Detroit Teachers’ Strike Bedevils New Regime

By Ann Bradley — September 08, 1999 3 min read

Detroit teachers staged a surprise strike last week, delaying the start of school for 177,000 students and dealing a blow to the Motor City’s new school leadership team.

Against the recommendations of their president, John Elliott, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers voted Aug. 30 to strike rather than accept a 10-day extension of contract talks.

The job action by some 9,200 classroom teachers forced the district to cancel classes, although administrators reported to work. It set off a mad scramble for child care or alternative schooling among Detroit parents.

Negotiators for the public schools and the union continued to meet late last week. Hanging over the talks was the threat of financial penalties for teachers, who are prohibited from striking under a 1994 Michigan law.

“We are all very disappointed,” said Freman Hendrix, the president of the Detroit school board and the city’s deputy mayor. “This puts a real cramp in the reform momentum.”

Internal Union Strife

State lawmakers last spring handed control of the city schools to Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who in turn appointed a seven-member governing board. The board selected David Adamany, a former president of Wayne State University, as the district’s interim chief executive officer while it launched a national search for a superintendent.

The governance change--similar to those in Chicago and Cleveland--was accompanied by a wave of hope that the district’s chronic problems might be solved.

Over the summer, in fact, the district hired 800 teachers, made major repairs to school buildings, and appeared close to wrapping up an agreement with the DFT.

But simmering internal divisions in the American Federation of Teachers affiliate torpedoed that progress. When Mr. Elliott, who has run the union for 18 years, came before a membership meeting Aug. 30 to explain items that had been agreed on and ask for more time to finish the pact, his members revolted.

Chris Zavisa, a social studies teacher at Chadsey High School who helped found a teachers’ group called Fighting for Educational Excellence, said the agreed-upon issues illustrated that Mr. Elliott was “out of touch” with members.

The union had tentatively signed off on an agreement that did not address class size, tied future salary increases to teacher attendance, required veterans to meet performance standards to get raises, changed the procedures for dismissal, and would have allowed principals to change grades, Mr. Zavisa said.

“I was ecstatic on Monday,” said Mr. Zavisa, whose group garnered 29 percent of the vote last year in an election in which Mr. Elliott received 52 percent. “Teachers finally took back control of their union.”

The district also had sought agreement on a plan to pay bonuses to teachers in schools where students met achievement targets--an issue very unpopular with teachers.

“We want true reform, not petty reform that deals strictly with punishing teachers,” said Sarah Burkhalter, the secretary of the DFT, which last struck in 1992. True reform, she said, would include strict discipline policies, updated and plentiful textbooks, and smaller class sizes.

Class-Size Factor

Class size is a big concern for Detroit teachers. Primary classes in the district often exceed 30 pupils, Ms. Burkhalter said.

Class sizes have historically been high in Detroit. But the problem has been exacerbated by a lack of new teachers to replace those retiring, said Mario Morrow, an assistant principal at Golightly Educational Center and a local political commentator.

“I don’t think Elliott expected the vote that came,” Mr. Morrow said of the union president. “That tells me he could have been out of touch with his constituents.”

Mr. Elliott could not be reached for comment last week.

Mr. Hendrix, the board president, said it was imperative to get control of teacher absences, which cost $40 million a year. The district also had sought to lengthen the school day and year.

“This window of opportunity to bring positive change to the city is extremely important,” he said of the new governance arrangements. “We just don’t get many opportunities to do that.”

Elsewhere, members of affiliates of the National Education Association were on strike in four Pennsylvania and two Rhode Island districts, mostly over financial issues.