Michigan lawmakers moved swiftly Tuesday to advance a $500 million plan to restructure Detroit public schools by creating a new district — a proposal designed to ease the concerns of teachers who closed the district for a second consecutive day by calling out sick.
Teachers staged the protest out of fear they might not get paid if the district runs out of money. The sick-out idled 45,000 children and presented yet another crisis for a governor and Legislature already engrossed in the water emergency in Flint, a majority-black city like Detroit.
"Teachers, you're going to get paid," Republican House Appropriations Chairman Al Pscholka said before the panel approved the plan over objections that it would not be enough money and also bust the teachers union.
The proposal passed by the House Appropriations Committee mostly along party lines would retire the district's enormous debt and launch a new district. It would spend less than a $700-plus million plan approved by the Senate in March.
The GOP-led House could vote on the idea later this week, but differences would still need to be resolved with the Republican-controlled Senate.
On Tuesday, the district closed 94 of its 97 schools — the same number of schools that cancelled classes on Monday, when more than 1,500 teachers did not show up for work. More than 45,000 students missed class.
"We want to be in school teaching children," said Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Detroit teachers. "But you cannot in good conscience ask anybody to work without a guarantee they're going to be paid."
The district has been under continuous state oversight since 2009 and led by a series of financial managers. Current transition manager and former federal judge Steven Rhodes, who oversaw the city's bankruptcy, warned over the weekend that nearly $50 million in emergency spending that the state approved in March will run out by June 30.
Teachers opting to have their pay spread over a full 12 months instead of the course of the school year would not receive paychecks in July and August without more help from the state.
Majority Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over issues such as money, state oversight, charter schools, labor contracts and how quickly an elected school board would take power.
Teachers were expected to continue picketing outside administrative offices where several hundred protested on Monday. A union membership meeting was scheduled Tuesday afternoon at a Detroit church.
"Let us be clear. We are still locked out," Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey said in an email late Monday to the union rank-and-file. "We do not work for free and therefore we do not expect you to report to school tomorrow."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka started the hearing Tuesday in Lansing by saying "it's now time for us to act" after the GOP-led Senate passed the restructuring plan. Pscholka said it does not matter who gets blamed for Detroit schools' long-lasting problems, and that "the future of Detroit's schoolchildren ... is on the line."
But the growing sick-outs that started late last year with just a small group of teachers appear to be threatening the plan.
Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, said Monday that the sick-outs, conducted by "egotistical teachers," have cost Detroit schoolchildren more than a million hours of instruction.
"Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit's youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves," Cotter said in a statement.
But one parent who was missing work because her daughter has been shut out of class both days said the blame for the district's financial maladies falls on the shoulders of the state, not the teachers.
"I think (the teachers) have been doing the best that they can with the resources that they have," said Monique Baker McCormick, whose daughter is an 11th grader at Cass Tech. "They're just trying to survive themselves off of what little they get. So I don't blame them at all for fighting for what they deserve."
Still, things are starting to look bleak for the district that had 150,415 students in 2003-2004.
"I think this is the end and this is where the whole dismantling of the Detroit public school system begins," Baker McCormick said. "The state took over, and now look at where we are."