DFT Election Close and Perhaps Undetermined

Reflecting a Rising Tide of Teacher Resistance

by Rich Gibson


In an extraordinarily close vote, incumbent Detroit Federation of Teachers President, Keith Johnson, claimed formal victory over insurgent radical teacher, Steve Conn, by 41 votes, 1974 to 1933.  This announcement appeared on the DFT website at 7:00 p.m. EST on Saturday, January 15th.


Tellingly, the incumbent caucus swept the remaining open office seats by a much wider margin, averaging 55% to 45. Mark O’Keefe, the winning vice-presidential candidate, won with 58.8 percent of the vote while Felicia Clark, also of the incumbent slate, won by 55%.


It is uncertain whether a recount will be offered to the Conn slate, called Defend Public Education. However, Conn is represented by one of the finest lawyers in the U.S., George Washington, who has repeatedly sued the Detroit Public School system, and often won.


Insiders at the vote count indicated that as many as 250 substitute teachers’ and others’ votes remain uncounted. At this writing, the charge cannot be substantiated. The phone at the DFT offices went unanswered.


Even so, one insider at the count stated that the election committee would order a recount for Wednesday, January 19th.


The close count has to be surprising to Detroit elites, some of whom predicted a 60-40 win for Johnson, and it has to send a shiver up some big-wig spines. What it indicates is a rising tide of school worker dissatisfaction with both the top dues-eaters in the DFT, and the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers as well. AFT president Randi Weingarten closely allied herself with Johnson in backing him and the current DFT contract.


As the campaign came to a close, Conn had claimed he was “confident.” His caucus had indeed done a great deal of campaigning  in schools and in the community. Both candidates debated on the Detroit public radio station days before the vote count. That debate is linked here: http://wdet.org/audio/craigfahle/286/CFS_1-12_Podcast.mp3


Predictably, the debate reflected the tenor of the entire election cycle with Conn portraying Johnson as an untrustworthy sellout who had made a devil’s deal with the Broad Foundation’s Detroit appointee, Bob Bobb, who was ostensibly placed in charge of the district’s budgetary operations by the governor, but who attempted to assume full control of the district. Bobb met opposition from the school board and Conn as well.


Johnson depicted Conn as an unreliable radical “conspiracy theorist.”


Johnson negotiated what may be the worst school workers’ contract since the onset of collective bargaining last year. That contract gave up $500 per paycheck, accepted the division of the school system into, at base, schools which would get funds and operate as “excellent” schools (like prestigious Cass Tech) and “neighborhood” schools which are not getting funds nor attention and suffer as Detroit schools have for at least two decades.


Substance analyzed the present sellout DFT contract here: http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=1063&section=Article


Johnson and Weingarten both linked their fates to Bobb’s farcical reform project. Just before the election, Bobb announced that he would close one-half of the Detroit schools, mirroring what many observers saw as the Obama auto and bank bailouts, creating “bad schools” which would, at base, be abandoned, and “good schools” which would be saved. Bobb projected class size in high schools would reach at least 62.


In some ways, this scheme mimics Detroit Mayor, Dave Bing’s plan to force about one-half, or more, Detroit residents to move to areas in the city which would be salvaged, leaving the remainder of the city as “green space.”  Bing claims he cannot afford to provide city services, like water and fired protection, to areas he believes have fully gone to rot (nearly two-thirds of the buildings in Detroit, both offices and homes, are vacant). Hence “green space.” That space, though, would be full of smashed up, burned out, horrifying homes which Bing cannot afford to bulldoze.


The district is now facing a what is an announced $327 million shortage but what could well be $400 million as nobody has been able to trust budget numbers, nor the student count, from Detroit for years. The district, at every level, remains rife with corruption and incompetence–even if Bobb has caught, and charged in court, a steady stream of small time school crooks, the latest being a Detroit teacher who tried to sell one of the laptops, given to every teacher this year, at a local pawn shop now made famous in a reality tv show.


DFT incumbent president Johnson was saddled with his support for Bing, Bobb, and the DFT contract.


Conn, however, was seen by some as stumbling over his own slogans. To “Defend Public Schools” in Detroit is to defend, in too many cases, the indefensible: terrible conditions, racist high-stakes exams, militarism, indeed, real social collapse. Conn had also joined with the Detroit School Board, an equally indefensible, although repeatedly elected, hodge-podge that has, too often so embarrassed the schools and the city that many residents turned to Bobb for hope. The past board president, for example, was convicted of masturbating, repeatedly, in front of the superintendent. One of the board members has had his six children removed from his care by Child Protective Services.


Conn may be able to cause a recount and win, educate a sizeable force of the rank and file to organize in schools and out, and help lead a full transformation of Detroit. Conn, should his slate lose, could go forward and do that anyway, beyond the narrow bounds of teacher unionism as it is.


Johnson, in turn, could fend off Conn’s challenges, remain in office, and continue to organize decay and retreats.


Nevertheless, at issue is simply this: a wide class conscious social movement dedicated to equality and justice, fighting racism and sexism at every turn, or barbarism. Detroit is dying a death by a thousand cuts, each cut forged of capital and racism. The final cut could be a terrible, deadly, tragedy. Or, in the long term, create examples of how a ferocious fight for reason and community could win in dismaying circumstances.


Rich Gibson (rgibson@pipeline.com) is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum and emeritus professor of education at San Diego State University. He taught at Wayne State University in Detroit for six years, was a Detroit school teacher, and lived in the city, at Seven Mile and the Lodge, for most of his adult life. George Washington often represented Gibson in court and was a good friend.