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Teachers in Detroit Strike Over Proposal For Flexible Schools

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Public schools in Detroit failed to open on time for the city's 170,000 students last week when members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers went on strike, contending that a series of proposals by the board of education to "empower'' individual schools would destroy teachers' contractual protections.

The school district has been working for four years on the concept of giving individual schools much greater freedom. But it was the board's proposal to allow empowered schools to waive provisions of the teaching contract, without the approval of the teachers' federation, that prompted the strike, said John Elliott, the president of the union.

"In our opinion that would gut our contract in those schools,'' Mr. Elliott said. "We will not even allow that possibility.''

The negotiations over a new contract have centered primarily on the empowerment program. The talks were continuing last week, despite the strike, with the assistance of a state mediator.

Both sides also disagree on some 60 other issues, including salaries, health insurance, and a proposal by the board to create "lead teachers'' who would be paid as much as 25 percent more than regular classroom teachers for performing special duties.

Mr. Elliott said the union is "philosophically opposed'' to paying some teachers more than others.

The union is seeking pay increases of 8 percent annually, while the board has proposed paying teachers 3 percent salary "bonuses'' for attending 50 workshops a year.

Under Michigan law, it is illegal for public employees to strike. The district and a group of Detroit residents have separately filed lawsuits in Wayne County circuit court asking that the teachers be enjoined from striking. A hearing on both suits was scheduled for late last week.

A total of 10,300 instructional employees went out on strike; 7,500 of them are teachers.

The strike in Detroit, the nation's seventh-largest district, was one of 13 reported last week, according to the National Education Association. Teachers also are walking picket lines in four other Michigan districts, five Illinois districts, and in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Warwick, R.I.; and Bennington, Vt.

The number of strikes reported last week was similar to the number reported at this time in the school year during the past three years, NEA officials said. The strikes affected a total of 246,500 students.

Leaders of both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, noting the effect of the recession on school budgets, said negotiations on new teacher contracts are proceeding extremely slowly throughout the country.

Independent-School Model

Under the school board proposal at issue in the Detroit strike, a school could become "empowered'' if its principal, 75 percent of its teachers, and its parent council agreed.

Such schools would receive 92 percent of the district's per-pupil spending, in contrast to the approximately 70 percent allocated to other schools. The rest of the money is kept for central operations.

The empowered schools would be free to operate as they wished, as long as they balanced their budgets and met the achievement standards for Detroit students. (See Education Week, March 18, 1992.)

They also would have the authority to select their own teachers.

In essence, the Detroit board would like to create public schools that function with the autonomy of independent schools, said David Olmstead, a member of the 11-person board.

Mr. Olmstead stressed that the program would be entirely voluntary and would rely for its success on the professional knowledge of the schools' faculties.

"I truly believe this board is more strongly in favor of teachers than the union is,'' Mr. Olmstead asserted. "This [dispute] is about whether the union or the teachers will be in control.''

Jobs, Transfers an Issue

Mr. Elliott of the teachers' union agreed that the dispute is over control, and he argued that Detroit teachers prefer a centralized school system with the same work rules and procedures for everyone.

If there are problems with purchasing or personnel, he said, they should be addressed, not passed on to the schools.

"The staff we've talked to said they don't even want that authority,'' he said. "The way our board wants to set it up would definitely take the entire school away from its primary mission, which is education.''

"If nobody wants to do it,'' countered Lawrence C. Patrick, the president of the school board, "then what is he afraid of?''

Mr. Patrick stressed that the provisions of the contract would apply in empowered schools unless the majority of its teachers decided to waive them. "It's not like they would start out with a blank contract and fill in the lines,'' he said.

Mr. Elliott maintained that teachers in empowered schools would have no protection against vindictive administrators who might transfer them for personal reasons.

The empowerment proposals also threaten teachers' job security, he said, noting that the board had not assured the union that teachers displaced from schools would be guaranteed jobs.

Mr. Olmstead, the school board member, replied that such concerns are characteristic of "a parade of imaginary horribles'' that has been "strung out before these teachers.''

Teachers in empowered schools would not lose their due-process protections, Mr. Patrick added, and no teacher would be dismissed for refusing to work in one.

The board also has offered to give the union two weeks' notice of any waiver requests so that union leaders could discuss the issue with teachers at an empowered school, he noted.

Mr. Elliott called that proposal "tantamount to nothing.''

Cumbersome Waivers

Without final approval of waivers, Mr. Elliott said, the union would in effect have no central contract with an empowered school.

The union argues that the proposal to allow schools to waive the contract is illegal under Michigan law because school boards are required to be the "exclusive employer'' for collective-bargaining purposes.

Mr. Olmstead said the board's proposal is similar to the arrangement in the automotive industry, in which unions negotiate "economics'' systemwide and work rules are determined plant by plant.

The union's insistence that the same work rules apply to every teacher in Detroit, he added, "is to me the antithesis of professionalism.''

Currently, Detroit has 15 "empowered'' schools, which have been required to seek waivers to the union contract.

Mr. Patrick, the board president, said the union has refused to grant the waivers requested by its members. As examples, he cited a school that wanted to adopt a year-round calendar with the same amount of instructional days, and another where teachers wanted to increase class size slightly rather than transfer students to another class.

Last December, he added, the union instructed its members not to vote on whether to join the empowerment program.

The union is not opposed to allowing schools flexibility to "try something,'' Mr. Elliott said, but insists that they must operate within the framework of the contract.

Meanwhile, in response to the strike, the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other community groups organized day-care programs at six high schools throughout the city in an effort to provide children with a place to go during the day.

"We just want to keep them off the streets and keep them cooled down,'' said the Rev. Obie Mathews of Christ Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church.

Slow Contract Talks

Around the country, the pace of teacher contract talks has remained slow.

"There are probably a record number of teachers going back without a contract,'' Keith B. Geiger, the president of the NEA, said. "Bleak, uncertain, and angry are the three adjectives that describe our members as they are going back to school this year.''

In Massachusetts, 126 teacher contracts remained to be settled last week. In New Jersey, almost one-third of the nearly 600 districts had not finished negotiations, while in Pennsylvania, half of the 195 contracts up for renewal had not been completed.

The situation is particularly uncertain for locals in large urban districts affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

In Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Rochester, N.Y., teachers will start the school year without a new contract--if they go back to school at all.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was preparing for a possible strike this week in response to the school district's offer to fund pay raises through concessions on health-care coverage and other items.

In Boston, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn has declared that there is no money to give teachers raises.

New York City's United Federation of Teachers has declared its contract talks with the board of education to be an at impasse, while the United Teachers of Los Angeles is negotiating with its financially strapped district over a combination of pay cuts, unpaid days, and health-care concessions that could amount to a double-digit pay cut for employees.

Management Plan Affected

The Los Angeles budget crisis also has put a damper on the district's school-based-management program, which was launched after the district's 1989 teacher strike.

The office that administered the program has been eliminated, according to Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the district, making it difficult to offer assistance to the schools.

The joint district-union committee that oversees school-based management is now considering adding another 14 schools to the 78 already in the program. But at a recent meeting the committee "informally agreed'' that those are likely to be the last additions for some time, Mr. Erlich said.

Schools already in the program will continue their work.

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