Why Detroit schools are in such deep trouble

Detroit 2.0? Motown's new manufacturing
Detroit 2.0? Motown's new manufacturing

Detroit's local economy has come back from the brink, but the schools have reached a breaking point.

The problem: The bankruptcy that let the city shed billions in debt missed the city schools. The schools are a separate unit of government that wasn't included in the city's reorganization.

As a result of the schools' dire financial straits, the buildings are physically decaying, to the point where many of the districts' teachers say they can no longer provide their 46,000 students with an adequate education. The schools are likely to run out of cash by April, the deputy superintendent for finance told the Detroit News, as the debt payments it owes are set to soar next month.

"Many outdated school buildings are crumbling - roofs, floors, windows, doors, and locks that are broken or in desperate need of repair," says a blog post by Pam Namyslowski, a fourth grade teacher who said she has taught in the district for 24 years. "Far too many classrooms are overcrowded, creating conditions that are not even safe, let alone conducive to learning."

Winter wind cuts through some of the classrooms either because the windows are broken or because broken boilers force teachers to open windows to prevent temperatures from rising to 90 degrees, according to the Detroit Free Press. The floors are buckled from leaky roofs and the average middle school and high school class has nearly 40 students.

Related: Flint, Michigan water crisis spurs GoFundMe page

So Namyslowski and many of the teachers have joined a massive sickout which has shut down 88 of the 97 districts' schools. They aren't protesting for higher wages or benefits for themselves, instead they're demanding better school conditions for teachers and students alike.

"Although I want a living wage that is not what brings me to action today," said teacher Sarah Jardine in an open letter to the parents of district students. "What makes me fighting mad is that your child, who I call 'one of my kids,' is learning in an environment that is in total chaos." She said her demands include supplies, art, music, gym and proper maintenance.

The teachers rallied Wednesday at the Detroit auto show, where President Obama appeared to highlight the turnaround in the city's auto industry.

Automakers benefited tremendously from a 2009 federal bailout that helped them get back on their feet. And now the industry is reporting record profits.

Related: Amazon to open major Detroit office in 2016

Likewise, the Detroit city government is also turning itself around after its 2014 bankruptcy let it shed $7 billion in debt and invest $1.5 billion in improved city services.

Downtown Detroit is enjoying a building boom, as businesses and young workers are eager to move to the neighborhood.

But the Detroit schools have no such turnaround in sight.

In the last eight years the district has been run by four different state appointed emergency managers. The current manager, Darnell Earley, was appointed a year ago after serving in the same position in the city of Flint, which is now struggling with the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water that began during his tenure there.

His office has criticized the sick-out by the teachers.

The school district said it is trying to negotiate a bailout deal with leaders of the Michigan legislature. "Obtaining this support becomes more difficult with each sick out that happens."

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