Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Union Dispute Casts Doubt on Detroit Alternative Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 28, 2006 3 min read
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A continuing dispute between the local teachers’ union and school administrators has some education officials in Detroit worried that several alternative schools that opened in August to lure high school dropouts back to the classroom will be forced to close.

The “last chance” schools, which are being operated by community organizations under contract with the Detroit district, have been serving some 1,500 16- to 20-year-olds who had dropped out of one of the city’s high schools.

Eleven such schools have been operating since August, up from the two that were run by outside vendors on behalf of the district during the 2005-06 academic year, according to Hildred Pepper, the chief contracting officer for the district.

Detroit, which has one of the worst graduation rates of any urban school district in the country and has been pummeled by steep drops in enrollment, critically needed a program to “recover” dropouts and bring them back into the district, officials have said.

But a disagreement over money has kept the Detroit Federation of Teachers and district administration at an impasse—a dispute made even more complicated by the lingering bitterness of this past fall’s 16-day teachers’ strike that postponed the start of the school year by two weeks.

‘Only Fair’?

Under Michigan law, the teachers hired to work in the alternative schools are covered by the DFT contract. The 116,000-student district, once it finished negotiating a three-year contract for the striking teachers, approached the union about waiving the contract terms, including those on pay and benefits, for the new alternative schools.

Most of those schools, which receive about 80 percent of the $7,459 in state per-pupil funding for their students, would not be able to afford to pay the union wages to their teachers, district officials have said. The remaining 20 percent of the per-pupil funding for the students in the alternative schools stays with the district.

So far, the union has refused to grant the waivers. It argues that the district ought to share some of its revenue provided by the alternative schools with the DFT.

“What we have said is that the district now has millions of dollars in additional revenue flowing into the district’s coffers for the ‘recovered’ students,” said Janna K. Garrison, the outgoing president of the 9,000-member union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

“We think it’s only fair that some of that ought to be used for our teachers who haven’t gotten a raise in four years,” she said. The three-year contract that settled the strike contains no raise in its first year.

Caught in the middle are alternative schools like Hustle and TECHknow, a 68-student school for dropouts housed inside the downtown Detroit headquarters of Compuware Corp., an information-technology company.

“We are working with the kids that, truthfully, the district doesn’t want and the teachers don’t want either,” said Ida Byrd-Hill, a Detroit businesswoman who is the founder and principal of Hustle and TECHknow. “I literally went out on the street corners and the McDonald’s to find these kids and bring them in. It doesn’t seem right that we now have to worry about whether we will be here next month to serve these kids.”

Ms. Byrd-Hill employs four teachers and said she has been able to keep the school running because of its partnership with Compuware.

Still in Talks

District officials have tried to reassure principals like Ms. Byrd-Hill that they should continue operating as if the waivers have been granted.

Virginia Cantrell, who is to take office as DFT president Jan. 4, has the district more optimistic that an agreement can be reached, said Lamont D. Satchel, the district’s chief of labor relations.

“The parties are still in talks, and hopefully we will have some solution to this issue in the new year,” Mr. Satchel said in an interview earlier this month.

Ms. Garrison, who had been the union’s principal negotiator on the waiver issue, said the DFT also wants to make sure that the alternative schools are providing high-quality programs and good instruction.

“Our fear is that we don’t want people coming into the district to make money off of our children and not providing them with the core classes that they need and deserve,” she said. Ms. Byrd-Hill, however, said that as long as the union doesn’t take some responsibility for the high number of dropouts in Detroit, it won’t be viewed as having a credible argument for opposing the alternative schools.

“If the students aren’t performing, it’s because their teachers aren’t performing,” she said. “It’s one thing to ask for a raise when you’re performing well, but another to ask for it when so many of our students are failing.”

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