Detroit’s new superintendent sent supporters of a popular new charter school into a panic today, potentially killing their dream of buying a “forever home” for their school.
Schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who is openly competing with charters for students, informed the co-founder through a district office that he intended to reject her plan to buy a vacant public school building. But later in the day, after learning more details about the sale, he agreed to give the matter more consideration before making a final call.
“Our goal is to ensure the best use of taxpayer assets,” said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for Vitti.
The resulting confusion reflects the complexity the district faces in making the best use of its former schools. In this case, restrictions in the building’s deed and a murky process for buying closed public school buildings make a tough road even more difficult.
Kyle Smitley, the co-founder of Detroit Prep and the Detroit Achievement Academy, signed a purchase agreement on July 18 for the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School, which closed in 2009.
The building’s current owner is a company run by Dennis Kefallinos, a major Detroit landlord. He bought the vacant Joyce school from the district for $600,000 in June 2014. This summer, Smitley agreed to pay him $750,000 for the building.
But because of a quirk in the initial deed, the agreement has to go through the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has the right to reject some sales. Vitti did just that this morning. He halted the Detroit Prep deal, telling Smitley in an email that the district would cease making any property sales while his team assesses the district’s holdings and needs.
But even though the district no longer owns the building, there are two major restrictions on the sale, according to the deed from the bulidng’s 2014 sale.
One restriction allows the building to be developed only for residential use until 2024. Any exceptions have to be approved by the school district.
The second restriction is an anti-flip clause that gives the district a percentage of the profit if the property is resold within five years. In Detroit Prep’s agreement, Smitley said the district would be paid about $75,000.
When Vitti rejected Detroit Prep’s request to turn the former Joyce building into a school, he didn’t realize Smitley had already agreed to pay the $75,000 to the school district in addition to the purchase price to Kefallinos’ company.
Smitley’s plan was to launch a complete $4 million rehab of the building and move Detroit Prep in by fall 2018, when the school will outgrow its current home in the basement of an Indian Village church. It anticipates eventually serving 430 K-8 students.
She first saw the former Joyce school, a stately red brick building on Sylvester Street, on July 20, 2016. But it took months before she could connect with Kefallinos’ company. “We get calls about the schools [we own] every day, all the time, and honestly, they’re a dime a dozen,” said Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Kefallinos’ property company.
Mihailovich said Kefallinos intended to turn Joyce into a residential building, but that all their properties are for sale at the right price. “We all know that. We’re businessmen. We don’t look at the human element, because it’s all about profit,” he said.
Kefallinos was at first uninterested in Detroit Prep, Mihailovich said, because his company could make “much, much more money” by sitting on the property another year or two. That strategy also had the advantage of outlasting some of the school district’s time-limited deed restrictions.
But they were persuaded that Smitley was worth talking to by a mutual friend who interceded on her behalf. “If not for the mutual friend calling, I’m not sure it would have gone any further,” Mihailovich said.
“To us, it’s a different kind of experience because we didn’t think of it as a business kind of deal,” he added. “We think of it as trying to help the community.”
Closing had been scheduled for Oct. 18. It remains unclear what the next steps are, though Vitti said in an email to Smitley that he will reconsider the Detroit Prep deal.