Detroit Teachers Sick of the State’s Misspending

Recently more than 15,000 teachers with the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) did not show up for work, instead calling in sick and effectively shutting down 94 of the Detroit district’s 97 schools and leaving over 45,000 students on an unexpected holiday for two whole days. This mass sick-out was called for in an email sent out to the union’s listserv in response to Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes’ announcement that the debt stricken district would not have enough money to pay for any expenses after June 30, despite being granted  $48.7 million in emergency funds by the state of Michigan.

Why did this concern the teachers? Because some teachers opt to have part of their regular salary differed to be paid out during the summer when school is out and teachers typically do not get paid. Rhodes’ recent announcement led to the question of whether the district could still pay those teachers during the summer periods. If not, it is reasoned, the district would be asking those teachers to provide a portion of their labor completely free.

No matter what one thinks of the public schooling system, most of us can agree in the importance of upholding contracts and being compensated for one’s labor. In this case we have a bankrupt city government and an incompetent administration, headed not by a school board but an emergency financial manager who has yet to uphold the basic duties of his job.

Detroit schools have been in a state of financial emergency since 2009, leading to a state of continuous government oversight and the disbandment of the school board and superintendent and the appointment of a series of emergency managers, currently former bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. When Rhodes took the emergency money from the state, he assured workers that there would be enough to pay workers’ salaries but his backtracking on his earlier statement and his request for even more money proves alarming. Recently, Rhodes seemed to be fighting to convince the state legislature to approve a $720 million restructuring plan that would pay off the district’s enormous debt but was instead only approved for $500 million.

DFT interim President Ivy Bailey said in criticism of Rhodes that, “what’s happening to our schools systems is an atrocity. If you are an emergency manager and you’re supposed to be the person who came here to straighten out our finances, and now they’re worse than they ever were … I believe we have every right to be upset. And there is no accountability for what has gone on with these emergency managers.”

And while teachers have returned to work following the approval of an extra $500 million in emergency funding and promises that they will be justly paid, it comes at the cost of shutting down several of the district’s schools. Which schools and who is to make such decision has not been said. What has been said in this new legislation that has teachers worried, is that all current labor agreements will not transfer over to new districts as the system is being restructured. The legislation also puts restrictions on the right for teachers to collectively bargain over school calendars and work schedules.

Parents seeking better education for their children have switched their kids to better districts or have enrolled them in alternatives such as homeschooling or charter schools. According to state records approximately 150,415 students were enrolled in the Detroit public school system during the 2003-2004 school year, which has since drastically lowered to approximately 46,000 students. While this may benefit the kids who are now attending better schools, public schools lost a large chunk of funding, receiving funding at a rate of $7,400 per student. Normally you’d think that math should still work. Most private schools and colleges are funded on a per student basis and they manage just fine in most cases. No, what this comes down to is government misspending yet again.

“I think (the teachers) have been doing the best that they can with the resources that they have,” said Monique Baker McCormick, the mother of an 11th grader at Cass Tech. “They’re just trying to survive themselves off of what little they get. So I don’t blame them at all for fighting for what they deserve. I think this is the end and this is where the whole dismantling of the Detroit public school system begins. The state took over, and now look at where we are.”

It’s not the teachers’ fault our public school system is failing. It’s not the teachers’ fault that our government can’t handle our tax money responsibly. All workers deserve to be compensated for their labor and all students deserve access to better and more varied types of education outside of state schools. Your words couldn’t be more pleasing to hear, Ms. McCormick. Let’s hope that they prove true.

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