroit’s school closures. They need to be held accountable.