DETROIT - Ten thousand Detroit Public Schools teachers and support staff are quickly finding out how undemocratic Michigan's emergency manager law is.
In June 2009 the Detroit Federation of Teachers agreed to give up $93 million in concessions. Two weeks ago the school district's newly appointed emergency manager, Roy Roberts, astonishingly demanded an even greater sum - an immediate across-the-board 10 percent pay cut along with sharp cuts to benefits. The 10 percent cut even extends to food service workers, bus aides and other school workers who have modest yearly incomes.
Passed by the Republican state legislature in May, the emergency manager legislation, officially Public Act 4, gives the governor the authority to appoint local financial managers whose broad powers include the right to replace elected bodies and override negotiated contracts.
At a Tuesday rally in front of the building where Roberts has offices, school workers voiced concern that the cuts will act as a double-edged sword, devastating for workers and students alike.
DFT President Keith Johnson noted that teachers do a lot of volunteer work with students after school. With the extreme pay cuts, teachers may no longer have that "extra" time available. "Some of them will have to find secondary jobs," Johnson said. He also said the district is in danger of losing some of its best teachers as some are already job-hunting.
Third-year teacher Colleen Danel teaches Spanish and sometimes English at Westside Academy High School. She said between the 2009 concessions and this year's cuts teachers will be losing almost $10,000.
Danel described the impact this will have on students. "We don't get any money for supplies or anything; it comes out of our pocket," she said. "I can't afford to do that anymore. I just can't, it's sad."
Veteran teacher Francois Simon has been a special education teacher at Ludington Middle School for 31 years. He has pride in his school, calls it one of the best schools and wishes everyone could teach at a similar school.
Simon emphasized that the 10 percent pay cut is only part of the story. He said teachers close to retirement like him may have accumulated many unused sick days. Because of their dedication to the kids, they came to school sick. Until now, upon retirement some of those unused days could be cashed in. "They took that away," he said. Also gone, he said, are the "longevity checks" that go to teachers with at least 15 years in the system.
Simon said costs for vision, dental and medical coverage will rise sharply. School employees will now be responsible for 20 percent of their health care insurance, a considerable sum.
He worried that those running and influencing education are business people with no knowledge of education. Gov. Rick Snyder was previously a hedge fund operator and Detroit emergency manager Roberts has had executive and managerial posts at various businesses including General Motors.
"Many of the people now running education have never been a teacher in their life. We are controlled by people who do not know kids the way we do," said Simon.
Michigan Federation of Teachers President David Hecker said that, although schools open in three weeks, teachers and staff still don't have their assignments for the coming year.
Hecker charged that Snyder and Roberts are figuring out ways to cut wages and benefits instead of ensuring the school buildings are clean, well equipped and safe, and have adequate support staff and certified teachers in every classroom teaching in their subject areas.
The message from the rally was that the effects of the cuts will not stop with the teachers. Ultimately, the kids too are going to suffer.
Photo: Francois Simon by John Rummel/PW