Nick Krieger (@nckrieger) and Nate Smith-Tyge (@smithtyge):
At the Detroit Federation of Teachers membership meeting earlier this evening, a PowerPoint slide was presented to the assembled Detroit Public Schools (“DPS”) teachers. It set forth the following “assurance”:
May 3, 2016
Dear DPS Staff:
Teachers who have earned wages and benefits during the 2015-16 school year are legally entitled to be paid in full for those services, regardless of whether they have elected the 22 or 26 cycle pay schedule. DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.
This assurance strikes us as completely hollow and meaningless. It’s ever so reassuring that DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes recognizes the legal obligation to pay teacher salaries. After all, he’s a former federal bankruptcy judge; if he doesn’t recognize this legal obligation, we don’t know who would.
We begin with the constitutional reality that involuntary servitude is illegal in this country. Moreover, both federal and state laws require employers to pay their employees for services rendered. Thus, for Rhodes to say that he “recognizes” that DPS cannot force teachers to work without pay is rather laughable.
Next, assuming that Rhodes has been telling the truth about not having sufficient money on hand, one has to wonder how this assurance could ever be enforced in the event that the Legislature does not appropriate the necessary funds. If there is no money for DPS, Rhodes’s promise will not be worth the proverbial paper it’s written on. Would the Wage & Hour Division get involved? Would a court enter an order requiring DPS to issue teacher paychecks? Perhaps, but if there are no funds to back up those checks, it simply wouldn’t matter. In addition, assuming the current DPS legislation passes (either the Senate plan, the House plan, or a combination of the two), DPS will be split into an Old DPS (which will retain the district’s current liabilities) and a New DPS (which will, at least in theory, be debt-free). Hence, any hypothetical lawsuit to recover teacher pay wrongfully withheld during FY 2015-2016 would have to be brought against the Old DPS, even if it is filed after the transition date. In short, forcing a broke DPS to abide by Rhodes’s assurance would be a difficult task indeed.
Lastly, it’s worth asking whether Rhodes is really in a position to make such an assurance. Despite his many powers as emergency manager, Rhodes does not control funding for DPS going forward; the Michigan Legislature does. Even if Rhodes sincerely wants to pay the DPS teachers, we should remember that he has no power to print money. Unless Rhodes has been lying and already has sufficient funds in DPS’s accounts, or unless he has a crystal ball, he is in absolutely no position to be making guarantees like this. After all, he does not speak for the majority of both houses of the Michigan Legislature, and has no psychic knowledge regarding what the Legislature might or might not do.
Even with all the PowerPoint slides in the world, the salient questions remain unchanged: Does DPS have the money to pay the teachers’ salaries, and if so, where is that money? Until a forensic audit is performed as the DPS teachers have requested, we simply won’t know the answers. It really seems like this meaningless PowerPoint slide was intended to deflect attention away from the real issues.