Teachers ‘fed up,’ Detroit teachers union chief says

By:  Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit News 

Anarchist. Radical. Strident.

Steve Conn does not deny the labels given to him by observers of Detroit’s public education landscape.

When he speaks about the state of education in Detroit, his voice is angry. His ideas of erasing the district’s debt and returning control to an elected school board are radical to many. His disruptive antics at public meetings are forever captured on YouTube.

But the incoming president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers says his methods and messages are about reaching equality for the city’s school children and their educators.

“The message I am sending is we are building a civil rights movement here and the No. 1 goal is fighting for equality for the young people of Detroit,” Conn said Monday.

With speculation growing about the future of Detroit Public Schools, the election of a firebrand as president of the district’s teachers union throws another element of uncertainty into the mix.

Conn, a DPS teacher for nearly 30 years and activist for By Any Means Necessary, edged establishment choice Edna Reaves by 16 votes in a runoff election Saturday.

He will now lead 4,000 union members, who have faced years of pay cuts, reduced benefits and larger class sizes, into a new era — one that he says will not include state control over DPS or its teachers union.

In remarks after his surprise victory, Conn took a hard line, saying teachers are “fed up with the destruction of their jobs, their schools and their students. They are ready to stand up.”

The stance is not surprising. Conn has earned a reputation for speaking out and taking action — sometimes boisterously.

He was suspended from the DFT in 2011 after a union meeting at which he tried to thwart a swearing-in ceremony for newly elected union officers.

In 2004, Conn was among two people arrested during a DPS protest that interrupted buses picking up students for summer school. Two years earlier, he was among a group of protesters forced out of a school board meeting after disrupting it with loud chants for three minutes.

Conn’s election could put the teachers union on a collision course with new Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Gov. Rick Snyder, as the governor considers options for the district, which continues to struggle with persistent deficits and declining enrollment.

David Murray, a Snyder spokesman, said the governor continues to believe in the “relentless positive action” approach to solving problems and working together.

“We know there is common ground with the union leaders and members: We all want the children of Detroit to get the best education possible. This is an important period for the Detroit Public Schools, as a wide variety of community groups are coming together to work on a long-term solution to the district’s challenges,” Murray said.

“These struggles can best be overcome, and perhaps can only be overcome, if we work together. We all agree that a thriving public school system is a vital part of Detroit’s continuing comeback.”

In a statement, Earley expressed a willingness to work with Conn.

“Detroit Public Schools’ focus is on providing a quality education to its more than 47,000 students. I am committed to working with the leadership of the Detroit Federation of Teachers to ensure that we achieve this critical objective,” said Earley, who took office last week.

“I look forward to the input of DFT’s new leadership team in how best to serve the students and the residential stakeholders of the city of Detroit during these extremely challenging times,” he said. “I strongly believe that the future of Detroit Public Schools, the city of Detroit and our region depends on all of us working together to prepare our students to become active, productive members of our community.”

Conn said his efforts will center on a range of issues, from ensuring each school building has a union representative to ending the emergency manager “dictatorship.” He wants the district’s debt canceled and the elected school board restored to power.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based think tank, said research shows teachers in high-poverty schools face some of society’s toughest challenges and workloads, but they get very little support.

“To close achievement gaps, we must take our teachers’ talent more seriously. Detroit teachers need more effective ongoing coaching and training; more supports for the transition to college- and career-ready standards; more time to collaborate and work with students; stronger systems and leadership at the district and building levels; and stronger instructional modules and curriculum,” Arellano said.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

DFT rally Tuesday

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is holding a “meet and greet” rally and swearing-in ceremony, in front of the DFT office Tuesday at 4 p.m 7700 Second Ave., north of W. Grand Boulevard.