The lawsuit, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, is the union's latest salvo against a 46,000-student school system beset by teacher sickouts over decrepit facilities, overcrowding, insufficient maintenance and other issues. It asks the court to order immediate repairs for conditions that are relegating "children to spend their young lives in deplorable surroundings" and requests the creation of a capital plan to bring schools up to standard.
"Teachers are working their hearts and souls out," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
"How dare we tell children that they need to also work their hearts and souls out and then provide them with schools that are deplorable in terms of their conditions? ... What message is it sending to kids about what we're saying to them about their education?"
Darnell Earley, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder a year ago to oversee Detroit Public Schools, is named as a defendant.
Before going to Detroit, Earley served as the emergency manager in Flint, where the city's water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a decision reversed more than a year later amid reports of corroded pipes and elevated blood lead levels. Earley has said he was not responsible for the switch, only for implementing it.
In a statement released by the school system, Earley said the State Legislature is considering a "badly needed, districtwide long-term capital improvement plan," and vowed to perform repairs at buildings identified by inspections ordered this month by Mayor Mike Duggan.
"We are committed to ensuring that our students and staff have a safe working and learning environment, and that is a part of the discussion regarding the critical financial investment into the new Detroit Public School System that is before the Michigan Legislature," the statement said.
'Snubbed, ignored and disrespected'
But Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told reporters Thursday that "educators and parents have been raising the red flag for years about dangerous school conditions, only to be snubbed, ignored and disrespected by DPS and Earley."
"The state has brought the school district to its knees and now it's time to give up the reins," Bailey said of the lawsuit's demand that the state restore local control of the school system.
The school system did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Thursday's complaint offers a disturbing portrait of a school system with rodent-infested school buildings that are crumbling, damaged by water and pockmarked with black mold.
"There are unrepaired bullet holes, exposed wires, and boarded-up windows," the complaint said.
"Heating systems are in such disrepair that many classrooms have temperatures below freezing or above 90º. Technology schools without Internet. It is not a surprise that due to this, and other reasons, including budget cuts and mismanagement, that DPS is dead last in academic performance with a majority of its students being left behind the rest of the country."
Detroit's schools have been under the control of four state-appointed emergency managers over the last six years, according to the complaint.
'We've failed these kids'
"You can't look at it any other way than to be sad that we can't do better," said Robert Fetter, an attorney for the teachers union. "That as a state, we've failed these kids -- completely failed these kids."
The school system is $515 million in debt and projected to be unable to fund its payroll by April, the lawsuit said.
"Enough is enough," said Shoniqua Kemp, who has three children in the school system. "Our kids deserve better."
Exhibits filed in support of the complaint, which also names students, parents and teachers as plaintiffs, chronicle the deteriorating conditions at Spain Elementary-Middle School as well as others.
At Spain, photos showed "unrepaired gaps in the walls letting in cold air and vermin, elementary school students clutching themselves for warmth as they walk down the halls, severe water damage in the gymnasium that has remained unrepaired for years causing the gym floor to warp and wave as well as mold and fungus accumulating with trash in the ventilation ducts, and a rat infestation," the suit said.
"Defendants have allowed the physical condition of Detroit's schools to deteriorate to the point of crisis and have forced Detroit's school-age children to spend their young lives in deplorable surroundings risking their health and safety in the process and imposing on students and their teachers an atmosphere that interferes with their securing a minimally sufficient education," the complaint said.
Teachers in the system have called out sick en masse to protest conditions.
Last week, a judge ruled that Detroit teachers could continue to stage so-called "sickouts,"
which have forced dozens of schools to close.
A legislative fix?
Snyder said in his State of the State address earlier this month that Detroit's schools are in crisis and the "time to act is now."
"The Detroit schools," he told lawmakers, "are in need of a transformational change."
A proposal introduced in the Legislature this month would create a second school district within the city that assumes control over all its schools and students, while leaving the current Detroit Public School system with only the district's debt, according to the plan's author, state Sen. Goeff Hansen.
About $7,400 is allocated per student each year. But close to $1,200 of that per student amount is going to pay down debt and legacy costs in the city school system rather than heading to the classroom, according to Hansen.
Under the proposal, the debt isolated in the Detroit Public Schools system would continue to be paid off by revenue from city taxpayers but would give the state room to inject the additional funding into the new school system.