DPS teachers feel "played" by district officials

Posted at 7:11 PM, May 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-09 19:11:32-04

Who is really to blame for the teacher protests that forced the closure of 94 schools in Detroit last week? 

The district sent out a letter blaming the union and teachers. It is true they called for it.

Nonetheless, many teachers say they feel they are pawns in a political game the district is playing a part in.

To understand why teachers feel they are being played, you have to look at the timeline of how this happened.

The crisis in the district that has left DPS unable to maintain buildings, put teachers in every classroom, and essentially educate every child was effectively ignored in the legislature for an extensive amount of time. More than a year ago Governor Rick Snyder called on lawmakers to act. 

Still, no legislation has been passed in both the House and Senate.

Then, just over a week ago teachers say the district sent their principals a warning. It said - heads up - your pay for the hours you are currently working is no longer funded by the state. All staff who have their pay withheld so they can receive checks over the summer, may have payless paydays.

“Immediately you go into panic mode,” said Terrance Martin, the Vice President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

The timing of the crisis offered an opportunity for teachers that would be hard to pass up. National press would be in town for two separate events with Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. This as state representatives were expected to discuss legislation on how to address the district’s financial crisis.

“Expectations from the district should have been that people are going to act in some way,” said Martin.

Act they did. Teachers called in, forcing the closure of 94 schools. Their message? Lansing needs to act because the state appointed emergency managers led the district as it racked up at least $500 million in debt.

“This money mismanagement isn’t my doing, but I am not going to be paid as a result,” said Emma Howland-Bolton, a DPS teacher as she protested.

As teachers marched outside the district’s central office, DPS Interim Manager Judge Steven Rhodes held a press conference. He voiced empathy.

“I fully understand the frustration these teachers and educators feel. I not only understand it, I share it,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes said he knows teachers need to be paid, said it is heartbreaking to see schools closed, to see kids and families impacted, and called on lawmakers to act.

Teachers noticed that he did not call their action a strike.

After two days of closures the protests ended when Rhodes signed a document promising teachers they would be paid, even though the funding is still not lined up.

Teachers went back to work and got a letter from Rhodes to the entire district. The rhetoric was much more harsh.

For the first time he called what teachers called a lockout - based on the fact they might not be paid - a strike, which is illegal. He blamed teachers for Lansing’s actions. 

The House didn’t pass a Senate bill providing money for the district to address its debt and restructure. Instead it passed its own bill that provided money to address the debt, but not to restructure.

Martin said teachers were insulted. They can only speculate as to whether the district “played" them. 

Many teachers have voiced the opinion they were manipulated, pushed to protest to motivate the House to pass the Senate Bill, but it backfired.

“We can’t control what happens in back rooms, but what we can control is what we do to move the district forward,” said Martin.

7 Action News reached out to the district for comment. We explained how numerous teachers reached out to us sharing their speculations.

We asked in a request for comment, "What would the district or Judge Steve Rhodes like to say about many teachers' belief that the district and Rhodes created the crisis that lead to the sickouts? Saying they wouldn't be paid, then with essentially nothing changing ending the protests by saying they would be paid after they failed to get desired political response. Does the district understand why teachers would feel like political pawns? What is message the district wants to get to Lansing right now?”

The district responded with the following statement from  Michelle Zdrowdowski, Executive Director of Communications.

Judge Rhodes has been clear from the beginning about laying out the facts of the District's financial condition. The District is insolvent and this fact has not changed. Without the assistance of the Michigan Legislature, the District will have no funds after July 1st. Judge Rhodes has stated on numerous occasions that he believes that the legislature will get this done in a timely manner and that teachers will be paid for work performed.

Judge Rhodes is in daily contact with officials in Lansing. He has asked that the community to call, write or email their legislators to urge them to get this done in order for the District to move closer to local control and ensure a future for public school in Detroit.