Teachers Who Staged ‘Sick-outs’ Declare Victory Against Detroit Schools’ Unelected Emergency Manager

Mario Vasquez

Edu­ca­tion activists cheered today as Dar­nell Ear­ley offi­cial­ly stepped down from his posi­tion as emer­gency man­ag­er of Detroit Pub­lic Schools (DPS). His depar­ture came after thou­sands of teach­ers staged rolling sick-outs” to protest his role as the unelect­ed head of the school system.

Strikes by teach­ers and oth­er munic­i­pal employ­ees are ille­gal under Michi­gan law, but more than a dozen times this win­ter, groups of teach­ers called in sick to protest frozen wages, bal­loon­ing class sizes, decay­ing build­ings and oth­er con­di­tions they say are the result of state-imposed aus­ter­i­ty. The largest such action on Jan­u­ary 20 forced the tem­po­rary clo­sure of 88 of the district’s 104 schools. Pho­tos shared by teach­ers of the haz­ardous con­di­tions inside their class­rooms — black mold, rodents and no heat — went viral.

Ear­ley has an igno­min­ious resume: Before he began man­ag­ing DPS in Jan­u­ary 2015, he was the emer­gency man­ag­er of Flint, Michi­gan when the city infa­mous­ly switched water sup­plies, even­tu­al­ly expos­ing its res­i­dents to lead-con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water. Teach­ers say that Earley’s reign in Detroit, like­wise, made a bad sit­u­a­tion worse. The Detroit Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (DTF), which did not coor­di­nate the sick­outs but filed suit against Ear­ley and DPS in Feb­ru­ary, accused him of allow­ing the schools to dete­ri­o­rate to the point of cri­sis.” Earley’s depar­ture is a vic­to­ry for the union and rank-and-file activists who orga­nized the sick­outs, but some are adamant that the work is not done until local con­trol is returned to Detroit’s schools. 

Sick with Sny­der Flu’

The larg­er prob­lem, many teach­ers say, is the string of unelect­ed emer­gency man­agers that have presided over Detroit schools for the past sev­en years. Fol­low­ing decades of struc­tur­al dis­in­vest­ment, the city’s school sys­tem is in an esti­mat­ed $30 bil­lion in debt. The teacher’s union says that a series of four emer­gency man­agers have only dug that hole deep­er, run­ning up $515 mil­lion in debt while imple­ment­ing mass lay­offs and cuts on the backs of edu­ca­tors and stu­dents. Gov­er­nor Rick Sny­der has relied heav­i­ly on emer­gency man­agers to fix the state’s fis­cal woes, but crit­ics say that the sys­tem effec­tive­ly dis­en­fran­chis­es the major­i­ty-black com­mu­ni­ties that have end­ed up under the thumb of appoint­ed leaders.

Under emer­gency man­age­ment, Detroit’s elect­ed school board is effec­tive­ly pow­er­less. Teach­ers say this sit­u­a­tion forced them to take dra­mat­ic action. Hav­ing none of the usu­al forms of democ­ra­cy, like hav­ing no school board meet­ings to go to where we can voice our opin­ions – this is what we have to do, mass direct action,” Nicole Conaway, a DPS teacher at East Eng­lish Vil­lage, told In These Times.

Ear­ley will be replaced by for­mer U.S. bank­rupt­cy judge Steven Rhodes, who will take over as a tran­si­tion­al emer­gency man­ag­er” – sup­pos­ed­ly Detroit’s last, under a plan for­mu­lat­ed by Gov­er­nor Sny­der in April 2015. Teach­ers are still wary of this scheme, which would force a bank­rupt­cy-style restruc­tur­ing on Detroit’s school sys­tem by split­ting the dis­trict in two enti­ties – one to hold its bad debt while an entire­ly new dis­trict would per­form the actu­al task of edu­cat­ing the city’s chil­dren. Teach­ers are wor­ried about the poten­tial for broad anti-work­er poli­cies being imple­ment­ed in any new dis­trict, as well as when exact­ly the schools will be returned to local con­trol. Var­i­ous bills mod­eled on the plan are mak­ing their way through the state leg­is­la­ture but the gov­er­nor has said he expects to pass some form of DPS restruc­tur­ing to pass by this summer.

I think there is a height­ened sense of fear about our jobs and the secu­ri­ty of our jobs. It just kind of caught on, and peo­ple just start­ed doing sick outs. We just felt like there was noth­ing else to lose,” says William Weir, a Social Stud­ies teacher at Schulze Acad­e­my for Tech­nol­o­gy and Arts.

Rank-and-file Rebel­lion

The sick­out protests erupt­ed out of an inter­nal tug-of-war between reform­ers and entrenched union lead­er­ship. After the union nego­ti­at­ed a con­ces­sion­ary con­tract in 2009 with DPS’ first unelect­ed emer­gency man­ag­er Robert Bobb, 2,400 DPS employ­ees lost their jobs, 29 schools closed, and char­ter schools pro­lif­er­at­ed rapid­ly. In 2011, reformer Steve Conn chal­lenged the incum­bent DFT pres­i­dent Kei­th John­son, over these mount­ing prob­lems, crit­i­ciz­ing him for call­ing for labor peace” in deal­ing with Bobb.

After los­ing this ini­tial cam­paign by a hand­ful of votes, Conn mount­ed anoth­er cam­paign in Jan­u­ary 2015. This time he was suc­cess­ful, end­ing up fif­teen votes ahead of his oppo­nent, a mem­ber of Johnson’s slate. Through­out his cam­paigns, Conn had stressed the need for direct action. Fol­low­ing his vic­to­ry, he and oth­er teach­ers staged a series of walk-outs and ral­lies at the Capitol.

But in July, Conn’s pres­i­den­cy was cut short when he was dis­missed by the DFT’s exec­u­tive board on mis­con­duct charges, alleged­ly for admin­is­tra­tive and lead­er­ship fail­ures, some­thing he and his sup­port­ers vehe­ment­ly deny. At a meet­ing soon­there­after, DFT rank-and-file present vot­ed to rein­state Conn, but did not meet the required two-thirds nec­es­sary to over­turn the decision.

Inter­im union pres­i­dent Ivy Bai­ley says she reached out for help from the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, DFT’s par­ent union. Under the vol­un­tary trustee­ship” that result­ed, DFT’s union elec­tions will be sus­pend­ed until June 2016.

But by then, Conn and his asso­ciates with­in BAMN, a stu­dent-teacher coali­tion for racial jus­tice, orga­nized the first rogue sick­outs in response to Gov­er­nor Snyder’s calls to up-end the school dis­trict. Since then, oth­er infor­mal groups of grass­root teacher orga­niz­ers have been plan­ning their own mass sick­outs, demon­strat­ing that Conn is not the sole instigator.

Steve might have been the spark, but … we actu­al­ly felt like our jobs were in jeop­ardy,” says Weir. He wor­ries that Detroit could end up dom­i­nat­ed by char­ter schools, as has hap­pened in New Orleans. That new school sys­tem could wipe out col­lec­tive bargaining.”

While they didn’t for­mal­ly sanc­tion the sick­outs, DFT lead­er­ship, under direc­tion of AFT admin­is­tra­tors, have not wast­ed the pub­lic pres­sure in wran­gling con­ces­sions out of the dis­trict, says David Heck­er, pres­i­dent of AFT Michi­gan. DFT put for­ward a series of demands to the emer­gency man­ag­er. The course of action that was decid­ed upon was Let’s get what we can get now.’ ”

In Jan­u­ary, DFT nego­ti­at­ed a let­ter of agree­ment with the school dis­trict on demands relat­ed to staff meet­ing time lim­its, reas­sur­ances of paid sick leave, and a joint labor-man­age­ment com­mit­tee to work on cur­ricu­lum issues.

The DFT and AFT also came togeth­er to file a law­suit against Ear­ley and the dis­trict for fail­ing to pro­vide a healthy learn­ing envi­ron­ment for DPS stu­dents. Only days lat­er, Ear­ley announced his resignation.

While these are impor­tant mea­sures, Conn empha­sizes that legal strate­gies alone won’t win the day: The only way we’re going to get any­where in the courts is by con­tin­u­ing the sick­outs and the fight,” he says.

State leg­is­la­tor Sher­ry Gay-Dagno­go, a for­mer DPS teacher who cur­rent­ly rep­re­sents Detroit as a Demo­c­rat in the Michi­gan House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, says that Detroit is being tar­get­ed by Repub­li­cans from across the state and hopes the sick­out protests will be the cat­a­lyst for a polit­i­cal move­ment to oppose state con­trol of school sys­tems and municipalities.
While Dar­nell Ear­ley has done his share of dam­age in serv­ing in the role of emer­gency man­ag­er for DPS and Flint, him step­ping down does not in any way answer the cry of the teach­ers to real­ly have sup­port, ade­quate pay, afford­able health insur­ance, ade­quate con­di­tions for all of our stu­dents” she says. That all still goes direct­ly to the governor.”

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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