Jul 5, 2004
The Detroit school board announced layoffs last month of 3,200 workers, including 1,400 teachers and hundreds of skilled trades workers, engineers, custodians, secretaries, guards, bus drivers, boiler operators and food service workers. This sparked a series of protests.
Over 700 people showed up at the next School Board meeting on June 17; over 300 protested at the schools' CEO Kenneth Burnley's house that same week; and smaller protests have continued at the Detroit Public Schools bus terminals and other sites on a daily basis.
Last week, school officials announced that the budget deficit was even worse than they'd thought. They "discovered" millions of dollars of debt, hiding under a rock, apparently; and now they say that they will need to cut almost 250 million dollars from next year's budget – which will mean, they say, even more layoffs.
In response, people packed a school budget hearing to voice their disgust. In this meeting, students spoke powerfully about the horrid conditions in their schools, which are literally falling down around them. They need much MORE money to make things better, not much less!
Detroiters know that laying off workers doesn't produce savings in the budget. The school district has been laying off workers for years. It then turns around and fills these jobs through private contractors – including national corporations like ARAMARK. This means lower wages and no benefits for the workers, but big profits for the private companies – which get paid much more than what the district had once paid out when its higher-paid employees did the work.
School board members treat the budget as a cash cow for their friends. That's one reason why it's in such bad shape.
But the bigger problem is how the schools are funded. In the 1990's, Michigan changed the financing structure for its schools to eliminate a great deal of property taxes that corporations pay. Until then, local property taxes were the main source of funds for the schools. Afterwards, state funding became the main source, paid for by a rise in the state sales tax from 4% to 6%. State officials said this would equalize the funding of the schools, and help poorer districts like Detroit. In reality, just the opposite has been true.
State funding has been far short of what the state promised. This has left many school districts in financial trouble in recent years. More and more have spent nearly all of their "rainy day funds," just to stay afloat.
School districts in wealthy cities can fill the gaps in their school budgets with home property taxes. For everybody else, those taxes are a hard burden – and they can't begin to make up for what they've lost.
Detroit's situation is similar to that of large cities and towns across the country. All over the country, school conditions are getting worse and worse, as more and more of school budgets get diverted into corporate hands.
The only way this is going to stop is if workers in Detroit and other cities say loudly and clearly that they won't accept such attacks on their children's future. People in one district can't do it alone – but workers everywhere face the same problems with the schools. And what starts one place can spread.