Detroit teachers threaten to take ‘action’ against new academic calendar that they say violates their contract

More than 100 teachers packed into a tense union meeting on Thursday to protest the Detroit district’s academic calendar for 2019-2020, which they say was approved without their consent — and violated their contract.

District leaders say the teachers union, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, signed off on the calendar before it was approved by the board earlier this month. That cleared the way for the start of the school year for students to be moved to August 26 — or August 19 for teachers.

The change marks the first time in years that the district will start school before Labor Day. Other changes include reducing midwinter break to two days instead of a week. The number of instructional hours remains the same under the new calendar.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the calendar change will better align the district to the schedule of state standardized tests — and ensure that students and teachers spend fewer summer days in classrooms that are not air-conditioned.

“DFT approved the calendar, along with all of our other employee unions,” Vitti said in an emailed statement, adding: “The calendar was created with several stakeholders, including students, parents.”‎

Terrence Martin, president of DFT, disagrees, saying the union and the district are still at the bargaining table, and that members should get a chance to weigh in on the calendar.

“The reality is that our local has neither agreed to nor signed off on the academic calendar,” Martin said in an emailed statement to Chalkbeat on Friday.

Some teachers weren’t sure who to believe after the meeting on Thursday.

Yabea Hall, a veteran pre-K teacher at Gompers Elementary who attended the meeting, said Martin told teachers he had not approved the calendar.

“Is he telling the truth? I don’t know,” she said of Martin. “But I hadn’t seen that calendar until I went to the board meeting” where it was approved.

In a voice vote on Thursday, members unanimously supported a resolution demanding that the district abandon the new calendar. The resolution calls for teachers to picket the board meeting on May 14.

The union “will view administration’s decision to proceed with the current calendar as a violation of our collective bargaining agreement and take appropriate action,” the resolution stated. (The full resolution is below.)

Hall voted in favor because she believes that students often don’t show up when school starts before Labor Day.

“You get three new kids this day, four new kids this day — you really can’t get into your routine of teaching when you start early because there are so many disruptions,” she said.

Teachers at the meeting also expressed frustration with the timing of the change, noting that some families have already planned vacations in late August that will now need to be cancelled.

Under the teachers’ contract, which was signed in 2017, the district and the union agreed to renegotiate the calendar for 2019-2020 this spring.

That’s exactly what happened, said Sonya Mays, a member of the Detroit school board.

“DFT approved that calendar,” she said.

The resolution argues, however, that the new calendar asks teachers to work more with less pay. Vitti disagrees, saying that some of the added days are actually just possible make-ups that would replace days when school is closed because of weather. In past years, the district hasn’t included make-up days, potentially putting the district at risk of falling short of state requirements.

Vitti said Friday that he plans to release a Q & A to “address misconceptions with the calendar with teachers, such as snow days” and professional development days.

The union resolution voices support for one aspect of the calendar: The addition of a new district holiday recognizing Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holiday Ramadan.

While the Thursday meeting was crowded, it drew only a fraction of the district’s 3,600 teachers. But Martin made clear that they had his attention.

“Members have spoken loud and clear in opposition to the new and proposed” calendar, he said in the statement.

Relations between the district and the union have been mostly smooth in the first two years of Vitti’s tenure, especially when compared with the fierce antagonism between teachers and the state-appointed emergency managers who preceded him. The meeting on Thursday was the first in two years that drew teachers from more than half of the district’s schools, according to two union members who were present.

Teacher pay has gone up during that time, and the number of classrooms without certified teachers has declined, although it hasn’t been easy for teachers to adapt to the new K-8 curriculum adopted this year.

Vitti has been critical of the way educators were treated under emergency management, and has said that teachers in the district should be the “highest paid in the country” given the challenges of teaching in a city with a high child poverty rate and a long history of disinvestment.

Still, he’s not without critics in the classroom. Ben Royal, a fifth-grade teacher at Maybury Elementary who wrote the resolution against the new calendar, says Vitti has focused too much on improving test scores. He objects to Vitti’s stated interest in creating a merit pay system for teachers, although some version of that policy is required by the state.

Royal is part of a union faction that helped drive a teacher “sick-out” campaign that shut down most of the district in 2016.

“It’s time for the strike wave to come back home to Detroit so we can win real, quality public education for our students and our city,” he said.