Nearly every school in Detroit closed on Monday after the teacher’s union called on members to take a sick day because the district will not be able to pay teachers in the summer unless a funding crisis is resolved.
More than 45,600 students missed school on Monday after teachers responded to the union’s call, forcing the closure of 94 of the 97 schools in the district. A few hundred teachers picketed outside the district headquarters.
The Detroit school district, which is estimated to have more than $3bn in debt, said on Saturday it could not pay teachers past 30 June. So without additional funding, teachers who had chosen to be paid throughout the year, instead of just when school is in session, would not receive money they had already earned.
Detroit Federation of Teachers interim president Ivy Bailey said the union organized the sickout because the district had broken its deal to pay teachers.
“Teachers want to be in the classroom giving children a chance to learn and reach their potential,” Bailey said in a statement. “Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS [Detroit public schools] is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms.”
Bailey did not say whether the sickouts would continue past Monday, though the union has an emergency meeting planned for Tuesday night. The union’s executive vice-president, Terrence Martin, told the Detroit Free Press that it would hold a voice vote at the meeting “to authorize a major collective action”, in addition to holding ballot votes in schools later that week.
Under Michigan law, government employees like teachers are not allowed to strike. The state attorney general, however, chose not to take action against union members following a similar sickout in January over poor school conditions, which labor experts said could be considered a method of strike.
Though most school districts in the US are run by local governments, Detroit’s financial difficulties led the state to take control of the district in 2009. Since then, a rotating cast of emergency managers have been tasked to head the district’s recovery.
Former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who took over the position in March, said he understood the teacher’s frustrations but thought the union’s decision was “counterproductive and detrimental”.
“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,” Rhodes said in a statement. “The DFT’s choice for a drastic call to action was not necessary.”
The state legislature is considering a $720m restructuring plan to pay off the school’s debts. The state senate approved the deal in March, but it’s waiting for approval from the state house and the governor, Rick Snyder.
In March, Snyder approved a bill to use $48.7m to keep the school district operating until 30 June. In response to Monday’s sickout, Snyder said: “That’s not a constructive act with respect to getting legislation through.”
Detroit mayor Mike Duggan had not commented on this sickout as of Monday afternoon, though after January ’s union action, he said there was “no question about the legitimacy of the issues they’re raising”, after touring schools where he saw a dead mouse and children wearing coats to stay warm in class.
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