Update: March 12, 2019: This story has been updated to include a statement from Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
There could still be a Detroit Latin. It just won’t be part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Leaders of the proposed school, whose curriculum would focus on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, say they are pursuing a charter after talks with the district fell apart.
That’s a blow to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to attract students to the district through innovative programs. He’d hoped that some of the roughly 30,000 Detroit students who attend schools outside city limits would be enticed by a gleaming new campus complete with a quad and a science lab.
T.R. Ahlstrom, president of the Detroit Latin Organization, confirmed the split on Monday afternoon and said the organization would pursue a charter. The statement he sent to Chalkbeat on Monday afternoon didn’t go into detail about how talks with the district broke down. He declined to answer further questions.
In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat early Tuesday morning, Vitti said the district and Detroit Latin’s private backers disagreed about the school’s funding and staffing.
There was no sign of the $75 million in philanthropic donations that Detroit Latin had promised to raise for the new school, he said. And the Detroit Latin School Board wanted to hire uncertified staff at the school, he said, something district officials wouldn’t accept.
“As we moved into the planning and implementation phase of the project, district concerns grew with the lack private funding raised by our partner,” Vitti said. “We continued to believe in the opportunity Detroit Latin offered but the partnership was built on a public-private relationship that appeared to be moving in the direction of greater reliance on public funds than private.”
Full statements from Vitti and Detroit Latin are below.
A district spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for further information after the news broke on Monday afternoon.
If Detroit Latin becomes a reality now, it would compete with the district for teachers and students.
“While good faith efforts were made by all, members of the Detroit Latin School Board have determined that it is in the best long-term interest of the school and the families it seeks to serve to operate as a chartered public institution within the state of Michigan,” Ahlstrom said.
According to its website, the Detroit Latin organization is headed by more than a dozen prominent academics, businesspeople, and clergy. The list includes some names that will be familiar to many Detroiters, including Edgar Vann, the bishop at Second Ebenezer Church, and Derrick Coleman, a former professional basketball player.
Detroit Latin was one of two brand new schools that Vitti wanted to open this fall with substantial philanthropic help.
One, a still-unnamed school at Marygrove College, is on track. The University of Michigan is providing a residency-style teacher training program. The Kresge Foundation is pouring $50 million into the school. The inaugural class of ninth-graders will soon get letters of acceptance, allowing them to start class at the high school this fall. The district plans eventually to add an early childhood program and a K-8 school to round out the “cradle-to-career” concept.
But the path forward for Detroit Latin was murky from the start. In a meeting last September, board members questioned whether Ahlstrom and his team could so quickly raise the $75 million they promised for the renovation of a dilapidated district-owned building, the former Brady Elementary School. It is not clear how much of that money has been raised so far.
(Read the district’s initial proposal for the Latin School here.)
Sonya Mays, chair of the board’s finance committee who also works as a real estate developer, raised further doubts about the district’s plan to sell the building for $1. Under the contract, the district would operate the school for 40 years, and Mays worried that it could then become a charter and begin competing with the district for students and funding.
“I’m a ‘yes’ on the concept of opening the school, but I’m not quite there on the sale of the school,” Mays said at the time.
The district offered instead to lease the building for 99 years, but the Detroit Latin board turned it down.
Detroit Latin is now applying for a charter, shifting from district collaborator to a competitor. Detroit’s charters and the district compete fiercely for students and the funds that come with them under Michigan’s per pupil funding model.
“As a chartered public school, Latin will combine quality and equality as few schools can,” the statement continues. It will reach “into every neighborhood and the surrounding towns to offer a singular level of academic challenge, tuition-free, to all ‘students of character who are eager to learn and willing to work.’ ”
It was not clear on Monday afternoon whether the group has applied for a charter, or whether it has plans to purchase a different building. It is not clear whether the board will open the school next fall.
Ahlstrom helped open similar schools — including a charter and a traditional public school — in New York City and Washington, D.C., according to his LinkedIn page. A private school he helped open in Virginia ran into controversy and eventually closed.
Here is Vitti’s full statement. You can read the full statement from the Detroit Latin Board below.
Please note that the decision not to move forward with Detroit Latin through DPSCD was a mutual one between the both of us. This is not a “blow” to our future student recruitment efforts. Instead, it was an act of strategic abandonment of a new school concept that was not heading in the right direction based on our perspective. As you know, we have a number of new school plans for the fall that will increase district enrollment and expand the district portfolio of school options. These new schools have a higher likelihood of success because we own the buildings and can control our own destiny of success. That was not the case with Detroit Latin. As we moved into the planning and implementation phase of the project, district concerns grew with the lack private funding raised by our partner. We continued to believe in the opportunity Detroit Latin offered but the partnership was built on a public-private relationship that appeared to be moving in the direction of greater reliance on public funds than private. This was especially concerning when considering that private funding was needed to upgrade a school building for the school. The district was not comfortable using limited facility resources for a new school concept that from its inception was designed to rely on private funding. The delay in identifying a building for the fall was our reluctance to wholly fund repairs for a building plus fund all of the school’s staffing. What finally made the partnership untenable was the difference between both parties about whether we would agree to hire non-certified administrators and teachers. We planned to work collaboratively on hiring personnel but were not comfortable hiring individuals for the school who were not certified.
We wish Detroit Latin much success and hope it can meet its original mission to reach all students in the city equitably as a charter or private school.