The Detroit Federation of Teachers sued the city school system and its emergency manager Thursday, alleging that crumbling school facilities are so unhealthy and unsafe that they violate students’ constitutional right to a “minimally adequate education.”

The lawsuit filed in Michigan state court recounts the terrible conditions of Detroit schools, including missing ceiling tiles, buckled floors, exposed wires and mold, as well as infestations of roaches and rats. It asks the court to require the school system to inspect all school buildings, fix all building code violations and create an “appropriately funded capital plan to bring all Detroit public schools up to 21st-century standards.”

It also asks the court to remove the state emergency manager, Darnell Earley, and restore local control over the school system. “The state ran up the debt and ran Detroit public schools into the ground,” Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told reporters Thursday. “We’re facing an emergency in the schools, and yet the emergency manager has chosen not to manage.”

Says the lawsuit: “Asking a child to learn or a teacher to instruct with steam coming from their mouth due to the cold in the classroom, in vermin infested rooms, with ceiling tiles falling from above, with buckets to catch the rainwater falling from above, or in buildings that are literally making them sick, is more than what is legally or constitutionally tolerable…. Is it any wonder that DPS students, given these conditions, as well as the other effects of austerity and poverty, have some of the worst achievement results in the country.”

Earley responded with an emailed statement:

“Approximately one year ago, I accepted the Governor’s appointment as Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools with the clear goal of being the last Emergency Manager appointed to DPS. The focus of my work has been on preparing DPS for long-term financial sustainability and a return to some form of local control. My team and I have worked hard to develop and implement a comprehensive restructuring plan that has taken a financially broken educational system and transformed it into one that, but for its long-term debt, has eliminated it structural budget deficit. This is evident from the District’s FY2015 audit report, which documents the fact that if the annual $56 million in debt payments were resolved, the District would be able to operate within its projected revenues. That is the role of an Emergency Manager. We have achieved that objective, and now it is critical that the Michigan legislature invest the critically necessary funds in the new Detroit Public School system that have been proposed in Gov. Snyder’s education reform plan.
“The issue of the disrepair of some of the District’s buildings and a plan to address that is before the legislature. The investment of these funds will be necessary to implement a badly needed, districtwide long-term capital improvement plan. Meanwhile, we continue to address those matters that have been presented in the inspection reports from the City, and have been made aware of through our work order system, through a corrective action plan that provides available resources for these repairs. We are committed to ensuring that our students and staff have a safe working and learning environment, and that is a part of the discussion regarding the critical financial investment into the new Detroit Public School System that is before the Michigan legislature.”

The lawsuit comes after teachers staged a series of sickouts to call attention to the poor conditions, including two that closed more than half of city schools. Earley responded by going to court, seeking a temporary restraining order against the union and more than a dozen individual teachers. A judge declined earlier this week to grant the restraining order, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who toured several schools earlier this month, declared that conditions in some of them “break your heart” and said that city officials would inspect every building by April. Union officials said Thursday that they appreciate the mayor’s plan and are pursuing legal means to ensure that the school system — which is not under the mayor’s control — takes action.

However, the school system has been hobbled by a $515 million debt, and it’s not clear where the money for wholesale building improvements would come from.

Read the lawsuit: