DETROIT – Detroit Public Schools teachers have complained for several years about poor pay, overcrowded classrooms, a lack of supplies, unsafe building conditions and uncertainty about their futures as the district struggles under a mountain of debt. Rolling teacher sick-outs have — so far in January — forced the district to close dozens of schools on some days. A preliminary hearing will be held next month on the district's lawsuit seeking to end the sick-outs.
Questions and answers about how the district got to this point:
JUST HOW BAD ARE DETROIT SCHOOLS' FINANCES?
An audit filed Nov. 2 with the state put Detroit Schools' annual budget deficit at $46.5 million. Gov. Rick Snyder has said that the district's debt will reach about $515 million by this summer.
District revenues are tied to per-pupil funding from the state, and Detroit receives about $7,400 for each student. The problem is that the district's enrollment has decreased by more than 100,000 over the past dozen years.
In 2003-2004, the Detroit Public Schools had 150,415 students. Enrollment now stands at about 46,000. The drop reflects the city's population loss — more than 950,000 people lived in Detroit in 2000, compared to the current population of about 690,000.
Competition from charter schools inside Detroit and from neighboring districts also has cut into Detroit Public Schools' enrollment numbers.
Detroit's schools have been under state oversight since 2009. Darnell Earley is the district's fourth emergency manager over that time. His predecessors have closed aging buildings and academically underperforming schools, but many others are in poor physical condition and the school district is too short of money for major fixes.
HOW MANY TEACHERS ARE IN THE DISTRICT?
Detroit Public Schools has about 2,500 teachers, according to the emergency manager's office. The Detroit Federation of Teachers represents about 3,700 teachers, counselors and other staff.
WHAT ARE THE TEACHERS' PRIMARY COMPLAINTS?
Some activists say Detroit teachers earn less than their counterparts in other areas of Michigan and work in more difficult conditions. Former Detroit teachers' union president Steve Conn said incoming teachers earn about $32,000 annually — lower than teachers in nearby communities. He also teachers also now pay about 25 percent of their health care costs, compared with no contribution about five years ago.
Teachers have said they often have to buy supplies for their classroom, work in rooms without heat in the winter and without air conditioning in warmer weather. Recent inspections by the city have found water-damaged ceilings, water supply leaks, rodents, roofs in need of repair and other problems in some schools.
WHAT ARE THE SICK-OUTS?
It's against state law for public school teachers to go on strike. Teachers are using the "rolling sick-outs" as a way of protest.
The Detroit Federation of Teachers is the official bargaining unit for district teachers and has said it does not condone the actions of educators involved in the sick-outs. The sick-outs initially affected only a few schools, but on Jan. 11 more than 60 schools were closed because not enough teachers showed up for work. One day last week, about 865 teachers skipped school, forcing the district to close more than 85 schools.
The sick-outs have been pushed by the Detroit Teachers' Strike to Win Committee, which discusses them during planning meetings. The group has been informing the district about pending teacher absences to allow schools to alert parents if their buildings will be closed.
WHAT IS DETROIT TEACHERS' STRIKE TO WIN COMMITTEE?
The committee is described as a group of teachers, students and activists. It was formed last fall in response to what its members see as Snyder's attack on education in Detroit. Snyder has said he wants to commit $715 million over a decade to address the district's debt and relaunch the district under a new name. The Republican governor also has said he wants to create a commission of gubernatorial and mayoral appointees to hire a manager who could shut down or reconfigure poor-performing Detroit schools, regardless of whether they are traditional ones or charters.
Conn, a Detroit teacher since 1986, is one of the committee's leaders.