Teacher 'sick-out' absences close dozens of Detroit schools

By Suzannah Gonzales

(Reuters) - Teachers calling in sick to protest deteriorating school conditions and other issues closed about two-thirds of the Detroit Public Schools on Monday, school district and union officials said.

Sixty-four of the district's 97 schools were closed on Monday morning, Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said. Roughly 46,300 students are enrolled in district schools.

The school district is drowning under $3.5 billion of debt and needs to be rescued by the state of Michigan, according to a report released on Wednesday by Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit public affairs group.

The district has been under state oversight since 2009, but continues to struggle financially due to falling enrollment and hefty pension and debt obligations.

Darnell Earley, emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, has been meeting with the governor's administration and legislators, the district said on Facebook.

The city of Detroit exited the biggest-ever municipal bankruptcy in December 2014, but Earley and other officials have said that, unlike Detroit, a bankruptcy by the school system would be harmful because it would shift liabilities onto the state and potentially other local governments.

Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers said in statements that teachers are being blamed rather than given assistance to help children.

She criticized the district's emergency manager for failing to fix the district's crumbling infrastructure, including too many students per class, mold in the classrooms and the disappearance of electives like art and music.

"The level of frustration has come to a head," Bailey said. "That frustration has led to the recent sick outs for which teachers are now being criticized."

In a call to teachers, Bailey said the sick-outs are being viewed as wildcat strikes and the union needs to be united. She said teachers may have to do a district-wide strike, but an authorization vote is needed first.

Low teacher pay and a teacher shortage are issues, but the focus of Monday's sick-out is the "deplorable conditions of the schools," Bailey told Reuters, saying some schools have rats and crumbling walls.

School officials anticipate reopening the schools on Tuesday. "We're hoping that teachers wouldn't keep students out of the classroom more than one day for a protest," Zdrodowski said.

Two schools were also closed on Thursday due to teacher absences, the district said on Facebook.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales; Editing by Ben Klayman and Alistair Bell)