Detroit teachers and education employees picket at the School Center Building where a state-appointed corporate executive make decisions about public education. Thousands of members of the DFT and other unions participated. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
June 11, 2012
Teachers union faces layoffs
1,000 to retire or lose jobs as DPS contract set to expire June 30
By JENNIFER CHAMBERS / The Detroit News
Fewer schools, fewer students, fewer teachers.
That's the reality facing the Detroit Federation of Teachers as the clock ticks down toward June 30, when the union's contract with Detroit Public Schools expires.
Of the 4,100 teachers at DPS, nearly 1,000 won't return to classrooms this fall, with the district losing 15 schools to a new statewide system for low-performing schools and two more schools turning into DPS-run charters. Couple those factors with an expected drop in regular enrollment, and the student body will be thinned by an estimated 15,000.
About 500 teachers are retiring by Sept. 1, just before school begins, the union said. The other half are expected to lose their jobs, if the estimates are correct.
And as the district works to shed its deficit, balance its books by 2016 and get out of state control, observers expect the teachers and other DFT members will be asked for further concessions.
Any givebacks would go beyond the $30 million from the last contract in 2009 and past the cuts made since last year under Emergency Manager Roy Roberts, which included a 10 percent pay reduction.
"They are certainly in a defensive posture based on a very difficult five- to 10-year period where the rug has been pulled out from under them," labor relations expert Mike Whitty said. "When you are the Alamo, you have to make the best of it."
And with three weeks before the DFT contract expires, talks with Roberts have stopped and the public relationship between the sides appears strained again.
"Absolutely nothing is happening. Roy hasn't even hinted at meeting to begin or discuss negotiations," DFT President Keith Johnson said last week. "I sent a letter in March. Other than that, we have not set out to even begin discussing negotiating a timetable."
The district has been relatively quiet on the subject. Roberts, who controls the district's budget, as well as the power to break collective bargaining agreements under Public Act 4, declined to be interviewed, according to DPS spokesman Steve Wasko.
This fall, union officials expect DPS to need 3,100 to 3,300 teachers — plus support staff — for 57,000 students, down from 4,100 teachers and 66,000 students in K-12 this year. Johnson also expects the budget to fall below $1 billion — closer to $900 million.
"I would really like to have at least something in the works before the end of the school year. That way, the school and the community (don't) have to worry about school starting on time," he said. Classes end Thursday. Public Act 4 was not in effect during the last contract talks under Roberts' predecessor, Robert Bobb.
Roberts can use PA 4 to impose terms if he doesn't like how talks are going, said Eric Scorsone, a Michigan State University professor who teaches and trains potential managers on the law.
With PA 4's fate in doubt — signatures have been submitted to put a question on the November ballot to void the law, but that bid is being challenged in court — Scorsone wonders if emergency managers like Roberts would act quickly on contracts in case the law is suspended.
"There is no doubt it changes the playing field," Scorsone said. "Then again, it's certainly possible you will have the two sides negotiating and see what they come up with voluntarily."
The union and Roberts had a few preliminary meetings earlier this spring, and Roberts asked Johnson "what he needed."
Union leaders want an end to the practice of making DPS teachers reinterview for their jobs every school year after layoffs, more access to working technology, and the rollback of salary and benefit concessions.
But tempers flared days after the union threatened late last month to sue the district over its teacher evaluation system. Days later, DPS issued a news release stating its evaluation system is a collaboration with the union.
That prompted the DFT last week to blast DPS for its "misleading" announcement.
The task of agreeing on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar agreement with its unionized staff has never been quick or easy for DPS.
The last time the DFT bargained in 2009, the contract was extended several times for several months.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came to Detroit to try to broker a deal.
Finally, six months later on Dec. 3, the union and Bobb reached a three-year agreement with $30 million in concessions and reforms that included peer assistance and review, shared decision-making and a comprehensive teacher evaluation system.
As part of the deal, teachers were asked to help pay off the district's debt with a $250 pretax deduction from their paychecks. Under the Termination Incentive Plan, the district would hold deductions in a separate escrow account and return the money to employees when they leave DPS.
The move was to help DPS address its deficit by spending less on payroll in the short term. It would later be ruled illegal.
Employees faced more financial pain last summer when Roberts used Public Act 4 to impose higher health care costs and 10 percent pay cuts for nearly 10,000 union and nonunion employees, saving DPS $81.8 million.
In March, Roberts offered an olive branch, agreeing to rescind part of the wage and benefit cuts for teachers and other employees in a court settlement.
Asked why he worked with the unions, Roberts said, "I need the voices at the table. I need the diversity. I need the input. You are seeing what I call a new day."
David Hecker, AFT Michigan president, said "the best way to move forward" is for Roberts to meet with union representatives. "We are hopeful that is what he will do. The best way to come up with the solution is to involve everybody. We hope to be at the bargaining table soon," Hecker said.
Whitty, an adjunct professor with the University of Detroit Mercy, said the best advice he could give the union is to play the cards it is handed.
"Make the best of negotiations and use that as a shield for anybody coming back to you in the next month when they are $30 million short. At least you can hold up that shield," Whitty said. "Negotiations — it's a velvet glove. There is an iron first in the velvet glove and it's not Roy Roberts. It's Gov. (Rick) Snyder and Republicans in Lansing."