01/15/2016

Terrible conditions in Detroit attract much-needed attention

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The Detroit Federation of Teachers, working with parents, community members and faith leaders, is calling attention to long-festering hazardous and toxic conditions in the city's public schools.

At a Jan. 11 news conference in front of A.L. Holmes Elementary-Middle School (see related story), the AFT affiliate called for public hearings so educators can describe the horrifying environmental and learning conditions that Emergency Manager Darnell Earley has ignored, and where Earley can detail what will be done to fix the problems. Among the problems at that school are mice in the hallways, wet and peeling ceilings, and a broken and cracked entryway.

AFT President Randi Weingarten toured schools Jan. 14 to get a firsthand look.

Leaking roof at Detroit school"The deplorable conditions in our schools have created a serious environmental and educational crisis," says DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey. "We refuse to stand by while teachers, school support staff and students are exposed to conditions that one might expect in a Third World country, not the United States of America."

A new AFT video illustrates those unsafe conditions. And a blog by Spain Elementary-Middle School counselor Lakia Wilson illustrates the horrible state of facilities in which teaching and learning are supposed to take place.

Her first-person account, which originally appeared on the PBS Teachers' Lounge blog, joins a firestorm of community outrage and media coverage over the appalling health conditions at the city's schools. CNN quotes teachers in saying "We are failing them." The Detroit Free Press describes the effects of a broken boiler and restrooms without doors on the stalls at the Detroit Institute of Technology, which hosted Weingarten on her tour. CBS reports that teachers, other school employees and parents are more than fed up with disgusting conditions in the schools, and pointed out that state lottery money is supposed to benefit schools.

"It's been beyond deferred maintenance, beyond rapid deterioration," says AFT Health and Safety Director Darryl Alexander. "The school district doesn't even know what state its schools are in," having done little or no tracking of health conditions in its facilities and not having followed its own facility plans.

One bright spot, Alexander says, is that the Michigan arm of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), which declined to inspect Spain Elementary-Middle School last year after a teacher complaint and instead deferred the complaint to DPS, has initiated an on-the-ground investigation at the school.

Buckets to catch leaksA DFT report on Osborn High School this month cited major roof and, ventilation pipe leaks throughout the school that were not addressed until last year, when a local nonprofit group worked with staff and volunteers to address most of the leaks and other issues. Volunteers have painted classrooms and provided some furniture and equipment. Until last summer, staff and students were likely to have been exposed to damp and moldy conditions that may have worsened allergies and asthma.

A building representative and eight other union members spoke about lack of upkeep in their classrooms and throughout the school. While members expressed relief that major roof leaks and other repairs were partially addressed, they were frustrated by the temperature extremes from room to room, broken windows, inoperable water fountains and persistent leaks. Several commented how demoralizing it is for students to try to learn in a shoddy environment, pointing out bullet-ridden windows that have not been replaced in years.

One teacher lamented that children on sports teams had a totally inadequate facility (including a closed swimming pool and no showers). Student-athletes are disheartened about how lacking their facility is compared with those of suburban teams that they compete with.

The public school crisis in Detroit has been brewing for years. Early in 2010, the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and AFT Michigan tried to offer hands-on ideas and expertise to the school district in the form of a report on "best practices" for using funds more efficiently and streamlining work processes—solutions that, when converted into dollars, could have saved Detroit schools more than $130 million it badly needed to address health and safety concerns. These ideas from the district's clerical staff included billing for services sooner; increasing the accuracy of orders for equipment, supplies and textbooks; and reducing unnecessary photocopying. Our members' proposals were ignored.

As recently as last year, DFT also provided a number of cost-saving ideas to the school district. To date, these, too, have been ignored.

The outrage is growing. Even a conservative columnist from The Detroit News is calling for Earley to step down amid the Flint water crisis and failures at the Detroit Public Schools, saying Earley is "irrevocably tainted" by serving in the same role for the city of Flint. He was the state-appointed manager who oversaw Flint's transition from the Detroit water system to Flint River water. That switch in 2014 has had disastrous consequences, including lead poisoning from the drinking water.

[Staff reports]