Week In Review

Detroit week in review: the face off, the fall out and the rest of the week’s school news

The fate of a vacant former school building on Detroit’s east side could be decided as soon as today when the charter school trying to buy the building faces off in court against the Detroit district trying to block the sale. The hearing comes just a day after Republican lawmakers scrambled to quickly approve legislation that could help the charter school in its fight against the district.

We have the latest twists and turns in that dispute as well as more fall out and finger-pointing from the embarrassing mistake that cost the district $6.5 million. Plus, we have the latest on the state’s new data dashboard, which is designed to help Michigan parents compare schools.

Also, read on for instructions on how math teachers can win a free trip to Austin to participate in Chalkbeat’s Great American Teach Off a live event showcasing the craft of teaching that we’re hosting this March.

Thanks for reading!

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

The face off

  • The fight over a vacant former Detroit school building heated up when GOP lawmakers fast-tracked legislation that could invalidate deed restrictions like the one Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been using to prevent the Detroit Prep charter school from buying a former district elementary school from a private developer.
  • The case pits a charter school that says it’s creating educational opportunities for children and removing a blighted neighborhood building, against a school district that wants to defend its rights to ensure former district buildings provide a long-term benefit to taxpayers. Read some of the legal documents from the case here.
  • The charter school’s leader, who said her school plans to spend $4.5 million to renovate the empty building, said she never wanted a big fight — certainly not one that would capture the attention of a national newspaper. “All we’ve ever wanted to do is get a building for our kids,” she said. “We just wanted a roof over our head.”

The fall out

  • The mistake that cost the Detroit district $6.5 million when it missed a deadline to apply for a state reimbursement got a public airing Tuesday night when the school board met for the first time since news of the error broke last month.
  • A former CFO — who Vitti had said was partly to blame for the error — says he can’t be at fault since he left the district weeks before the deadline. He read a letter to the board at its meeting asking that his name be cleared. It defies logic to blame someone who was not there,” he told Chalkbeat.
  • The ex-CFO produced emails showing Vitti knew about the deadline and should have done more to make sure it was met. But Vitti said the finger-pointing “reflects the culture we must break in the district — one which lacks ownership and responsibility at the district level.”
  • Vitti said the district is putting new safeguards in place to prevent mistakes like this from happening again.
  • The state, meanwhile, is working with the district “to see if there’s a possible solution” that would lead to the district collecting the lost funds.

In other Detroit news

  • As the Detroit district prepares to make decisions about the future of its aging and half-empty school buildings, the school board approved a $945,000 contract with an engineering firm that will assess the condition of city schools and figure out what it would cost to repair them.
  • The school board also approved a policy that bars naming schools or sports fields after living people — a move that could lead to renaming existing schools like one named for a controversial member of the Trump administration.
  • The district is assessing the effectiveness of tutoring programs that have been operating in city schools  — including one that has put 500 corporate employees into classrooms as tutors.
  • The district — still trying to fill dozens of teaching vacancies — is holding another teacher recruitment fair next week.

   The dashboard

  • State education officials unveiled their new “data dashboard,” which makes it easier for parents to compare local schools using a host of criteria including test scores, attendance and expulsion rates and the percentage of grads who go on to college.
  • Notably, the dashboard lets parents see how schools compare with other nearby schools with similar demographics — in addition to comparing against the state average. That will be useful in a city where most schools lag far behind the state average but might stand out when compared with nearby schools facing similar challenges.
  • Some educational leaders still hope the information will be distilled into a simple rating like a letter grade. “The dashboards still lack a comprehensive rating to signal overall quality,” one advocate wrote.
  • The presentation of the data dashboard at the state board of education meeting happened without state superintendent Brian Whiston, who is undergoing radiation treatments following a cancer diagnosis. A school board member announced that Whiston is still in charge of the state education department and is in regular contact with its staff.

Across the state

  • Educational leaders across the state have mixed reactions to state legislation that would lower the credentials required for substitute teachers as a way of addressing a pressing shortage.
  • A state effort will put $2.5 million into school robotics programs.
  • New teachers hired this year will be the first to have their retirement benefits set by a controversial new law that passed last year.
  • The Detroit News writes that the large number of charter school authorizers in Michigan has “created a somewhat chaotic environment” but that charter schools are nonetheless “giving families a much-needed choice.”
  • The head of a state private school association makes the case for vouchers and tax changes that would help low-income students attend private schools.
  • A Michigan family is featured in a documentary that argues against laws that prohibit the use of public dollars in private schools.

Great American Teach Off

  • The Great American Teach-Off will build on live-format shows that celebrate the hidden craftsmanship in other professions — think Top Chef, Project Runway, and The Voice — minus the competition. It will focus on elementary math, and all math teachers and math coaches are invited to apply.