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As Teacher Sickouts Continue, Detroit Mayor Joins Calls for State Aid

Mayor Mike Duggan added his voice Tuesday to those of teachers and others calling for state help for Detroit Public Schools, noting that conditions in some of them "break your heart."

By John Wisely and Lori Higgins

Mayor Mike Duggan added his voice Tuesday to those of teachers and others calling for state help for Detroit Public Schools, noting that conditions in some of them "break your heart."

"What I saw today was a mixed bag," Duggan said after touring four schools in the city. "There were some schools that were very well-maintained. There were some other schools that would just break your heart, where students wore their coats in class until it was warm enough to take them off or where children couldn't use the gym because of the water damage. "

Duggan's tour came as 24 schools were closed Tuesday because of teacher sick-outs called to protest what teachers say are deplorable conditions for them as well as students. On Monday, 60 schools were closed because of sick-outs.

Individual teachers took to social media to blast the current state of the schools while their union leader demanded public hearings to address the problems in the schools.

"Our students and their families deserve real answers," Detroit Federation of Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey said in a statement. "The community is crying out for help over what is clearly a crisis in our schools."

DPS emergency manager Darnell Earley said the district is doing what it can with the money it has available and capital improvements to buildings have been lacking in recent years.

"This is exacerbated by the fact that DPS is essentially insolvent, and if projections carry forward as expected, the district will run out of cash in April," Earley said in a statement. "To the extent that areas of concern are called to our attention, we remediate the issue based on the resources available. In every case where an issue has been brought to our attention, we have responded in as timely a manner as possible."

He added that the district has 97 school buildings that are, on average, 47 years old and that he welcomes any additional money to help address the concerns.

Duggan said the state needs to help fix Detroit schools.

"We are nearing the seventh anniversary of state emergency management of DPS," Duggan said. "Lansing needs to act with real urgency to address the $700-million debt the district now has so issues like these can be addressed."

He added that property owners are responsible for the condition of their buildings.

"When owners fail to maintain their buildings and create a potential public safety risk, the city ... always has the authority to step in and conduct inspections and issue correction orders," Duggan said.

Gov. Rick Snyder told the Free Press today that legislators in Lansing are watching the sick-outs.

"It makes it more challenging because it begs the question that people are asking: What are the teachers doing and how do they care about the kids when they don't show up?" Snyder said. "You'll find that on a lot of minds of the legislators."

Bailey said Detroit needs action, not words, from Lansing.

"The mayor and the state school superintendent are working with us on these issues; we need the governor's help as well," Bailey said in a statement Tuesday.

Michigan law prohibits teacher strikes and includes punishments of up to $5,000 a day for teachers found to have conducted an illegal strike. But before those penalties can be imposed, the district must file a formal complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.  No formal complaint has been filed so far.

Last week, Earley said he was researching the legality of the teachers' action.

Fines in such cases are rare but not unprecedented. In a 2002 case, the commission ordered fines equal to one-day's pay for seven Ann Arbor school employees who called in sick on the same day.

The commission declined to impose fines on 23 other teachers who called in sick after concluding that they had valid excuses for missing work.

Some teachers have taken to social media this past week to plead their cases. Pamela Namyslowski, who teaches fourth grade at Mann Elementary School in Detroit, posted a lengthy open letter to Earley on Friday and by Tuesday,  it had been shared more than 6,000 times.

"These deplorable learning conditions happen to also be the teachers' working conditions," she wrote. "We deal with unsafe environments -- both in the neighborhoods surrounding our schools and often within the schools themselves. Unlike you, students and teachers do not have a driver and security guards."

State Superintendent of Schools Brian Whiston said he wants the district's leadership to set up a meeting to address the health and safety issues teachers are raising.

"I care deeply about the safety and well-being of teachers in Detroit, just as I do the students," Whiston said. "They all still need to be in the classrooms teaching and learning, though.  If buildings have health and safety issues, they need to be addressed immediately with the district administration and all appropriate agencies."

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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