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Detroit schools sue in response to sick-out

Posted at 4:37 PM, Jan 20, 2016

DETROIT (AP) — Faced with another massive sick-out by teachers, the Detroit school district filed a lawsuit Wednesday to try to stop absences that have kept thousands of students at home and left parents scrambling for child care and other quick remedies.

The latest sick-out shuttered more than 85 of the struggling district's roughly 100 schools and was timed to coincide with a visit to the city by President Barack Obama.

Temperatures in the teens appeared to have kept most students indoors, and all Wednesday's protest — and one last week — did for Carnisha Wesley, 23, was to make her late for her own classes. Wesley had to scramble to find a sitter for her 5-year-old daughter, Myajai, as Ann Arbor Trail school was closed.

"It's inconvenient. It makes me a little late for school when I have to find someone to watch her," said Wesley, a pharmacy tech student at the Everest Institute's Detroit campus.

Disgruntled Detroit educators have stepped up efforts to protest Gov. Rick Snyder's plans for the district, its ramshackle finances, their low pay, dilapidated buildings and overcrowded classrooms.

The district responded with a lawsuit and a request for an injunction in the Michigan Court of Claims, naming the teachers' union, activists and two dozen teachers as defendants. It wasn't immediately clear when Judge Cynthia Stephens would act.

Meanwhile, several dozen people marched in front of Detroit's convention center. Many of those chanting and carrying signs were Detroit Public Schools teachers. The protest lasted more than an hour as marchers hoped to be on hand when Obama's motorcade arrived to tour the North American International Auto Show.

Obama's visit was to highlight progress in the city and the auto industry. It also opened up a bigger stage for teachers to get their message out, according to Detroit Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Ann Mitchell.

"People couldn't miss the opportunity for us to say, this is what's happening and we really need help," Mitchell told The Associated Press. "We really need someone to help focus on the schools."

The closures Wednesday in the 46,000-student district come after more than 60 schools were closed Jan. 11 because of an absence of teachers. Other sick-outs affecting a smaller number of schools have taken place as well. In response, city officials have started inspecting schools for any code and safety violations.

Shanay Watson-Whittaker has seen fallen ceiling tiles, cold classrooms and leaking ceilings.

"The teachers teach despite being in those conditions. This is appalling," she said, adding that three of her five children remained home Wednesday when Renaissance High School was closed.

"They're home right now. They are doing homework," Watson-Whittaker said Wednesday afternoon. "They were dressed for school when we got the phone call that school was closed."

Mayor Mike Duggan has called for teachers to stop the sick-outs and return to their classrooms while state legislators work on solving the district's financial crisis, saying the "frustrations are legitimate, but the solution is not to send the kids home."

Duggan gave White House official Cecilia Munoz a tour of some city neighborhoods on Wednesday, after he met Tuesday with Detroit's delegation in the Legislature to work out their strategy on trying to improve conditions. The schools, he says, "are only getting worse. Lansing needs to act."

The governor has pushed state lawmakers to pass bills to overhaul the school district by splitting it in two, spending more than $700 million over a decade, warning of a potential bankruptcy. Already, the district is run by an emergency manager appointed by Snyder, a Republican.

The district said it has no choice but to close schools when teachers don't report to work.

Watson-Whittaker said her anger is not toward the teachers but with the "emergency manager and how the state has run the education" in the district.

Teacher and activist Steve Conn said Snyder is "attacking public education in Detroit."

The number of schools closed Wednesday indicates that more teachers are joining the sick-outs.

"This movement has grown, and I think it has grown among the teachers themselves," Mitchell said. "We were not encouraging people to go out today, but people are feeling it's the time now to do big actions to show what they're feeling."

Wesley got help from her mother on Wednesday to watch Myajai, who is in kindergarten, but says more closings may lead her to remove her daughter from Detroit schools.

"I can't have her out of school and not learning," Wesley said.