Students stay home as ‘sick-outs’ continue in Detroit Public Schools

Story highlights

NEW: Mayor Mike Duggan orders inspections of all city schools on Wednesday

Mold, rats and falling ceilings behind Detroit teacher protest that closed dozens of public schools on Monday and Tuesday

Labor leaders blame the state's governor for diverting funds and creating the "deplorable" environment

CNN  — 

Black mold grows in the classrooms of Spain Elementary-Middle School.

Rats and roaches run through the halls of Moses Field School and pieces of ceiling have fallen on the heads of students at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

At Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, eighth-graders are housed in the gym and pulled to classrooms for core subjects an hour or so a day due to a shortage of teachers.

These are some of the conditions standing in the way of a quality education for students at Detroit’s public schools, according to the city’s main teacher’s union.

But on Tuesday, the school administrators across the city had a bigger problem – the teachers didn’t show up.

Twenty-four schools in the city of Detroit were closed on Tuesday, a result of a “high number of teacher absences,” according to an alert sent to parents by the school system.

On Monday, the same issue saw classes canceled at 64 schools, more than two-thirds of the district’s total.

In Detroit, thousands of students stayed home over the two days as teachers staged what has been termed a “sick-out,” an off-the-books strike by teachers who called in sick to their school in protest, according to the local labor leader who organized the protest, Steve Conn.

“It’s a way to make us heard,” said Conn, who stayed home sick on Monday, but was back at work on Tuesday at Western International High School when he talked to CNN.

Speaking on a cell phone between his civics classes, Conn ticked off the reasons for the protest:

Overcrowded classes, deplorable building conditions, safety hazards, equipment shortages: “The conditions are terrible in the schools,” Conn said.

The sound of silence in the halls of the district’s schools this week was heard loud by the city’s mayor.

On Tuesday, Mayor Mike Duggan took a tour of city public schools, including Spain Elementary-Middle, along with city environmental officials and the head of the city’s main teachers union, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, according to his office and a union spokeswoman.

On Wednesday, Duggan ordered inspections of all the city’s public schools. The 20 schools thought to have the worst problems will be inspected by the end of January, with the other schools inspected by the end of April, the mayor’s office said.

“We’ve been assured by Emergency Manager Earley that DPS will respond promptly to correct any deficiencies found in these inspections and we look forward to working with the district to resolve these problems,” Duggan said.

The mayor’s office, however, has no direct control over the city’s taxpayer-funded school system.

An emergency manager, appointed by the governor and paid for by the state, took over authority of the Detroit Public School System from an elected school board in 2009 and in this year used 30% to 40% of state funding for Detroit Public Schools to pay off city debt, in place of funding its schools, the mayor’s office said.

In the time since state takeover, national surveys show math and reading scores have fallen to the lowest ranking among the nation’s largest cities.

“This is an issue of critical importance to the future of Detroit’s children; students have no chance of learning when their education funding is diverted from the classroom,” the mayor said Tuesday.

In a statement responding to the mayor’s tour and comment, the Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager said: “It has been very well documented that given the tenuous financial condition of the District over the last several years, its capital and maintenance programs have been lacking in some areas.”

“To the extent that areas of concern are called to our attention, we remediate the issue based on the resources available. In every case where an issue has been brought to our attention, we have responded in as timely a manner as possible,” Emergency Manager Darnell Earley said.

A spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday that he understands the teachers’ frustration but that “the best thing for Detroit children is to be in school.”

“Gov. Snyder is working to improve academics and finances in Detroit schools. Right now, the district pays a figure equal to $1,100 per child for debt service. That’s money that can best be spent in the classroom, and why discussions on important reforms are continuing,” Deputy Press Secretary Anna Heaton said.

Teacher strikes are against the law in Michigan and the Detroit Federation of Teachers is unaffiliated with the “sick-outs,” but on Tuesday, the head of the teachers union pushed back at the governor.

“The governor says he understands the frustration, but that isn’t enough, DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey said.

“The community is crying out for help over what is clearly a crisis in our schools,” she said.

On Thursday, DFT members will meet with the national president of the American Federation of Teacher’s in attendance to “lay out a plan regarding the situation,” union spokeswoman Janet Bass said.

In the meantime, problems in the city schools persist.

Tuesday morning, in temperatures pushing 20 degrees, Patrick Bosworth sent his 13-year-old son to school in a short sleeve uniform shirt under his jacket.

A broken heating system at The Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School means Patrick Bosworth II is back and forth to his locker for his winter coat, alternating dress between one “steaming hot” classroom and the next one that’s cold, his dad said.

“It’s absolutely distracting,” Patrick Bosworth said. “The conditions, the teaching environment is not necessarily most conducive. They struggle through it.”