Detroit Federation of Teachers President Lakia M. Wilson-Lumpkins leads a rally in support of paraprofessionals ahead of a Detroit Public Schools Community District meeting on May 16, 2023, at Western International High school. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

A sea of teachers, school support staff and students stood outside Western International High School Tuesday afternoon, demanding to be heard. 

“We are the union!” Detroit Federation of Teachers President Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins shouted into a bullhorn. “The mighty, mighty union!” 

“The mighty, mighty union!” echoed the group of at least 50 people. 

DFT, along with the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals and the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, rallied outside the school in southwest Detroit to protest the job cuts Detroit Public Schools Community District is considering as its COVID-19 relief funds are running out. 

The unions yelled out chants like, “No layoffs, no cuts!” and held up signs that read, “Save our CTAs” (college transition advisors) and “We deserve a strong contract.” 

Elizabeth Williams member of BAMN and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action leads chants in a paraprofessional support rally outside of Western International High school. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

In March, as many as 100 staff members were told their positions, paid for in part with federal COVID aid, may be cut or consolidated by the end of the school year, reported Chalkbeat. Mostly affected are support staff like paraeducators, building subs, college transition advisors, school culture facilitators and deans of culture. 

Attendance agents, who work to decrease the number of students who are chronically absent, were also in jeopardy of job cuts, but during a special board meeting earlier this month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said those positions will remain. He also announced that employees whose jobs may be eliminated will have the option to transfer into a different position at equal or similar wages.

The news of job eliminations comes as the district finalizes its budget for the 2023-24 school year. Along with the end of COVID relief funding, DPSCD is dealing with the impact of pandemic-related enrollment declines and its commitments to raise teacher salaries and curtail employee health care premiums.

Wilson-Lumpkins told BridgeDetroit she wished the district would have given educators and the unions notice of the layoffs in advance so that they could’ve negotiated a plan during the fall. More than 300 members could be affected by layoffs she said, which will have a direct impact on students. 

“Their services are still highly critical,” Wilson-Lumpkins said. “We’re talking about paraprofessionals that work in the classroom, one on one with students or small groups. We’re talking about college transition advisors that are responsible for credit recovery and for scholarships and FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completion. We cannot afford to take that type of a hit.” 

Wilson-Lumpkins said the unions have started negotiations with the district and that they’re meeting daily. 

“But we’re behind the eight ball and it’s not our fault,” she said. “So, if this is how the district wants to conduct business, then here we are.” 

Tensions rise during school board meeting

Several union members also attended the DPSCD school board meeting held after the rally, voicing their concerns during the public comment period. 

Johnna Lapetz, a college transition advisor at Henry Ford High School, was one of the staff members that received a layoff notice in March. She said advisors do more than help students complete their FASFAs and scholarships. 

“CTAs give our kids hope,” she said. “We help them realize their potential. Have you ever sat in front of a student that never believed they could attend higher education and told them it was possible? That is what being a CTA is about. 

“Right now, the kids are in our world, but tomorrow they will be the world. Make the investment,” she said.

Shawn Vaughn, member of By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, hands out literature at a paraprofessional support rally. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Henry Ford student Leeajhanae Wright spoke after Lapetz, saying that having an advisor is helpful since many students will be first generation college students and find the college application process confusing. The senior will be going to Wayne State University in the fall with a full scholarship. 

“She believes in us when we don’t even believe in ourselves,” she said. “As a neighborhood school, we need a college advisor even more than bigger schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance. Please don’t take it away from us.” 

Marcus Walton, a DFT executive board member and teacher at the Jerry L. White Center, talked about the $21 billion school spending plan that recently passed in the Michigan Senate. The plan includes increased per-pupil funding, plus major spending to provide school meals to all students, and to increase funding for at-risk students and students with special education needs, according to Chalkbeat. Walton also asked about the $94.4 million proposed settlement from Detroit’s right-to-read lawsuit, in which a group of students said they had been deprived of their basic right to literacy as students in a barely-functional school system.

“Dr. Vitti, you, after Arthur Jefferson, have been the longest serving superintendent at Detroit Public Schools,” Walton said. “So, the baby is yours. The attitudes that are being experienced are the result of your leadership. When you talk about school closings, laying off people, that decreases morale and pushes people out of the district.” 

Later in the meeting, Vitti responded to Walton’s question and said that DPSCD has not received the money from the lawsuit yet. He added that since the settlement money is a one-time payment, he does not want to use it for recurring expenses like employee salaries. 

Regarding layoffs, Vitti reminded the audience that all hourly employees that are not funded out of the central office have the opportunity to stay in the district and at their current school in a new position if they are laid off. 

School culture facilitators and paraeducators could sign on as cafeteria workers, day-to-day substitutes, or special ed paraprofessionals, while college transition advisers could become counselors or academic interventionists, reported Chalkbeat. In some cases, employees might have to pursue further education to qualify for the new positions.

Vitti also said DPSCD is still in negotiations on severances for those who plan to leave the district. 

“I’ve said it multiple times at multiple public meetings; we still want to offer our college transition advisors, school culture facilitators and paras with a severance,” he said. “It does require bargaining. We have offered in writing a proposal for severance. Now, to be direct and honest, we have not agreed with some unions on the amount. Other unions have not countered on that.”

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