Tentative pact reached in Detroit teachers strike

DETROIT — After 16 days on the picket line, the unity of 9,500 members of American Federation of Teachers Local 231 finally forced school officials to agree to a tentative pact potentially ending the strike here as soon as Sept. 14.

The teachers were forced out Aug. 28 after rejecting School Superintendent William Coleman’s demand for a two-year contract with 5.5 percent pay cut, increased health care payments and cuts in class preparation time. The district wanted $88 million in concessions from the union to help close a $105 million deficit in its $1.36 billion budget. Cuts to classes, shortchanging students and mismanagement were also major issues of the strike.

The tentative agreement includes a pay freeze for this school year, a 1 percent increase for 2007-2008 and a 2.5 percent increase for 2008-2009, said union executive board member Vince Consiglio. It also calls for all teachers to pay 10 percent of their health insurance costs, he said. Up until now, only teachers hired after 1992 had to share their health insurance costs.

“It’s not a good contract, but it’s a contract we can live with,” Consiglio said.

Teachers staged large, lively picket lines both at school administration offices and at schools throughout the strike.

On Sept. 9, several thousand striking teachers encircled the Fisher Building where Detroit Public School officials have their offices. The sight of thousands of teachers singing, chanting and dancing their way around the entire city block showed school officials teacher’s determination to forge a better contract.

Although union members were threatened with fines and jail time, they defied a judge’s back-to-work order. These actions showed school officials that teachers were not going to be divided or intimidated. Only a handful of teachers crossed the picket line.

Schulze Elementary school teachers Barbara Garrett, Loretta Danforth and Elizabeth Coverson were unanimous in saying the strike was not only about protecting their livelihood but also ensuring that money and resources are directed to the students they teach. While important, “pay is not the main issue,” said Coverson, a second grade teacher with 29 students in her class. Class size, cuts in music, gym and art, and the inadequate physical maintenance of schools are also top concerns, they said.

Money is being misdirected by school officials and by our federal government, numerous teachers said.

Danforth, a kindergarten teacher with 28 students in her class and no aide, linked the problems to inadequate funding and high-stakes testing. “The president has not funded No Child Left Behind” and local school officials are more concerned with their own welfare than that of the children, she said.

School officials spend $3,000 per student on five separate standardized tests, money that could go a long way toward easing the burden placed on teachers and students, teachers said.

Teachers have long been making sacrifices to help their schools. Garrett runs the media center at Schulze and last year spent over $1,000 of her personal money on supplies. Her husband even volunteers time after work to help set up the center.

Coverson was on the textbook screening committee and for six weeks volunteered her time. In the end, she said, not only did school officials pick the textbook the teachers rated as the lowest, “but they had purchased it before the committee had even started meeting.” Teacher input was wasted and not appreciated, she said.

Danforth said parents ask her how she’s able to teach under such difficult conditions that are too often overlooked by school officials and others. “Until you walk in our shoes, you won’t understand it,” she said.