Detroit teachers sue over ‘deplorable’ school conditions

Demonstrators protest a hearing at the State of Michigan Building January 25, 2016 in Detroit © Bill Pugliano
Teacher unions and parents have teamed up to sue the state-appointed manager of Detroit Public Schools over what they call “deplorable” conditions, demanding repairs to the dilapidated buildings, proper funding, and a return to local control.

Ten parents joined the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in a lawsuit filed on Thursday in Wayne County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs say that the DPS and its state-appointed Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley, allowed conditions in the city’s schools to “deteriorate to the point of crisis” and “forced Detroit’s school-age children to spend their young lives in deplorable surroundings risking their health and safety in the process.”

“The state has brought the school district to its knees, and now it’s time to give up the reins,” Ivy Bailey, interim president of DFT, said in a statement.

“We send mixed messages to our children when we tell them that a great education is the gateway to a bright future, yet make them sit for hours every day in abysmal, often dangerous classroom conditions,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement

The complaint argues that the school district is in worse shape after 15 years of state control than before it was taken over by the government in Lansing, Michigan. According to AFT, the district faces a debt of $515 million, and may not be able to make payroll by April.

The lawsuit comes after several weeks of teacher protests, culminating on the day of President Barack Obama’s visit last week. Michigan law prohibits strikes by educators, but many teachers got around the letter of the law by calling in sick, forcing many schools to close down on multiple days due to staff shortages.

According to local media, the sick-outs were not organized by the AFT or its Detroit chapter, but by a former DFT president and some of his cohorts. Thursday’s complaint suggests that the unions decided to take control of the protests in order to put more pressure on Lansing to solve the schools’ dire situation.

Governor Rick Snyder is already under fire over the state’s mismanagement of the public water supply in nearby Flint, which led to unacceptably high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The emergency manager who made the decision to draw water from the toxic Flint River was the same Darnell Earley who is now being sued for the state of Detroit’s schools.

DPS “has not performed its duty to its students, parents, teachers and community to provide a minimally adequate education and to properly maintain the schools,” the lawsuit claims.

The unions have asked the court to remove Earley from his post of emergency manager and give back control over DPS to the city of Detroit. They also want the court to mandate periodic inspections, investigate complaints filed by parents and teachers, and fix all of the building code violations that have been identified by the city’s inspectors.

The plaintiffs are also demanding that the DPS “develop and institute a capital plan that provides the students of Detroit 21st century schools in which parents would want to send their children and educators would want to teach.”