Nearly All of Detroit’s Schools Closed Due to Sickouts Coinciding with Obama Visit

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(CNN) — Nearly all of Detroit’s public schools will be closed Wednesday in the latest, largest instance of staff calling in sick, en masse, to call attention to what they see as inadequate funding and deplorable conditions.

School district spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said that there would no class in 88 schools, which accounts for about 90% of the roughly 100 in the system. By comparison, another list on the Detroit Public Schools’ Facebook page indicates a mere eight schools will be open.

The mass sick-out wasn’t entirely unexpected, coming on top of similar protest actions last week. Detroit Public Schools had five closed schools as early as Tuesday and warned that many more could be coming. Ivy Bailey, interim president of Detroit’s teacher’s union, estimated that the doors of “over 30 schools” ultimately would be closed for business Wednesday.

It turns out all these estimates were way too low.

The closures cloud what was supposed to be a big and positive day for Detroit, with President Barack Obama in town to visit the North American International Auto Show and celebrate the American automotive industry’s resurgence.

Yet school staffers don’t think now is time to celebrate in Detroit. Not given what’s happening in its school system, where the Detroit Federation of Teachers says “children are struggling in schools with hazardous environmental and safety issues (and) educators have made significant sacrifices for the good of students.”

“As the city celebrates this ‘ultra-luxury’ automobile event,” the teacher’s union says on its website, “Detroit’s public schools are in a state of crisis.”

Obama plans to meet with Detroit’s mayor

To drive home this point, leaflets have circulated around Detroit showing pictures of dead rats found at public schools, mildew taking over ceilings and walls, and damage to school buildings.

Protesters plan to hand out these flyers to car show attendees and urge them to sign a petition — which has over 10,000 signatures so far — entitled, “Our Kids Deserve Better.”

“Enough is enough!” the petition states. “… We demand real answers and fully funded schools.”

There’s no guarantee that Obama will glimpse one of these leaflets, sign the petition or overhear one of the rallies planned for Wednesday afternoon.

But the President does plan to have lunch with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, at which time he’ll likely discuss the mass school closures as well as larger funding problems plaguing the city, according to the White House.

Duggan has “met with several teachers and understands what they’re going through,” his spokesman John Roach told CNN. But he doesn’t think that calling in sick is the right approach.

“(The mayor feels) the best thing for them to do is go back to school and teach,” Roach said.

Governor’s speech

The city’s school crisis has made it up to the desk of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who called for change in his State of the State address on Tuesday night.

The “time to act is now,” he told lawmakers. “The Detroit schools are in need of a transformational change.”

“The state needs to ensure that a complete failure to educate schoolchildren never again happens to this extent in one of Michigan’s districts.”

The Republican said he wants money spent on debt service — about $1,100 per student — shifted into classroom funding to give teachers what they need to do their jobs.

Managing the debt

A proposal introduced last week in the Legislature would appear to find a way of doing that while handling the school system’s massive $515 million debt.

It would create a second school district within the city that assumes control over all of its schools and students, while leaving the current Detroit Public School system with only the district’s debt, said Republican state Sen. Goeff Hansen, author of the proposal.

“It’s a high priority. It’s an emergency situation,” Hansen said.

About $7,400 of school funding is allocated per student each year. But close to $1,200 of that goes to pay down debt and other costs, Hansen said.

Under the proposal, tax revenue would continue to pay off the debt isolated in the Detroit Public Schools system, but the state would gain room to inject additional funding into the new school system.

Litany of troubles

The proposal may have teachers worried. They are afraid that Detroit Public Schools will go out of existence, said Ivy Bailey, the teachers’ union leader. Under the current system, funding could run out by April.

Teachers feel pushed over the edge to protest against a litany of resulting troubles.

“It’s because of the lack of respect that has been displayed toward teachers in this district, the hazardous working conditions, oversize classes, lost preparation periods, decrease in pay, increase in health care cost, uncertainty of their future,” Bailey said.

“I could go on and on. Teachers are fed up and have had enough.”

There have been recent concessions. The school district agreed to demands on staff meetings, sick leave accrual and a labor-management committee on curriculum, the teacher’s union said.

And last week, Duggan ordered inspections of all the city’s public schools.

Duggan hopes to have the first 20 school buildings fully inspected by month’s end and all of them wrapped up in about three months, according to Roach, his spokesman.

“The mayor is deeply engaged in this issue,” Roach said.

Flint water slap

Flack from the drinking water crisis in the city of Flint, involving high levels of lead, is also haunting the emergency manager who has handled the Detroit school crisis.

Darnell Earley was also the emergency manager in Flint, when the city switched its water source in 2014. Earley has said he was not responsible for the decision — only with implementing it after it was approved.

Michigan Senate Democrats took a swipe at him in a tweet: “Crumbling #DPS schools are a direct result of damage that can be done by unelected emergency managers.”

Bailey has also complained about the current set-up, saying, “Emergency management is not working.”

“If the goal was to destroy DPS,” the teacher’s union chief added, “emergency management has done an excellent job.”