Detroit Teachers Mull Strike Over Imposed Contract

The existing contract for Detroit teachers was ripped up and chucked into the trash by the school district's emergency financial manager. The teachers' union is angry and making noise about a possible strike.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Public school teachers in Detroit have a new contract, one they didn't bargain for and didn't sign. It was imposed by the state-appointed official in charge of the district. And now, two months before the start of the school year, the teacher's union is considering going on strike. From member station WDET, Quinn Klinefelter reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: On a ball field behind a Detroit youth recreation center, Shantelle Hawkins watches her son practice football. She has three children in Detroit public schools. But she's heard teachers are angry about pay cuts and could stage a walk-out. And she worries about what might happen at the start of the school year in September.

SHANTELLE HAWKINS: Because the kids need to be in school. You know, there's a lot of dropouts. You know, these young kids just dropping out of school. They need to be in school.

KLINEFELTER: What would you say to teachers if they were thinking about that?

HAWKINS: They have to do what they have to do. You can't work for free. It's just all-around terrible.

KLINEFELTER: Decades of mismanagement and internal squabbles left Detroit schools hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The state appointed an emergency manager to take over the finances in 2009 with the power to make sweeping changes. This year, emergency manager Roy Roberts is closing 15 schools. And with the state ending requirements that teachers be hired based on seniority, Roberts handed all 4,100 Detroit public school teachers a pink slip, told them to reapply for a job and says 800 of them will not be hired back.

ROY ROBERTS: And since we're losing 15 schools, we don't need as many teachers, so you had to lay them off. You had to do an appraisal on them - a performance appraisal - and then call them back based on performance. So that's the process we're going through. We're right in the middle of it. It's moving fast.

KLINEFELTER: As Detroit's population declined over the past decade, the school district lost 100,000 students. That cost the public school system millions of dollars in per-pupil government funding. And Roberts says there's increasing competition for the scarce student enrollment from charter schools run by other organizations, private academies and districts outside the city.

ROBERTS: We have some students the first two or three weeks change schools three times. I don't know who can plan that to make that happen, but today, we're planning to have a qualified teacher, not just a teacher, in front of every student when they start school in September.

KLINEFELTER: But there may not be any teacher in a Detroit Public School classroom if the union representing teachers follows a path it took in 2006. The union staged a work stoppage then, though teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. Now, Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson is again bitterly criticizing the district - this time for unilaterally imposing an agreement that continues a 10 percent pay cut for teachers and demands additional concessions.

KEITH JOHNSON: We do not consider it to be a contract at all. A contract is, historically, a document in which the two sides negotiate, come to terms, reach an agreement and sign off on it. This is an edict.

KLINEFELTER: The 2006 strike disrupted the start of school in Detroit for weeks. At the time, Johnson pledged the union would not try that tactic again.

JOHNSON: I made a commitment to this community that school would start on time, and school would not be interrupted, but my posture has certainly changed.

KLINEFELTER: Johnson says he still hopes to find a compromise with the district but adds that the union may challenge the contract officials imposed in court. In the meantime, Detroit public school teachers continue reapplying for their positions. Even if they are rehired, they face the possibility of being ordered by the union to walk off the job when classes are scheduled to begin. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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