Detroit schools back in session after promise teachers will be paid
May 4, 2016
By: Emma Brown and Vickie Elmer
Detroit Public Schools reopened Wednesday, welcoming tens of thousands of students back to their classrooms after two days of widespread closures due to teacher sickouts over a pay dispute.
At a membership meeting of the Detroit Federation of Teachers late Tuesday, union leaders urged teachers to return to work. They said that Steven Rhodes, the school system’s state-appointed emergency manager, had assured them in writing that teachers would be fully paid for their work.
“We’re happy to return to the classroom and finish the year with our kids,” said Ivy Bailey, interim president of the DFT, in a statement.
Math specialist Iris Phipps greeted children Wednesday morning as they streamed through the doors of Louis Pasteur Elementary in northwest Detroit. “Good morning, Justin,” she said. “Good morning, Taniah.”
Phipps said she was glad to be back at work. “Everyone’s happy to be back,” said kindergarten teacher Jennifer Jackson. “But we’re still a little apprehensive,” she said, about whether school officials will keep their promise to pay teachers over the summer.
Jackson said she is planning to retire this summer after 27 years in the classroom. “I love teaching but I’m a little tired of fighting,” she said.
The financially troubled school system has said that — unless state lawmakers pass a bailout plan — it won’t be able to make payroll over the summer, leaving many teachers uncompensated for work during the school year.
About two-thirds of Detroit teachers receive their annual salary in 26 installments, according to the union, and they risk not being paid for any work they do after April 28.
In a letter to teachers Tuesday, Rhodes wrote that the school system “recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation.”
It’s not yet clear where the money will come from. State lawmakers are still divided on how to address the challenges in Detroit schools, which have been under state management since 2009.
The Michigan Senate in March passed a $715 million fix that would resolve the school system’s debt and create a new, debt-free school system. But on Tuesday, the GOP-led House appropriations committee passed a smaller $500 million package that many Democrats feared would resolve neither the issue of missing summer paychecks nor the district’s structural problems. The legislation now heads to the House floor.
The House version, unlike the Senate package, includes a provision that would end current collective bargaining agreements and limit what could be negotiated in the future Detroit school system. Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) said, in describing his opposition, that the measure would “legislatively bust the union.”
A survey of nearly 250 Detroit parents by the Detroit Parents Network found that 70 percent supported teachers’ use of sickouts to demand change, according to the Detroit Free Press. The survey was conducted in March, after a previous round of sickouts.
Many parents and caregivers dropping children off at Pasteur Elementary on Wednesday said they supported the teachers’ refusal to work this week, despite the inconvenience it caused.
“They support the children …. and they don’t get paid enough,” said Sherrille Bryant-Carter, whose three grandchildren and niece attend Detroit Public Schools. She had brought muffins in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week.
Yana Mote, the mother of a fourth-grader, said she understands why the teachers needed to act. But she wishes their protest had not taken place only six weeks before school ends. “It’s a critical time,” said Mote. She said her daughter, too, had missed class during the two days off. She “watched TV,” Mote said,” and begged to go back to school.”