As a federal emergency is declared over lead poisoning in the Flint water supply, the state of Michigan is facing another crisis over basic services—this time in Detroit. Dire conditions under an unelected emergency manager have led schoolteachers to declare an emergency of their own. On Wednesday, 88 of Detroit’s roughly 100 public schools were closed in the latest mass teacher “sickouts” protesting underfunding, black mold, rat infestations, crumbling buildings and inadequate staffing. We get a report from journalist Kate Levy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Obama has made his first public comments on the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint’s water was poisoned with lead in 2014 after an unelected emergency manager, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, switched the city’s water supply to the long-contaminated and highly corrosive Flint River in a bid to save money. On Wednesday, Governor Snyder released copies of his emails that show he was made aware of the water contamination issues as early as February 1st, 2015, but that his administration was dismissive of residents’ concerns. Some pages of the emails are entirely redacted. The Flint engine plant of the auto giant General Motors […] stopped using Flint’s water in October 2014, saying it was rusting its parts. Speaking Wednesday at the United Auto Workers’ General Motors training center in Detroit, Obama said he would be “beside himself” if he were the parent of a Flint child. He added that the crisis serves as a, quote, “reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am very proud of what I’ve done as president, but the only job that’s more important to me is the job of father. And I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids’ health could be at risk. … Yesterday, I met with Mayor Weaver in the White House, in the Oval Office, and I told her that we are going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back as they work their way through this terrible tragedy. It is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we, together, provide as a government to make sure that public health and safety is preserved.
AMY GOODMAN: There is another crisis over basic services in Michigan that Obama did not address. During his visit to Detroit, dire conditions under an unelected emergency manager have led schoolteachers to declare an emergency of their own. On Wednesday, 88 of Detroit’s roughly 100 public schools were closed in the latest mass teacher “sickouts” protesting underfunding, black mold, rat infestations, crumbling buildings, inadequate staffing. Detroit’s public schools are under the control of unelected emergency manager Darnell Earley. He’s none other than the unelected emergency manager who presided over the water contamination in Flint. He was then moved to Detroit. Journalist Kate Levy has been speaking to students, teachers and parents in Detroit about the crisis.
WISDOM MORALES: I’ve gotten used to seeing rats everywhere. I’ve gotten used to seeing the dead bugs. I’ve tried to ignore all the graffiti when I’m trying to use the bathroom. But any way it goes, still, I’m still bothered by these things. And it makes me feel sick, and it doesn’t feel good.
PROTESTERS: Dirty water! Dirty food! Dirty politics!
PROTESTER: Say what?
PROTESTERS: Dirty water! Dirty food! Dirty politics!
KATE LEVY: In Detroit, almost the entire public school district was closed Wednesday because of the latest teacher sickout.
ALISE ANAYA: OK, my name’s Alise Anaya. I work at Clippert Academy. My daughter Analise and Victor, who’s marching, my son and daughter, go to the Academy of the Americas. So the buildings in DPS, especially their building, the Academy of the Americas, it’s an old building. It’s falling apart. We were trying to move—they were trying—there was a movement to move the building a couple years ago. It didn’t work. They’re still there. I’m sure there’s rats and mold, you can smell when you open the door. And it’s just not a good environment for the kids to be in all day.
PROTESTERS: Shut it down!
CARL BAXTER: My name is Carl Baxter, and I’m out here to support the teachers as a parent, because I have children that actually attend DPS. But when you have mold growing in a building, the long-term effects, there’s no telling.
PROTESTERS: DPS! Fight back! DPS! Fight back! DPS! Fight back!
KATE LEVY: Like the city of Flint, which is experiencing a public health crisis over poisoned water, Detroit’s public school district is run by a state-appointed, unelected emergency manager. In fact, Detroit schools are run by Darnell Earley, the same emergency manager who presided over Flint’s change in water sources. Since 2009, Detroit residents, parents and even the elected school board have had no say in how the district is run. Tawanna Simpson is an elected school board member.
TAWANNA SIMPSON: Emergency management has created public safety and health crises in our school district here in Detroit. Irreparable harm has been done to our students, as well as our teachers and our parents and our community as a whole. We’re not able to help because of a law, PA 436, in Michigan, which allows the governor to assume all the authority of the elected officials.
KATE LEVY: Since emergency management began, over 75 school buildings have been closed in the city of Detroit. Since 2009, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent repairing school buildings that were subsequently closed down or handed over to an alternative state-run district that is currently under federal investigation for widespread corruption. Three top officials in this district have already pled guilty. Meanwhile, for many Detroit public school students, the remaining open schools are often worse off than the ones the students came from. Al Wright’s son Timothy has cerebral palsy and attended Oakman Elementary School, which was the only school in the district built specifically for special needs students. It was closed down in 2013.
AL WRIGHT: Initially, after Oakman first closed, they sent Timothy to Henderson. When you get there, you pass this man-sized hole in the ceiling that was leaking for the time we did the inspection to the school to this year. And all they did was put some cones around and a garbage can to collect the water. We had fire exits that were blocked, fire windows that had security bars on it.
KATE LEVY: Under emergency management since 2009, the number of Detroit Public Schools service workers has dropped from over 2,000 to 820. The number of skilled craft workers has dropped from 405 to only 13. Jim Arini is an engineer and the treasurer of the engineers’ union, Local 324.
JIM ARINI: The summer of 2014, while Detroit Public School was under emergency manager, the school requested from the city of Detroit a variance to their ordinance that requires an engineer to be on staff whenever a boiler is operating. We feel that it puts the children’s lives, the teacher’s lives and the general public’s lives in jeopardy of a boiler explosion. We can kind of relate to the Flint water crisis, the fact that we’ve poisoned kids in Flint under this emergency manager rule, and now the same emergency manager is operating Detroit Public Schools. We’re afraid that this is going to cause a safety issue and potentially lives at risk.
KATE LEVY: For student Wisdom Morales, the situation has created increasing anxiety.
WISDOM MORALES: I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms.
KATE LEVY: And elected school board member Tawanna Simpson says the crisis is a result of state control.
TAWANNA SIMPSON: The educations is mandatory for our children here in Detroit. It’s mandatory for all young people in this country. And it’s not a good thing to suspend democracy. And emergency management does not care about our students. They’re there for the bottom line. It’s a very unjust thing to try to run a school district as a corporation.
KATE LEVY: For Democracy Now!, I’m Kate Levy in Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: The Detroit Public Schools system is seeking a restraining order and preliminary injunction that would force teachers to stop the sickouts and return to work. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’ll be joined by two guests: an education activist and a retired teacher in Detroit. Stay with us.