For three straight days earlier this week, some Detroit public schools were closed because too many teachers called in sick.
These rolling “sickout” protests have picked up steam in recent weeks, and they’ve drawn fierce criticism — and attention to a school district in freefall.
Detroit resident Crystal Fischer saw it on the news Monday morning: Her 5-year-old son’s school was closed because too many teachers had called in sick.
Fischer made do for that day.
But when she got the call on Tuesday — the school was closed again — the working single mom wasn’t too happy.
“It may be an issue with the teachers, but shoot, they’re causing issues with the parents,” she says. “They’re making us suffer.”
Fischer didn’t really understand what the teachers were so upset about, but she did notice one thing at her son’s school.
“The classrooms are overcrowded,” she says. “Too many kids to one teacher.”
Overcrowding is just one item on the long list of complaints Detroit teachers have.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan toured some schools Tuesday.
“I’ve seen some very well-maintained buildings,” he said. “And I’ve seen some buildings that would break your heart.”
Duggan has vowed to fix the most egregious building problems: for example, black mold and collapsing ceilings.
But Duggan’s powers are limited because the state has run Detroit Public Schools for almost seven years now, through a series of so-called “emergency managers.”
“And it’s been seven years of enrollment decline, deficits, test score decline,” Duggan said. “And now a third of the money coming in school is being diverted to debt.”
That’s $3.5 billion of debt, some of it short-term debt run up by the district’s emergency managers, who are supposed to put the school’s finances back on solid footing.
But many in Detroit argue that emergency management has made bad situations even worse, putting Detroit schools on the brink of what the city of Detroit has already endured.
Nina Chacker is a special education teacher in Detroit.
“The state has created debt after debt after debt,” she says, adding that teachers are now at a breaking point.
“People leave every single week. And we have just kind of come to realize that they need us at this point. They cannot get people to work in Detroit,” Chacker says.
The teachers union has not organized or even formally condoned the sickouts. It’s struggling with its own internal political divisions.
Chacker says the push came from the teachers. And she says they’re doing it for the students.
“They’re kids that are easy to take advantage of,” Chacker says. “And I will fight as hard as I can to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
That’s not how district and state officials see it.
They say the sickouts just hurt students and parents like Crystal Fischer, and they have accused the teachers of using them as “pawns” and engaging in illegal wildcat strikes. Strikes by government employees are illegal in Michigan.
Michelle Zdrodowski, a spokeswoman for Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, says they all understand Detroit teachers’ “frustration.”
“But when teachers continue to do these sickouts, it makes our efforts to talk to the Legislature, and get them to say yes to investing in DPS, that much more difficult,” she says.
That’s exactly what many Republicans in the Michigan state Legislature say, as bills calling for a bankruptcy-style restructuring were finally introduced in Lansing.
That’s Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan for the district, but the response so far has been lukewarm at best.
And the governor is already struggling with another huge political crisis: widespread contamination of drinking water in Flint, Mich.
He has to figure it out, though. Without some kind of state investment, the Detroit Public Schools will go broke before the end of the school year.