Victory against Detroit school dictator

The Detroit Public School system has been in the clutches of an emergency manager since March 2009. It is not the same situation but similar to the emergency manager assigned to the city. Once the state declares an entity is in deficit, it becomes available for takeover or — as many in Detroit feel — an occupation.

Once the case is made that a city or school district is ready for a takeover, the governor then appoints an EM for an 18-month term. The EM is then given complete power over that city or school district. That means elected officials are ignored, contracts are set aside, some schools are closed, some schools are transferred to other districts, tenure is eliminated, teachers can be let go, curriculum comes under their purview, salaries can be cut and anything can be privatized.

When the 2009 EM planted himself in charge of the DPS system, he not only closed 36 schools, he took $10,000 from each teacher’s salary. While every teacher has been promised the money will be returned upon retirement, they will not get any interest that has accrued. The money amounted to almost $50 million.

The next EM — Roy Roberts, a former General Motors executive — was appointed in 2011. He evidently didn’t want to do any paperwork, so he simply cut teachers’ pay by a flat 10 percent. Devastated, many teachers chose to quit rather than suffer the losses. While class sizes rose to an average of 33 children in elementary grades and 38 for high school, so did the numbers of administrators. Roberts had originally promised to spend 95 percent of all education money in the classroom on teachers, textbooks and supplies. He never put more than 46 percent in the classroom. The state average is 56 percent for the classroom, which in fact was what Detroit’s previous Board of Education was matching.

Thinking that Roberts’ term would be up in 2012 and knowing the deficit had increased under him, a lot of people figured it would be shamelessly hypocritical for him to stay on. But that did not matter to Gov. Rick Snyder or his lackey. Takeover and occupation are all that matter to them.

Wage cuts, class size increases stopped

The third EM — Jack Martin, an accounting and public relations person — was appointed in the summer of 2013. At first, he told the elected Board not to worry about meeting locations or the budget for that. This sentiment ended shortly after he took office. The Board — in exile — meets regularly at a school with a welcoming staff, creates its own agenda and provides a forum at which the public can air their concerns.

In mid-August, shortly after a countywide millage — property tax rate — proposal failed, Martin decided it was time to take another 10 percent from teachers’ salaries and up classroom sizes a few notches to 36 pupils for elementary grades and 43 for high school. The state superintendent, Mike Flanagan, at first agreed with Martin and said, “The Michigan Department of Education must only ensure that the proposed savings are accurate and provide a viable solution to its deficit.” This was in reference to a deficit-elimination plan the district was forced to write.

This time, parents and teachers alike were so outraged they started making some noise. They held a press conference at an elementary school, then made plans to go door-to-door to inform and include parents. They followed it up with a demonstration of about 400 teachers at the DPS administration headquarters. The union said, “We will fight the cuts in the streets, in the courts and at the ballot box.”

A few days later Flanagan tweeted his opposition to the 10 percent pay cut and rise in classroom sizes, saying the district should find another means of meeting its budget. That afternoon, Martin rescinded his order and agreed to lay off some administrators instead.

The victory was a clear example of what an angry and informed community can accomplish when it unites. The millage proposal will be back on the ballot in November. Many feel that teachers will be under immense pressure to be actively involved to assure its passage.

Detroit resident Marianne Yared McGuire is a retired teacher and former elected member of the ­Michigan Board of Education.