Battle to buy a school

New state legislation aims to help private and charter schools — like Detroit Prep — buy vacant school buildings

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School has sat vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009. A charter school has been blocked from buying it.

The Michigan state senate has approved legislation that supporters hope will pave the way for a Detroit charter school to buy a vacant former school building on the city’s east side.

The Detroit Prep charter school has been trying to purchase the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood from a private developer but the sale has so far been blocked by the main Detroit school district.

The district has the power to block the sale due to a restriction in the property deed that allows the property to be used only for residential purposes unless the district grants an exception. So far, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refused to grant that exception for the Joyce school saying the district first wants to conduct a review of the district’s property needs.

The legislation, introduced Dec. 5 and approved by the Senate last Wednesday, is designed to smooth the path for charter and private schools that want to buy deed-restricted buildings. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the bill would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to prevent educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

“These are taxpayer assets, that aren’t being used, and we want to make sure that these buildings are utilized,” said Brad Wever, who is the chief of staff to bill sponsor Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the senate education committee.

The new legislation is designed to clarify a measure that was signed into law over the summer. While the earlier legislation barred school districts and other government entities from imposing deed restrictions that would interfere with efforts by charter schools and private schools to acquire buildings, the new bill would specifically bar government entities from enforcing or applying those restrictions. 

The restriction on the Joyce school has been in place since the district sold that building to a developer, Dennis Kefallinos, for $600,000 in 2014. The property, like many former school buildings in Detroit, has a deed restriction that requires the building to be used for residential purposes. 

Any use of the building for non-residential purposes must be approved by the school district and, so far, Vitti has refused to grant approval for Detroit Prep’s purchase of the building.

The bill passed the senate largely along party lines, with no support from Democrats. The House could take up the bill as soon as January.

Detroit Prep’s founder, Kyle Smitley, said the bill would help her school — but not only her school.

“The legislation is intended to prevent buildings from becoming blight and to prevent neighborhoods from suffering,” Smitley said. “These deed restrictions are not a fair use of taxpayer money.”

The Joyce school has been sitting vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009.

Smitely hopes the bill becoming law will force the district to allow her to bring that building back to life, but Vitti has signaled that he plans to keep fighting.

When he was in Lansing last month testifying before a House committee, he was accused by a state legislator of violating the law with his refusal to sign off on the Detroit Prep sale.

“The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now,” Rep. Tim Kelly, head of the House Education Reform committee told Vitti, referencing the earlier law. “Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

But Vitti questioned whether that law was enforceable.

“I’m glad we have a court system,” he said.

After Vitti’s testimony in Lansing, he told Chalkbeat that signing off on the sale to Detroit Prep would “set a precedent with the court regarding our ability to determine the future of property owned by the local Detroit taxpayers.”

If the sale isn’t allowed by February at the latest, Smitley said she would need to find a different building to house her growing school. The school, now in the basement of an Indian Village church, serves students in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade but will be adding a third grade next year.

“Worst case looks like us having to find a building that is far away and completely letting down the kids and families that we currently serve and hope to serve, because we told them we would do our best to stay close,” Smitley said.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect more accurately how the bill was clarified. 

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”