Plan to Restructure Detroit Schools Advances During Sickout

Detroit Public Schools transition manager Steven Rhodes. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Detroit Public Schools transition manager Steven Rhodes. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan lawmakers moved swiftly Tuesday 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 for a second consecutive day by calling in sick.

Teachers staged the protest out of fear they might not get paid if the district runs out of money. The sick-out 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 also 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 in July. It would spend less than a $700-plus million plan approved by the Senate in March.

The GOP-led House could vote on the idea later 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 cancelled 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 course of the school year would not receive paychecks in July and August without more help from the state.

The seven-bill 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 if 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.

Rep. Henry Yanez, a Democrat, characterized the legislation as “bald-faced 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.

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