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Michigan to Pay Detroit's Legal Fees in Teacher Sickout Lawsuit

The Michigan Department of Treasury will foot the six-figure legal bill for the Detroit schools to sue two employees that the district claims instigated widespread teacher sickouts this winter and spring.

As of mid-July, the state had already agreed to pay nearly $320,000 in the lawsuit against former Detroit Federation of Teachers President Steve Conn and high school teacher Nicole Conaway, the Detroit News reports.

It's just the latest helping hand the state has provided to the cash-strapped school system.

Earlier this summer, state lawmakers approved a $617 million rescue plan to pay off $467 million in district debt and establish a new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. The legislature acted after the Detroit schools' emergency manager warned that the district would run out of money by June 30 without hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

The spokesman told the News that he did not know if the state has previously paid legal fees for a school district to sue teachers.

Teachers said the sick-outs were intended to draw attention to poor working conditions at the schools, cuts to their benefits, and large class sizes. The protests shut down nearly every school in the district on at least two occasions.

The decision to pay the district's legal costs does not mean the state is directly taking on the teachers, University of Michigan Law School professor Len Niehoff told the News.

But the defendants in the case don't agree. Conn and Conaway, who publicly urged teachers to join the sickouts, told the News that the state treasury's plan "reflects what they see as an effort by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to silence dissident teachers and maintain control over the district."

When the suit was filed this past winter, the Detroit schools requested a restraining order and preliminary injunction, forcing teachers to stop the sickouts and return to work. The judge declined.

The original complaint named nearly two dozen Detroit teachers, interim teachers' union interim President Ivy Bailey and others. The suit eventually excluded all the defendants except Conn and Conaway.

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