next steps

After state delays timeline, anxious Michigan schools must wait until next year to learn their fate

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Michigan schools waiting anxiously for word on whether they’ll be shut down next year will have to wait a little longer.

State officials initially planned to release their annual state rankings, which will be used to decide which schools will be forced to close, by the end of this month. Now, they’re saying the rankings — and any closure decisions — won’t come until at least January.

The delay means that schools at risk of closure won’t be getting bad news before the winter vacation. But it also keeps the schools in the dark longer about whether they could face sanctions, including closure — giving communities less time to prepare for the possibility that students might have to find new schools for next year.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, which produces the so-called “top-to-bottom” list based on test scores, said the new timeline is an effort to coordinate with the state School Reform office, which will make the decision on school closings.

The reform office said last summer that it would shut down schools that appeared in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three or more years, except in cases where closure would create a hardship for students.

That announcement was surprising because schools had been told they wouldn’t be held accountable for low scores during the first years of the new M-STEP exam.

The change came after lawmakers approved legislation designed to resuscitate the debt-saddled Detroit Public Schools. The legislation included a requirement that all Detroit schools — district and charter — with three years at the bottom of the rankings be closed.

The reform office said last summer that it would apply the same rules to schools across the state.

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the reform office, said the office “is continuing its review of the data” and has not yet “completed recommendations for how to address chronically failing schools.”

Still not clear is how schools in Detroit’s main school district will be handled, since Gov. Snyder has said he is reviewing two different legal opinions about whether the fact that the Detroit Public Schools are now officially a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District requires the state to wait three years before closing down its low-performing schools.

“The goal remains to give kids in Michigan – regardless of where they attend school – a quality education, but no final determinations have been made around what actions might be taken,” Weiss said.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”