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Many Detroit public schools re-open today after being closed at the beginning of the week. That's because too many teachers had called in sick in protest. These sick-outs have become more common in recent weeks. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports, they've drawn criticism and attention to a school district in freefall.
SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: Crystal Fischer saw it on the news Monday morning. Her 5-year-old son's school was closed because too many teachers had called in sick. Fischer made do for that day, but when she got the call on Tuesday the school was closed again, the working single mom wasn't too happy.
CRYSTAL FISCHER: It may be an issue with the teachers, but shoot, sure they're causing issues with the parents. They're making us suffer.
CWIEK: Fischer didn't really understand what the teachers were so upset about. She has noticed one thing at her son's school, though.
FISCHER: The classrooms are overcrowded. Too many kids to one teacher.
CWIEK: Overcrowding is just one item on the long list of complaints Detroit teachers have.
MIKE DUGGAN: I've seen some very well-maintained buildings, and I've seen some buildings that would break your heart.
CWIEK: That's Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who toured some schools Tuesday vowing to fix the most egregious building problems like black mold and collapsing ceilings. But Duggan's powers are limited because the state has run the Detroit public schools for almost seven years now through a series of so-called emergency managers.
DUGGAN: And it's been seven years in of enrollment decline, deficits, test score decline and now a third of the money coming to the schools is being diverted to debt.
CWIEK: That's $3.5 billion of debt, some of it short-term borrowing run up by the district's emergency managers, who are supposed to put the schools' finances back on solid footing. But many here argue that emergency management has made bad situations even worse, Nina Chacker is a special education teacher here.
NINA CHACKER: The state has created debt after debt after debt.
CWIEK: Chacker says teachers are now at a breaking point.
CHACKER: People leave every single week and (laughter), they need us at this point. Like, they cannot get people to work in Detroit.
CWIEK: The teachers union has not organized or even formally condoned the sick-outs. It's struggling with its own internal political divisions. Chacker says the push comes from the teachers, and she says they're doing it for the students.
CHACKER: There are kids that are easy to take advantage of, and I will fight as hard as I can to ensure that that doesn't happen.
CWIEK: That's not how district and state officials see it. They say the sick-outs just hurt students and parents, and they've accused the teachers of using them as pawns and engaging in illegal wildcat strikes. Michelle Zdrodowski is a spokeswoman for the Detroit public schools' emergency manager. She says they all understand Detroit teachers' frustration.
MICHELLE ZDRODOWSKI: But when teachers continue to do these sick-outs, it makes our efforts to talk to the legislature and get them to say yes to investing in DPS that much more difficult.
CWIEK: Today, bills for a bankruptcy-style restructuring were finally introduced in Lansing. That overhaul is Governor Rick Snyder's plan for the district, but the response has been lukewarm at best. The governor also faces another huge political crisis right now - Flint's water contamination disaster. He's got to figure it all out, though. Otherwise, the Detroit public schools will go broke before the end of the school year. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.
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