#NoPayNoWork: Detroit teachers' 'sickout' closes majority of public schools

Striking Detroit Public School teachers hold a mass rally to protest the lack of a union contract in Detroit, Michigan. File photo. © Rebecca Cook
Most public schools in Detroit, Michigan, were closed Monday following a weekend announcement that district teachers will not be paid past June 30, which prompted the Detroit Federation of Teachers to ask its union members to call out sick.

On Saturday, the Detroit Public Schools' governor-appointed Transition Manager, Judge Steven Rhodes, told the school district that there would be no money to pay teachers — or continue running summer school and special education programs — after June 30 barring an injection of funding from the Michigan state Legislature.

Teachers said Rhodes' announcement was a reversal from previous assurances made by the district, according to the Detroit Free-Press. Teachers said the $48.7 million that the Legislature earmarked — and embattled Governor Rick Snyder approved — in March to fund the district through June 30 included full summer pay for the two-thirds of all Detroit public school teachers who had already signed up to work through the summer, guaranteeing, they believed, year-round paychecks.

The Legislature is currently considering a $720-million restructuring plan to address the Detroit public school district's debt.

On Sunday, the school district announced that 94 of 97 public schools would be closed on Monday, as teachers planned to call out sick at the urging of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

"There's a basic agreement in America: When you put in a day's work, you'll receive a day's pay," Detroit Federation of Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. "DPS is breaking that deal. Teachers want to be in the classroom giving children a chance to learn and reach their potential.

"Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms."

In a statement, Rhodes said the union's "choice for a drastic call to action was not necessary," and "that the Michigan Legislature understands the urgency of this situation and will act in a timely manner to ensure that operations of the school district continue uninterrupted."

"I am on record as saying that I cannot in good conscience ask anyone to work without pay," Rhodes said Sunday. "Wages that are owed to teachers should be paid. I understand the frustration and anger that our teachers feel. I am, however, confident that the legislature will support the request that will guarantee that teachers will receive the pay that is owed to them."

The union asked its members to rally on Monday morning outside the school district's central administration offices. Members are calling for an audit of the state's role in managing the school district.

Other union concerns include local control of the school district rather than the emergency manager system that has proliferated during Governor Snyder's term, most notably in Flint, Michigan. There, an emergency manager decided to switch the city's drinking water supply away from Detroit's system and to the Flint River in order to save money, resulting in toxic water levels that have made international headlines.

“Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] once water quality problems were encountered,” read a report issued by a task force appointed by Snyder. “Given the demographics of Flint, the implications for environmental injustice cannot be ignored or dismissed.”

Teacher strikes are illegal under Michigan law, according to the AP. A teacher "sickout" also occurred in January over district-wide infrastructure concerns and the state's management of the district.

“There are rats, there’s rodents, there’s dripping water, there’s holes,” DFT president Bailey told the New York Times in January. “This is unacceptable. This is black mold. Our children are in that building breathing this day in and day out. This is third world.”

Last week, a dozen Detroit public school principals agreed to a deal with US prosecutors in which they will plead guilty to accepting bribes from a contractor over classroom supplies invoices.