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Teachers March Outside Cobo As Largest 'Sickout' Aims For Obama's Attention

DETROIT (WWJ) -- Detroit Public Schools educators used the President Barack Obama's visit to the Auto Show to bring attention to pay and conditions in their classrooms.

Hundreds of people marched in front of Cobo Center on Wednesday in protest of the state of the city's schools, which have been said to have over-crowded conditions, rats and roaches, and infrastructure shortcomings.

More than 85 schools across the city were closed Wednesday because of teacher absences — the largest in the recent string of sickouts. Inza Sturdavant-Bryant, a teacher at East English Preparatory Academy, said that even crime within the city takes its toll on some students.

"Our kids are hurting, they're losing their parents, they're losing their friends. All of the stuff you hear on the news on the east side is affecting our students," Sturdavant-Bryant said. "We need more social workers and psychologists who are there every day."

sickout protest
Demonstrators protest outside Cobo Center in Detroit. (photo: Vickie Thomas/WWJ)

Demonstrators hoped to be on hand when Obama's motorcade arrived at Cobo. Teachers are unhappy that the debt-ridden district has allowed conditions inside their classrooms to deteriorate.

"This is going to a federal level, this is bigger than Michigan," one teacher said. "That's why we're here today --when President Obama is here -- because this is beyond Governor Rick Snyder's control."

DPS officials say they have "no other option but to close schools when teachers do not report for work." Michelle Zdrodowski, DPS spokesperson, said staff members at the schools which have closed must still report for work Wednesday or take a personal leave day. Otherwise, staff could face disciplinary action as most of the district's 46,000 students sit at home.

[MORE: DPS Teachers Panel Discusses Classroom Conditions, 'Sickouts' And Solutions [AUDIO]]

The call to strike came just after the Governor Rick Snyder's State of the State address. DPS has been under state control since 2009.

In January 2015, Snyder named Darnell Earley Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, who was also the emergency manager in the city of Flint as the city transitioned from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River water for residents.

Some teachers say that conditions have been bad since before Earley took over and even before state control, when the district was under control of an elected school board.

sickout protest
Demonstrators protest outside Cobo Center in Detroit. (photo: Sandra McNeill/WWJ)

Snyder's plan to split DPS into two entities calls for an "old" and "new" district — one to pay off $715 million in operating debt and the other to operate schools he says are in academic crisis.

The new Detroit Community School District would handle academic operations, payroll, health care, employee contracts and computers. The current Detroit Public Schools would remain intact for tax-collection purposes and to retire the debt.

The new district's board initially would governed by gubernatorial and mayoral appointees, transitioning to a fully elected board in 2021.

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan said groups and government leaders have to come up with a plan to fix DPS so students aren't hurt by these protests.

"We've got to get on top of this issue, and it's an issue in Lansing," he said. "I think as everybody knows, the state has been running the school system since Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency manager about six years ago, and things have only gotten worse."

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