The educational prospects of some 120,000 students who attend Detroit public schools continued to hang in the balance last week, as a teachers’ strike rolled past the opening day of school and district officials canceled classes indefinitely.
While harried principals here tried to do multiple jobs, disappointed children urged their picketing teachers to come back to class, and parents expressed frustration over the delay in resolving the dispute.
“Nobody wants to lose money; I certainly understand that. But our children also need teachers in the classrooms,” said Principal Nazarene Banks of Lodge Elementary School on the first and only day of school, as she stood in front of a plaque reading “Teachers are Special.”
Late last week, district officials argued before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Susan Borman about the damage being caused to the already beleaguered city’s public schools because of the strike that began Aug. 28, hoping that she will order teachers back to school. Judge Borman has refused so far to do so, even though strikes by public employees are illegal under Michigan law. Some school officials suggest the judge’s stance is motivated by the fact that she is an elected official who doesn’t want to anger the teachers’ union, although the judge herself has said that she is worried about the constitutionality of the legislature forcing courts to rule a certain way, in this case by asking the court to issue an injunction ordering teachers back to class.
Instead, the judge has repeatedly ordered union and district officials back to the negotiating table.
But as of late last week, the two sides appeared to be no closer from where they had started out.
“We cannot keep the district afloat without teachers’ taking a pay cut,” said Jimmy Womack, the president of the school board, adding that the board was willing to consider pay raises for the teachers next year and the year after. For this year, however, the district is asking teachers to take a 5.5 percent cut to help bridge a $105 million budget deficit, he said.
In Detroit, where teacher pay trails that of many other urban areas, a first-year teacher makes an average of $35,000, while a teacher with a master’s degree and 10 years’ experience makes an average of $72,000.
Jewell Gould, the director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, said that were the Detroit teachers to accept a pay cut, the average salary of a first-year teacher would be similar to that of one in a much smaller district, such as the 16,000-student Lansing, Mich., school system. The average salary of a teacher with a master’s degree would be similar to that of a teacher with similar qualifications in the 37,000-student Norfolk, Va., schools.
Detroit teachers, who say they haven’t received a raise for two years, are holding their ground this time, and are demanding a 5 percent pay hike for each of the next three years. This is their first strike since 1999.
The impasse has left parents in limbo.
“I feel nervous and skeptical about the situation,” said Nakiea Downey, whose two children attended a local charter school until recently. She enrolled them at Lodge Elementary School toward the north end of the city after she moved here.
But on the first day of school—Sept. 5—Ms. Downey was not sure she was happy with her decision to send her children to public school because of the strike, which, she said, would not have been an issue at a charter school. Those independent public schools typically are not unionized. “I hope they resolve this soon. … This has totally upset our lives and schedules,” said Ms. Downey, who noted that she has had to hire a babysitter she can ill afford to look after the children while she goes to work.
Ms. Banks, the Lodge Elementary principal, said she was worried that enrollment was already slipping as a result of the strike.
She expected around 220 children to enroll this year, but fewer than half showed up for the first day of classes. The situation, Ms. Banks feared, would get worse if the strike continued.
“We don’t want to lose students, but if this goes on, we will lose them to charter schools,” she said.
Parent Carly Mundy, who was supervising a classroom of nine 1st graders, including her son, Gage, at Lodge Elementary, said that option was not open to her. “I have looked into charter schools, but there are no spaces available,” she said. Ms. Mundy said she wasn’t yet sure what she would do if the strike continued indefinitely.
But charters are not the only option before parents. In the past, Detroit city schools have lost students to neighboring districts, and the strike could further exacerbate that loss, experts say.
“Charter schools have pulled children away; lots of neighboring schools have pulled kids away,” said Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the author of The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit 1907-81.
The current situation with the teachers’ strike is “tragic,” he said. It is “just one more severe blow to a school system that has been on shaky legs for a long time.”
The 9,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, has maintained a strict silence through most of the strike, with spokeswoman Michelle Price saying that it cannot comment because of a court order that prohibits both union and administration officials from discussing what goes on during closed-door negotiations. That order has not prevented district officials from speaking up about what they say are the harmful effects of the strike on students.
On the only day that schools opened, just 27,000 students in grades K-9 showed up and were received by about 300 staff members and administrators deployed by the school district.
As school was dismissed at 10:30 a.m., about 100 students trickled out of Murphy Middle School. Most of their three hours, some said, were spent watching a movie, “Madea’s Family Reunion,” a comedy about a pistol-packing grandmother.
“Come back,” “We love you,” students called out to the approximately two dozen teachers picketing outside the school, whose students have failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for several years running.
Murphy is one of 102 schools in the city—nearly half the total number of schools—that failed to make AYP in 2005-06, according to the Michigan education department.
Dennecia Goston, a 12-year-old, ran up to her social studies teacher, Julie Rambo, to give her a hug. “This just doesn’t feel right,” the 6th grader said. “It’s not fair.” Dennecia said she hoped teachers would go back to class soon. “Just give them what they’re asking for,” she said.
At Lodge Elementary, Principal Banks wore several hats on the truncated first day, including teaching a 4th grade class and pointing new students to their classrooms. “Everyone is helping out … our staff—from the cafeteria, parents, custodians,” she said.
But not everyone who did make it to school got to stay there, even for a few hours.
Marcel Jones, 4, hovered around his mother, downcast, because he was asked to go back home along with other preschoolers.
“He was so happy this morning about going to school,” said his mother, Jacqueline Jones, appearing a little upset herself. “He really wanted a full day at school on his first day.”
Yet parents also said they understood why teachers were unhappy. “They have every right to strike if they’re being asked to take a pay cut,” said Ms. Jones. “But they should have struck earlier so that the matter would be resolved before schools opened.”
The teachers’ union, in the absence of a tentative agreement, was planning to hold a mass rally Sept. 8 to demonstrate teacher support for its bargaining team, which has been in closed-door talks with the school district since Aug. 28
The union contends that the district has not been transparent and wise with its spending. Last year, the administration gave principals a pay raise even as teachers donated pay for five workdays to the district.
Dr. Womack, the school board president, said the raise, which was given to just a few principals, was “equilibrium pay” meant to put them on a par with other principals in the district, and amounted to just about $2 million. Teachers’ pay and benefits, he said, take up $839 million of the district’s $1.4 billion budget.
Even if the administrators did not get the raise, he said, teachers would still have had to take a pay cut this year.
But teachers, who have been picketing schools with signs that say “Hands off my benefits” and “Stop wasting the money,” insist that they will not return to school without an agreement. While some said they wanted to go back for their students, they confided that they were not willing to go against the union. Some refused to disclose their names, saying they were afraid they might anger the union.
Were the court to order teachers back to work, they would stand to lose pay for each day of work they subsequently missed. They are currently being paid. The union would also have to pay a fine of $5,000 for each day that teachers continued striking after a court order.
“We’d rather be in school,” said Vince Consiglio, a visual-communications teacher at Murphy Middle School. “We are not asking for the moon, but we don’t want to be the worst-paid teachers in the country. We are just trying to get a fair contract.”
He said the district administration has for a long time ignored problems in the city’s schools: discipline issues, violence among students, the poor condition of facilities, and inadequate supplies, among others.
Most teachers, Mr. Consiglio said, spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars out of pocket buying supplies for their students every year.
“I am disappointed, I am nervous. I brought $400 worth of supplies, and I don’t know what’s happening to them,” said one teacher at Lodge, who wanted to remain anonymous.
She said young teachers are reluctant to join the city’s public schools because of poor conditions and low pay.
“We have to live, too. You don’t become teachers to get rich, but if you consistently take away our salary, it is not a good thing,” said Ms. Rambo at Murphy Middle School.
But Dr. Womack, the school board president, said the teachers need to give him and his colleagues more time to help set things right.
“We heard those very complaints when we got elected,” Dr. Womack said, adding that the district has since worked to increase security at schools, including recruiting officers and installing cameras. But, he said, teachers have to understand that the district cannot make those improvements while still giving teachers raises, in times of a budget shortfall.
The new school board, sworn in earlier this year after five years of a state takeover, is made up of businesspeople, doctors, ministers, and the vice president of a Fortune 500 company—individuals who understand the business of education, said Dr. Womack, who is a physician and a minister himself.
“I think we need to make this a leaner, more efficient district. We need to focus on the schools that are doing well. We need to recognize that this is not the district we need to be,” he said.
“When people complain about the schools being in deplorable condition, when they threaten us with sending their children to charter schools, we say we have to do the responsible thing,” Dr. Womack said. “Until we are financially stable, holding our ground is a step in the right direction.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Detroit Students Go to School for One Day