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Detroit teachers urged back to work Wednesday, as EM guarantees full pay

May 3, 2016

Most Detroit teachers are expected back in the classroom Wednesday, after two straight days of teacher sickouts effectively shuttered the Detroit Public Schools.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers called for members to return to work, saying they’ve received written assurance from the district’s emergency manager that teachers will receive full pay for the school year.

The DFT had urged teachers to “sick out” in protest, after discovering just days earlier that DPS didn’t have the money to pay teachers who elect to spread their pay through the summer months.

The emergency manager, Judge Steven Rhodes, had previously said DPS simply didn’t have the money to pay anyone past June 30 unless state lawmakers approved more money for the near-bankrupt district.

But on Tuesday Rhodes apparently reversed course. He promised the district will fulfill its “legal obligation” to pay staff in full.

“Teachers who have earned wages and benefits during the 2015-16 school year are legally entitled to be paid in full for those services, regardless of whether they have elected the 22 or 26 cycle pay schedule,” Rhodes wrote in a letter to DFT interim president Ivy Bailey.

“DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.”

It hasn’t been made clear how the district will pay wages it had previously said it couldn’t. No additional funds had been  identified as of Tuesday night.

“It’s astonishing that teachers and other school employees have been working diligently to educate our kids in under-resourced schools with deplorable conditions, yet they had to fight to get what they’re due. That’s adding insult to injury,” Bailey said in a statement. “We’re happy to return to the classroom and finish the school year with our kids.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who earlier Tuesday said that asking teachers to work without pay was “tantamount to wage theft,” thanked Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Judge Rhodes and others, including Gov. Rick Snyder “for their help in securing the assurance of payment.”

Others are still wary, though.

Christina Rodgers is a DPS teacher and parent. She says teachers may be going back to work, but they don’t trust their leaders.

Rodgers said the teachers’ deferred pay was supposed to have been put in escrow, and there’s still no answer about why that didn’t happen.

“So it wasn’t the issue that you didn’t have the money – I was confident the money was going to come from the state or the government – but you touched money, funds that weren’t yours to touch in the first place. That wasn’t your money,” said Rodgers, echoing calls for an audit of the district’s finances.

Wright Wade has a son at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School. He says Tuesday’s deal sounds like “a band-aid that was put on a big problem.”

“If it’s not anything that has any meat to it, structure, foundation … then the same thing is going to come up again real soon. And again the teachers will be distracted,” Wade said.

DPS needs hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term state aid to avoid financial collapse after June 30. The state approved $48.7 million in emergency funds in March, which DFT leaders said they had been led to believe would cover all expenses for the current school year.

State lawmakers are currently fighting over different bill packages that would resolve the district’s debt, much of which was run up under the oversight of five state-appointed emergency managers. Gov. Snyder favors a bankruptcy-style restructuring passed by the State Senate, but House leaders want to take a harsher approach that would effectively dismantle the DFT, among other measures.

Wade says the state should “fix this right away,” but given the political situation, he’s also taking a practical approach as a parent.

“Absolutely, I’m very nervous” about the district’s future, he said. “I’ve already started looking for other schools, so I don’t get caught off guard.”