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Lawmakers have a plan to end Detroit teacher sickouts – one that the union may not like

May 3, 2016

Michigan lawmakers moved swiftly to advance a $500-million plan to restructure Detroit public schools by creating a new district — a vote intended to ease the concerns of teachers who closed the district Tuesday for a second consecutive day by calling in sick.

Teachers staged the protest out of fear they would not get paid if the district ran out of money. The sickout idled 45,000 children and presented yet another crisis for a governor and Legislature already engrossed in the water emergency in Flint, a majority-black city like Detroit.

“Teachers, you’re going to get paid,” Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka said before the panel approved the plan over objections that it would not be enough money and that it would hurt the teachers union. Existing labor agreements would not transfer to the new district, and collective bargaining would be restricted on some issues.

The proposal that passed mostly along party lines would retire the district’s enormous debt by 2023 and launch a new district this July. It would spend less than a $700-million-plus overhaul plan approved by the Senate in March.

The GOP-led House could vote on the idea this week. But big differences would still need to be resolved with the Republican-controlled Senate. It was unclear how quickly that could occur before the Legislature adjourns for the summer in mid-June.

On Tuesday, the district closed 94 of its 97 schools — the same number that canceled classes on Monday when more than 1,500 teachers did not show up for work.

“We want to be in school teaching children,” said Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Detroit teachers. “But you cannot in good conscience ask anybody to work without a guarantee they’re going to be paid.”

The district — considered the worst academically of its size in the country — has been under continuous state oversight since 2009. It has been led by a series of financial managers who have confronted debt and enrollment that has declined to a third of what it was a decade ago.

Current transition manager and former federal Judge Steven Rhodes, who oversaw the city’s bankruptcy, warned over the weekend that nearly $50 million in emergency spending that the state approved in March will run out by June 30.

Teachers opting to have their pay spread over 12 months instead of the school year would not receive paychecks in July and August without more help from the state.

The seven-bill House plan aims to ensure that the newly created district could spend more on academics if freed of debt payments equaling $1,100 per student.

But Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over issues such as how much state money is needed and how to create a special commission to open and close schools, including publicly funded charters. Also unresolved is the question of when an elected school board would take power and whether a financial oversight commission would have a say in hiring a new superintendent.

Unlike the Senate plan, the House proposal would prohibit labor contracts in the current district from being transferred to the new district and restrict collective bargaining over work schedules and school calendars.

State Rep. Henry Yanez, a Democrat, characterized the legislation as “baldfaced union busting.” Other Democrats questioned why it would provide only $33 million for start-up costs and cash flow when $200 million is required.

The mass sickouts that started late last year with just a small group of teachers, however, angered Republicans, who complained that the protest did not help their efforts to pass the bills. Four bills won approval on narrow 15-14 votes.

Republican Rep. Earl Poleski, who voted for the legislation, called the work stoppages “reprehensible.”

“Their actions have been grossly unprofessional,” he said.

But one parent who was missing work because her daughter has been shut out of class said the blame for the district’s financial maladies fell on the shoulders of the state, not the teachers.

“I think [the teachers] have been doing the best that they can with the resources that they have,” said Monique Baker McCormick, whose daughter is an 11th-grader at Cass Tech. “They’re just trying to survive themselves off of what little they get. So I don’t blame them at all for fighting for what they deserve.”

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest, when asked whether President Obama supports the sickouts, said that the president was “deeply concerned” that students were not being educated, and that he urged teachers and local officials to “resolve their differences so that kids can get back to school.”


5:05 p.m.: Updated throughout.

This article was first published at 6:57 a.m.

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