Going to court

Detroit school board readies for legal fight to stop school closings

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Detroit's new school board is gearing up to fight state-mandated school closings

Detroit’s new school board isn’t planning on letting state officials shut down city schools without a fight.

Even as the state School Reform Office is still conducting the 30-45 day review that will determine which of the 38 struggling Michigan schools identified for closure will ultimately be forced to close their doors, the Detroit school board is holding a special meeting tonight to consider legal action.

An agenda for the meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Fisher Building, shows the board plans to “vote around litigation.”

Of the 38 schools on the closure list, 25 are in the city of Detroit, including 16 that are part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Also on the list are eight schools that are part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which will revert back to the main Detroit district this summer. All of the schools were put on the list because they have been in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three or more years.

The board took over the district last month after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

Board members say Detroit schools should get a fresh start — and not face penalties for decisions made when the state ran the district.

“The schools in question absolutely have to improve their performance and achievement level. There’s no debate about that,” said Sonya Mays, who is the new board’s treasurer. “This is all centered around the process and this question of ‘Does the district actually have a clean financial and operational start to control its own destiny?’”

State officials last summer created the Detroit Public Schools Community District as a new district that would not have the massive debts that hobbled the predecessor district, the Detroit Public Schools. The new district absorbed all of the old district’s schools and staff but is officially a new legal entity.

That’s expected to be one of the arguments the board will make when it files suit to stop closures. While the state is required by law to close all schools in the city of Detroit that have been in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three years, a legal opinion obtained by the district last summer asserted that creating the new district restarted the clock.

Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a different finding in September. He asserted that the law does require the state to close the low-performing Detroit schools regardless of their status in a new district.

As a state agency, the School Reform Office was required to follow Schuette’s opinion, said Steven Rhodes, the former federal bankruptcy judge who was leading the Detroit district last year when it first sought legal guidance on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean Schuette’s opinion will win in court, Rhodes said: “In a court of law, the attorney general’s opinion is entitled to no particular weight or deference. The judge is going to determine what the law is.”

At a meeting last month, Mays said she made a motion to ask the district’s general counsel to write a legal opinion mapping out the board’s options.

She said she expected the board to review that opinion tonight. The board could vote tonight to formally take legal action.

Rhodes predicted that if the board does file suit, it will prevail.

“I think that a court looking at this will rule in the same way that Miller Canfield gave its opinion and so I think the result of the litigation will be that the (School Reform Office) cannot close any Detroit schools for three years.”

The legal memorandum from the Miller Canfield law firm that could be the basis of a lawsuit can be read here:

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.”