Battle to buy a school

Judge orders Detroit district leader to appear after issuing a stay in charter school property dispute

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

A Wayne County judge charged with settling a dispute between charter school Detroit Prep and the main Detroit district on Friday issued a stay and demanded that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti or one of his top deputies, along with a school board member, appear in court next month to discuss the case.

“Let’s get somebody, a board member, the superintendent – that would be my preference – or the deputy superintendent would be acceptable with the superintendent available by phone,” Judge David J. Allen said. “I’m sure he’s a busy man.”

Allen agreed on Friday to postpone making a decision over the disputed former Joyce Elementary School until next month. By then, Gov. Rick Snyder is likely to have signed legislation that could help the charter school, Detroit Prep, in its quest to buy the former Joyce school.

“I would bet my house that the governor will sign it,” said Detroit Public Schools Community District attorney, Jenice M. Mitchell Ford.

Detroit Prep has been trying to buy and renovate the former school building on Detroit’s east side but has been blocked by the district’s refusal to waive a deed restriction on the property. The building is owned by a private developer but a deed restriction requires the district to sign off on all uses of the buildings other than residential. Detroit Prep filed suit against the district in October.

The legislation, which was fast-tracked this week by state lawmakers — and supported exclusively by GOP members — clarifies language barring deed restrictions on buildings to be used for education purposes. Detroit Prep asked Allen to postpone his ruling until that law is signed.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.” Vitti said in an email to the state House Education Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Tim Kelly.

Detroit Prep’s lawyer, Jason R. Gourley, said that the bill could “be on the governor’s desk as early as next Tuesday.”

Battle to buy a school

Michigan House passes bill that will help local charter in its fight against the Detroit district

State Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the Education Reform Committee, speaks on Senate Bill 702

GOP State House representatives today fast tracked a bill that will help local charter Detroit Prep in its fight against the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The bill, which was passed without the support of a single Democrat, clarifies language on deed restrictions, making it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use them to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer. The district invoked a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property. Detroit Prep, seeking more room for its growing student population, then filed suit in October against the district.

In December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in an email to state Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee, that the proposed legislation would affect the district’s ability to fight Detroit Prep in court.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.,” Vitti wrote.

Representative Kelly has been a vocal critic of Vitti’s actions in the case, seeing the blockage as part of a larger pushback by the superintendent against charter schools. In a heated exchange at a hearing in Lansing last November, he aimed at Vitti, saying, “The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now. Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

The bill passed on Thursday clarifies a law that’s already in existence, Kelly said during the hearing, “but currently being flouted in certain areas of the state.”

The matter now shifts to the Wayne County Circuit Court on Friday, where the charter and district lawyers will meet at a hearing on Detroit Prep’s request for a delay in the case to give the bill enough time to be signed into law by the governor. Meanwhile, the district is arguing for the case to be thrown out altogether.

“I’m curious about the timing of this hearing when the judge is considering this case already,” said State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) during the hearing. “Is it appropriate for us to be pushing this legislation when there is a court hearing scheduled for tomorrow?”

Battle to buy a school

The ongoing fight between the Detroit district and a charter school now heads to the state House and court

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
An empty room inside the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School.

The dispute between the Detroit school district and a charter school over the use of a former district building is coming to a head this week, with the state House taking up a related issue on Thursday, the two sides headed to court on Friday — and powerful forces like the Wall Street Journal weighing in on the side of the charter.

The charter, Detroit Prep, may get some support for its legal case from the state House, which will hold a hearing on Thursday on legislation affecting such building sales. The House is considering a bill that, if approved, would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

District and charter school lawyers will also face off on Friday at a hearing in the Wayne County Circuit Court that will take up Detroit Prep’s request that the case be halted long enough for the house bill to pass.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer, taking advantage of a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property.

Detroit Prep had wanted to buy and renovate the vacant building in Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood to house its growing student population. The school is currently in a church basement in nearby Indian Village.

The deed restriction meant the district will get a cut of the proceeds of the sale — roughly $75,000 — but the district has objected.

The district’s legal argument is that the deed restrictions put on many school buildings that were sold in recent years are valid and are designed to ensure that when property is sold, there is a long-term benefit to taxpayers.

“The district owns a great deal of real estate in the City of Detroit,” the district argued in a recent court motion. “DPSCD is very sensitive to the instability that a neighborhood can suffer when a school building is closed. To that end, DPSCD carefully selects the entities to which it sells property. Its property belongs to taxpayers. They are assets of the community, not private property. DPSCD is not only concerned with the purchase amount – but seeks to ensure that the potential purchaser is committed to: (i) not speculating (i.e., buying property for the purpose of investigating ways to re-sell at a profit); and (ii) offering a single consistent use for at least 10 years. These two contractual requirements are designed to lessen the impact of instability of a school closing and for the public good.”

Detroit Prep, alternatively, claims the restrictions are an unfair constraint on buildings that were built initially with taxpayers dollars. Legislation signed into law over the summer clarified that putting deed restrictions on former school buildings is illegal.

The school’s supporters also say they are not sure how allowing the building to sit vacant in an otherwise stable neighborhood is a benefit to the community.

The matter is playing out against a backdrop of simmering tensions between pro-charter school proponents and defenders of district schools. The tensions have escalated in Detroit since the arrival last spring of Vitti, who has been a vocal critic of charters, even vowing to put charters out of business by competing successfully for Detroit students.

The Wall Street Journal, a proponent of school choice, criticized the district in an editorial last week, describing the issue as “a case study in how far Detroit will go to punish charter-school students.”

“The farce is that the Detroit school district is spending money to defend the lawsuit even as it claims to lack the resources for basic education,” the editorial said.

To read more about the case, scroll down to court documents filed by  Detroit Prep and Detroit Public Schools Community District in advance of the hearing on Friday.