This story has been updated to correct information attributed to Marquita Sylvia, assistant general counsel for Detroit Public Schools, about how much the district is paying attorney George Butler of Dickinson Wright to represent the district in its lawsuit over teacher sickouts.
Detroit — While Detroit Public Schools was pleading its case to lawmakers for a financial rescue package this year, it was racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to sue two teachers it accuses of causing widespread sickouts, according to records obtained by The Detroit News.
From January to May, attorney George Butler and associates of the Dickinson Wright law firm in Detroit billed the district for more than $285,000 — a figure that does not include June or July legal fees, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Asked how the district, which is receiving a $617 million bailout from state lawmakers, can justify the expense on a lawsuit against the teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said: “I can’t provide a comment on pending litigation.”
Butler did not respond to requests for comment.
During a recent hearing on the district’s case, Butler told Judge Cynthia Stephens he is charging the district $475 an hour. In an email response to a FOIA request from The News, DPS assistant general counsel Marquita Sylvia said DPS is paying a range of $290 to $510 per hour. The district has accused ousted Detroit Federation of Teachers president Steve Conn and East English Village Academy High School teacher Nicole Conaway of prompting teacher sickouts that caused widespread school closures this past school year.
“That must be your discount rate,” said Stephens, to which Butler responded: “Yes.”
DPS has in-house lawyers but went outside to hire Dickinson Wright. In an email, Sylvia said the district decided to use the law firm because “outside counsel is engaged for specialized matters which require certain expertise and or to augment the efforts of in-house counsel.”
Attorney Shanta Driver, defending both teachers, said she is working for free.
Stephens is expected to rule by Sunday.
DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes had warned in April that the sickouts could cost the district $2 million in state funding if it failed to meet minimum instruction hours for the school year. Rhodes said the state “can make a claim against the district for overpayment.”
As of Monday, Wilson said the district had not received notice from the state Department of Education of any penalties.
It is not clear how much DPS incurred in costs for such expenses as meals that weren’t served and wages for nonteaching staff during the sickouts. The district could not immediately provide a breakdown Monday.
Conn, who teaches at Western International High School, is defiant.
“(Gov. Rick) Snyder and Rhodes are desperately trying to suppress opposition to their Detroit policies because they know how full well their policies are opposed in Detroit,” Conn said.
The hefty legal fees come as the impoverished district, which became known as Detroit Public Schools Community District as of July 1, was forced to dismiss summer school classes early twice this month because it could not afford central air conditioning in the buildings.
There are no plans to equip those buildings with air conditioning, Wilson said.
“In instances where students could be temporarily placed in air-conditioned buildings, those measures were implemented,” Wilson said. “However, early dismissals were implemented for school buildings without air conditioning. There are approximately 50 buildings in the district without air conditioning.”
Wilson did say more than $300,000 in redirected funds have been spent on “corrective action,” including repairing a steam heat line earlier this year under Spain Elementary-Middle School that had prevented students from using the playground.
Disputed school board president LaMar Lemmons called the legal bills “preposterous.”
“The district could hire at least five teachers with benefits and reduce class size,” he said. “I don’t like to see students out of the classroom, but some teachers may have coordinated their sick days in an effort to bring attention to deplorable conditions, and that is in keeping with historical civil nonviolent disobedience.”
Retired Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson said during his seven-year tenure as president, and 21 years of union leadership, he never heard of the district going after two teachers in a lawsuit of this magnitude. He said six teachers could be hired for that amount.
“If they really want to address this situation prudently, there’s a provision in our collective bargaining agreement that deals with strike prohibition,” he said.
Detroit Federation of Teachers interim president Ivy Bailey, originally among more than 20 being sued before some defendants were dropped from the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts said the district’s decision to pursue the case raises some questions about its use of funds and how such disputes should be handled.
“The amount of money being used for lawsuits ... does appear to be a bit excessive,” said Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan. “Surely these funds could be used towards educational purposes.”
Brad Banasik, legal counsel and director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, suggested that state or county authorities should handle suspected violations of the law against teacher strikes.
“It’s a shame that a school district has to incur $300,000 in legal fees to pursue a legal action against two teachers who the district believes violated the state’s no-strike law,” he said. “This shows that the law should be reviewed to look at whether the Michigan attorney general or local county prosecutors should be responsible for enforcing the law.”
While politicians bickered across the aisles about what was best for Detroit schools, teachers took to the streets to protest deplorable working conditions — including mold, rodent carcasses, leaky roofs, buckled floors, lack of resources in the classroom and insufficient wages and benefits.
Marie Taylor, who teaches special education at the Charles H. Wright Academy, said she believes the suit is an attack on Conn and Conaway.
“You have schools in the district that could be in Beverly Hills (California), and others that could be in Compton (California),” she said. “We may have computers in our buildings, but many are not updated.”
Wilson said that is being rectified.
“All learning tools, including textbooks, will be evaluated for use in classrooms while taking in consideration that each student has unique learning needs,” the district spokeswoman said. “In addition, the district’s IT department is conducting an inventory of all technology to ensure equitable access across the district.”
But Taylor still questions how the district spends its money. “They’re broke when they need to help kids, but they’re rich when they want to fight against those trying to help kids,” she said.