Detroit teachers: sick-outs are 'regrettable but necessary'

Teachers concerned that they might not be fully paid for the 2015-16 school year staged sick-outs Monday, after frequently using the tactic to protest school conditions this fall and winter. 


Lori Higgins/Detroit Free Press/AP/ File
A Detroit parent speaks to a rally crowd of mostly teachers in January 2016. This fall, teachers staged a series of 'sick-outs' to protest what they call deplorable school conditions. On Monday, many Detroit teachers again held a 'sick-out' over contract issues.

Nearly 100 Detroit schools are closed today because of "sick-outs" after teachers received news that the city would not be able to pay them over the summer.

All but three of the 46,000-student district's schools will be closed because of the sick-outs, which teachers call regrettable but necessary.

"While we recognize that this puts Detroit's parents and communities in a difficult situation, the district's broken promises and gross negligence leave us no choice," Terrence Martin, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told reporters during a press conference.  

Just last month, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that granted the Detroit Public Schools $48.7 million to pay teacher salaries through the summer. About two-thirds of the district's teachers participate in a pay program that rations their salaries throughout the calendar year, instead of delivering them only during months when school is in session. 

Now, teachers have been told that they won't be paid after June 30. Although some have condemned the teachers' decision to participate in the sick-out, citing the vital importance of education for the thousands of children affected by closed schools, teachers say that the principle of ensuring fair pay for hard work is of equal importance.

"There's a basic agreement in America: When you put in a day's work, you'll receive a day's pay. DPS is breaking that deal," Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), said in a Monday press release. "Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms."

Teachers also want to know where the money has gone, after previously being told that Gov. Snyder's April bill would pay their salaries over the summer. Now, the DFT says they'd love to have access to the district's books.

"Being paid for their work isn't a luxury, it's a necessity," Ms. Bailey wrote, asking Detroit residents and politicians to remember teachers' homes and families. 

DPS Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes called the sick-outs "unfortunate." 

"I am on record as saying that I cannot in good conscience ask anyone to work without pay. Wages that are owed to teachers should be paid," Judge Rhodes said in a Monday statement. The Michigan legislature will likely approve the teachers' pay, he wrote, making the "choice for a drastic call to action ... not necessary."

Teachers and many other public employees in Michigan have been legally barred from engaging in strikes since 1947. Instead, protesting teachers have used sick-outs, when staff across the district call in sick, to make their point.  

In January, Detroit teachers took a stand because of poor work conditions and a lack of resources. Educators took pictures of molding classrooms and unhealthy school environments, and told stories about disintegrating school buildings and massive rodent problems.

They received heavy criticism for "using students as pawns" and taking away instructional time, however. But protesting teachers have insisted that learning conditions and class size of up to 45 students surpass the legal limit and impair instruction quality.

During the January strikes, the district took the matter to court, saying that teachers participating in the strike were harming children and families who relied on the schools. However, a judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the sick outs.

Other school districts have faced sick-outs, most recently in the city of Compton, Calif. Compton teachers refused to go to work after school board elections in late February, protesting what they say are low pay rates and large class sizes. 

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