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Teacher protest shuts most Detroit public schools

Ninety-four of Detroit’s 97 public schools were closed Monday as 1,562 teachers heeded a request by their union. Daniel Mears/The Detroit News/AP

DETROIT — Nearly all of Detroit’s public schools were closed Monday and more than 45,000 students missed classes after about half the district’s teachers called in sick to protest the possibility that some of them won’t get paid over the summer if the struggling district runs out of cash.

The latest in a series of sick-outs closed 94 of 97 schools for the day as 1,562 teachers heeded their union’s call to stay home.

The move by the Detroit Federation of Teachers came after Detroit Public Schools’ transition manager said the district would have no money to continue paying teachers this summer without further funding from the state.


The state had approved $47.8 million in emergency money in March to keep the 46,000-student school system operating, but that amount pays the district’s bills only through June 30. Detroit Schools also would be unable to fund summer school or special education programs after June 30.

The state Legislature is considering a $720 million restructuring plan that would pay off the district’s enormous debt.

Under their contract, Detroit teachers can opt to receive their pay over the course of the school year or spread over a full 12 months. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the district’s approximately 3,000 educators have chosen to have their biweekly paychecks spread out over 26 weeks.

Some say they live paycheck to paycheck and need the money to get through July and August, before the next school year starts.

‘‘We have already put the work in,’’ said Kimberly Morrison, 54, a reading and recovery specialist and 20-year district employee. ‘‘If I don’t get my pay, then somebody else — who I owe — won’t get their pay.’’

Kindergarten teacher Famata Legemah, 54, says it is difficult for her to save enough during the school year to make do over the summer because ‘‘there’s not a whole lot left over.’’


Morrison and Legemah were among a few hundred teachers who picketed Monday morning outside the district’s administrative offices.

‘‘There’s a basic agreement in America: When you put in a day’s work, you’ll receive a day’s pay,’’ said Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. ‘‘DPS is breaking that deal. Teachers want to be in the classroom giving children a chance to learn and reach their potential.

‘‘Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms.’’

Teacher strikes are illegal under Michigan law. Sick-outs earlier this year caused tens of thousands of students to miss class.

Dejuan Parkman, who has four children in the district, joined the protest. Parkman, 42, was able to get his mother to watch the kids Monday, but said he might have to take time off from his catering business if more sick-outs are held.

‘‘It’s real scary,’’ he said. ‘‘What are we going to do if the teachers shut down the schools? I’m not mad at the teachers. You can’t pay the teachers their money? That’s not right. They have to pay their utilities, pay their mortgages and car notes.’’

Steven Rhodes, the district’s state-appointed transition manager and a former bankruptcy judge, also said the teachers ‘‘have to be paid for the work that they do,’’ but without more help from the state that might not be possible. He said he understood the frustration and would like to do something about it.


‘‘No one can guarantee what the Legislature will do,’’ Rhodes said. ‘‘The alternative is so unimaginable.’’

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, said Monday that he hopes to see action this month and ‘‘clearly before the middle of June’’ by lawmakers.

‘‘We need to get something done here,’’ Snyder told reporters in Flint. ‘‘A legislative solution is the best solution compared to the alternatives of ending up in court in some fashion.’’

Monday’s sick-out was not constructive, especially with the Legislature considering the restructuring plan, he added.

The restructuring proposal is pending in the House, where majority Republicans want to tie aid to restrictions on teacher work stoppages and some collective bargaining rights.

Lawmakers could consider passing another emergency stopgap measure, like the earlier emergency measure that is keeping the district operating through June 30.

Snyder has said the school district’s debt will reach about $515 million by this summer. Much of the blame for the money troubles can be traced to plummeting student enrollment.

The Detroit Public Schools had 150,415 students in 2003-2004. Now, about 46,000 students attend the district’s 97 schools. Detroit receives about $7,400 for each student. Many Detroit parents seeking out better educational opportunities for their children have turned to charter schools and close-by suburban districts.

The teachers union has scheduled a membership meeting Tuesday to discuss its options.