In disrepair

Teachers worried about mold in their Detroit elementary school refused to come to work on Monday

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A Detroit elementary school was closed Monday after the vast majority of teachers called out of work over concerns that the building could be hazardous to their health. The building will remain closed on Tuesday as district officials convene an emergency staff meeting. 

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified school board members by email Monday morning that the teachers at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy in northwest Detroit are worried that major water leaks have created potentially dangerous mold.

The district says it is currently testing for mold while crews address the leak.

“We are reviewing options but we may decide to offer classes for students in the school in another location until the roof is repaired,” Vitti told board members.

As of Monday morning, some classrooms in the school have been deemed off-limits, with those classes being moved to other parts of the building.

The problems at Palmer Park are familiar to parents and educators throughout the district where years of financial challenges and deferred maintenance have allowed many aging district schools to deteriorate. Two years ago, teachers shut down nearly every school in the district when they called out sick to protest school conditions. The protest made national headlines.

School board member LaMar Lemmons says the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the schools from 2009 until they were returned to an elected board last year did not take good care of district property.

“They gave the buildings back to the district in a state of disrepair,” Lemmons said. Still, he said he was assured that the buildings were usable.

“Somebody’s head should roll in facilities in direct response to this, because we were told these buildings were safe,” he said.

The district is currently conducting a review of its building conditions. The board voted in January on a nearly $1 million review of its facilities and expects a report back in June.

Vitti has said that he’s awaiting the results of that review before making major decisions about where to spend the district’s limited renovation budget.

Palmer Park, however, won’t have to wait for that review to be complete. Vitti sent a letter to parents Monday committing to replace the roof immediately.

“Based on the district’s meeting last week with roofing contractors, we are hopeful to receive positive responses to the [request for a work order] that will allow the roof replacement work to begin as soon as this spring,” Vitti wrote.

Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman, said that the staff meeting planned for Tuesday “will be about how we can and should collectively — district and school staff — move forward with facility concerns at Palmer Park, while keeping our children’s education at the center of that discussion,” as well as the health and safety of students and faculty.

“After the meeting,” Wilson said, “decisions made by the district and staff will be discussed with students’ parents.”

Vitti has said that the district has about $20 million left over from money it got from the state last year for things like renovations.

The money came as part of the state’s move to create a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District that was largely free of the debt incurred for decades by the old Detroit Public Schools. One of the trade-offs is that the new district does not have the authority to borrow money for major construction projects the way other districts do.

Read the letter Vitti sent to parents and staff at Palmer Park Prep below.

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.”