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Judge Sides With Detroit Teachers and Their Right to Protest

A judge has ruled against Detroit Public Schools in its lawsuit against two teachers involved in teacher sick-outs, saying the district failed to meet its burden and interpreted a state law in a way that is "offensive to fundamental rights of free speech."

By Ann Zaniewski

A judge has ruled against Detroit Public Schools in its lawsuit against two teachers involved in teacher sick-outs, saying the district failed to meet its burden and interpreted a state law in a way that is "offensive to fundamental rights of free speech."

Cynthia Diane Stephens' eight-page opinion closes a case that began in January, saw a dwindling number of defendants and cost the state, which picked up the district's legal tab, about $320,000.

The district had accused teachers Steve Conn and Nicole Conaway of illegally encouraging the sick-outs that closed dozens of schools earlier this year.

"I'm very happy, but I'm not surprised at all," Conn said. "It's a total defeat for (district Transition Manager Steven) Rhodes and the governor. ...

"The judge clearly agreed with the rest of us that we were speaking on the political plane concerning the state takeover of the district."

Detroit Public Schools, now called Detroit Public Schools Community District, filed a lawsuit Jan. 20 against 28 defendants, most of whom were teachers, in an effort to block a string of teacher sick-outs. That same day, 88 of the district's nearly 100 schools were closed because so many teachers stayed home.

Teachers said the sick-outs were an effort to call attention to poor building conditions, low wages and several other problems in the district.

Attorneys for the district said that the sick-outs were really illegal strikes under the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). They accused Conn and Conaway of encouraging the sick-outs and sought an injunction against them. Both have been outspoken critics of state-appointed emergency management of the district.

In her ruling, Stephens, a Michigan Court of Claims judge, said the district didn't prove that Conn and Conaway violated PERA.

"Here, the vast majority of the speech attributable to defendants concerns complaints to the state government to rectify educational, financial and structural problems in the Detroit Public School District, and not issues concerning the rights, privileges or conditions of their employment," she said.

"Any injunction based on defendants' exercise of their free speech right to petition their government would run afoul of First Amendment protections."

Stephens said that the district's argument that the defendants were precluded from even saying they approved of work stoppages "goes far beyond the scope of PERA and such an interpretation is offensive to fundamental rights of free speech."

The state picked up the district's legal costs, spending about $320,000, Michigan Department of Treasury spokeswoman Danelle Gittus said Aug. 10.

George Butler III, the main attorney for the school district, and district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson could not immediately be reached for comment late today.

In the weeks after the lawsuit was filed, most of the 28 defendants, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, were dismissed by Stephens or withdrawn by the district, leaving only Conn and Conaway. The judge twice denied the district's request for temporary restraining orders.

Detroit Public Schools is now officially called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new, debt-free district created July 1 as part of sweeping legislation aimed at reforming public education in the city. The old DPS district still exists, but only as an entity that will collect tax money with the purpose of paying down debt.

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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