Teachers in Detroit are calling in sick en masse forcing the public school district to close nearly all of its campuses.
Ninety-four of Detroit Public Schools' 97 schools closed Monday due to widespread "sickouts," teacher demonstrations involving calling in sick to protest the school district's recent budgetary failures. Over the weekend the school district's newly appointed manager Judge Steven Rhodes announced Detroit Public Schools would be unable to pay teacher salaries through the summer.
Rhodes replaced one of Michigan's most controversial emergency managers in March.
This change in leadership was not surprising after months of these "sickouts," which teachers have used to protest everything from horrific school conditions to unsuitable pay. Rhodes faces a public school system crumbling in financial ruin and a community that doesn't really want someone from the state in charge of fixing it.
Some of that has to do with the last guy in charge.
You may have heard of him: Darnell Earley, who earned national scrutiny for his role in the Flint water crisis, where he also served as emergency manager. The president of Detroit's teachers union, Ivy Bailey, compared recent Detroit Public Schools closures to the lead-poisoned water in Flint.
"This is like the current situation in Flint, where the citizens' concerns have been ignored," she said in defense of the hundreds of teachers who have called in sick to protest hazardous conditions at local public schools.
Earley said he resigned because he fulfilled his goal of a "comprehensive restructuring" ahead of his 18-month schedule. Earley, DPS's fourth emergency manager, was appointed in January 2015.
But clearly teachers unions disagree that the situation is resolved satisfactorily. The Detroit Public Schools board has filed a class action lawsuit against Michigan's governor and state officials over the terrible condition of the city's public school district.
Rhodes is not an emergency manager. His title is transition manager, and he says he aims to give full control of the district back to the community by August.
First, however, Rhodes says the Michigan state legislature must pass spending bills to keep the district afloat. Since Rhodes began as Detroit Public Schools' transition manager, Michigan Gov. Rick Synder signed emergency spending legislation, which will carry Detroit Public Schools through June 30, but more help is needed, Rhodes has said repeatedly.
"This is not the time for lines in the sand," Rhodes told WXYZ Detroit. "The District has debt — over $500 million that it cannot pay while at the same time fulfilling its obligation to educate the kids."
What is happening in Detroit's public schools?
The conditions of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have been declining for some time, and teachers are becoming increasingly fed up.
DPS has been run by a state-appointed manager since 2009. In the past decade the district has suffered from massive enrollment losses and exceedingly low levels in student achievement (in one nationwide exam, Detroit students ranked last in performance of large city schools), and has incurred more than $500 million in operating debt.
If the state and the district can't sort out this problem by June 30, it will run out of money, and paychecks will stop going to teachers.
Earley came to DPS to address the district's massive debt, with plans to downsize DPS's central office by nearly 100 jobs and make changes to benefits and contracts of teachers and staff. His changes are projected to save the district $10 million.
Last year Snyder also proposed splitting the Detroit district into two parts: a "new" district, which would start debt-free (and cost the state $715 million over 10 years) to manage the schools and enrollment, and the current district, which would exist only to pay off DPS's debt. The proposal is still with the state's legislature.
Snyder appointed Earley with hopes he would be DPS's last emergency manager. But with Earley's resignation, Rhodes has been tasked with finishing reforms.
But Detroit teachers and staff have been calling for the district's return to local control since the beginning.
"Emergency managers can come and go, but the problems have stayed the same," Keith Johnson, former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told the Detroit Free Press at the time of Earley's appointment.
When Earley took over, DPS had a $169.5 million deficit. Today its deficit is more than $238 million, and the community says problems have only gotten worse.
"Rhodes has signaled support for local control and a willingness to listen to and work with educators, parents and the community," Bailey said in a statement.
"This is in contrast to the approach of past school leaders, which included filing lawsuits against educators, banning health inspectors from hazardous public school buildings, and racking up a school debt of a half-billion dollars with no accountability."
But for anything to be done, Rhodes has been adamant that the state must pass a funding bill to rescue the district — and the clock is ticking.
"There is no Plan B," he told WXYZ.
Debt isn't the only problem. The schools are actually falling apart.
"The odious smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit," Lakia Wilson wrote for PBS Teachers' Lounge in early January.
Wilson, a school counselor, has worked at Spain Elementary-Middle School for the past 19 years. For months, she and other teachers have been calling in sick in greater and greater numbers. Alongside hundreds of teachers and staff members, Wilson has contracted what many are calling the "Snyder flu," in reference to the governor, who they say is ignoring the needs of Detroit's public schools.
For the past six months, teachers in Detroit Public Schools have coordinated their sick leaves to protest unhealthy and unsafe work and learning environments. These "sickouts" began last November, according to DPS spokesperson Chrystal Wilson. But in mid-January, more than 850 teacher absences forced the district to shut down 88 of Detroit's 97 public school buildings, leaving the majority of the roughly 52,000 enrolled students without a classroom. Wilson goes on to write:
"The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid. That area of the school has been condemned.
The once beautiful pool sits empty because no one has come to fix it. The playground is off-limits because a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground.
Exposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles. Watermarks from leaks abound. Kids either sit in freezing classrooms with their coats on or strip off layers because of stifling heat. How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?"
"The conditions in this school are inhuman, deplorable, dilapidated," Wilson told Detroit WXYZ. "It is not healthy. We are literally sick."
She gave a video tour of Spain Elementary's conditions for the American Federation of Teachers:
Why did teachers call in sick instead of striking?
There's one simple reason Detroit's teachers are calling in sick instead of organizing a strike: Michigan state law prohibits public school employees from striking, with a fine of $5,000 per day to the state school aid fund. On the books, the recent school closures and teacher absences are sanctioned as sick leave.
But punishing the teachers poses another problem for the state: If accused of illegally striking, each teacher has the right to a hearing. In the case of Detroit, that could mean up to 850 hearings.
Republican state Sen. Phil Pavlov, who chairs the Michigan Senate Education Committee, is seeking a way to change the anti-strike laws to also encompass these "sickouts." His bill could strip teachers of their certification for striking and reduce funding to districts that do not deduct pay from striking teachers.
"These teachers deserve to be fired for turning their backs on the children in their care," said Michigan state Rep. Kevin Cotter, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, told CNN. "Their actions also go against any possible resolution on potential [Detroit Public Schools] reforms, because any long-term agreement on Detroit schools has to put the kids first."
As of January 20, Cotter told CNN, more than 700,000 instructional hours had been lost due to teachers' protests. As sickouts start up again, Cotter says DPS's nearly 46,000 students have likely lost more than one million instructional hours.
Detroit is already facing a teacher shortage and an unprecedented number of midyear resignations and retirements. According to reporting from the Detroit Free Press, last November the school district had more than 100 vacancies and had already assigned 115 substitutes to fill classrooms.
Detroit Public Schools filed an injunction with the Michigan Court of Claims in an attempt to put an end to the weeks of mass sickouts in January. Their request was rejected.
At the time, Detroit Federation of Teachers asked for teachers to return to the classroom for the sake of the children's education. But now the union is calling for more sickouts in light of Rhodes' budget announcement.
This is supposed to be Detroit's comeback
President Barack Obama was in Detroit on January 20 speaking about the reemergence of the city's auto industry. That same day, hundreds gathered to publicly protest conditions in both Flint and Detroit public schools. More than 90 percent of Detroit's schools were forced to close due to a sickout that Wednesday.
The "comeback kid" narrative of Detroit is one Obama has pushed throughout his last term in office, touting his decision to follow through with George W. Bush's $80 billion auto industry bailout in 2009 after one of the biggest industry crashes in recent history.
While the auto industry may be on the mend, the state of Detroit's public schools shows the lasting impact of a city struggling to come back from bankruptcy.
In the past 50 years nearly 1.5 million people have left Detroit, mostly wealthy and white. The rapid decline in population shrank the city's tax base, making it nearly impossible for Detroit to support public services and infrastructure built for a populous and booming economy.
DPS has lost more than 100,000 students in the past decade and has closed 150 schools. As it continues to borrow without settling past debts, it is possible DPS will have to close more schools in the coming years.
As it is now, DPS will owe about $26 million every month this year just to pay off its debt, money that will not be invested in the district's future or in fixing its crumbling infrastructure.
For a true Detroit revival, fixing the public school system is an important step.
"Parents will not want to move their families into the city of Detroit unless there is a viable and effective and competitive school system here, so it's absolutely critical to the future of the city of Detroit," Rhodes said in his interview with WXYZ.