Fighting to fix

Detroit school board and superintendent: We can improve the local schools the state wants to close

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

Members of the new Detroit school board vowed Wednesday night to prevent state officials from shutting down low-performing schools — and to find another way to fix those schools.

“The school board is committed to improving our schools, not shutting them down,” board president Iris Taylor said in a prepared statement she read after the board voted unanimously to hire a law firm to battle state-mandated closures.

The state school reform office last month released a list of 38 schools across the state that will be shut down for low-performance unless the office decides that closing the schools would cause a hardship to students. The 38 schools include 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that will return to the main district next summer.

The board hired the Miller Canfield law firm, which produced a memo last summer that is expected to be the basis of the district’s legal fight with the state. The memo argues that because the Detroit Public Schools Community District is officially a new legal entity that replaced the Detroit Public Schools, it should be given a fresh start and not face consequences for decisions made under the old district.

Now, district officials have directed managers to create improvement plans for each of the schools in the next 10 days. “Our leadership teams are working around the clock” to create the plans, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather said in a statement.

Here are the full statements from the school board and Meriweather.

DPSCD Board of Education Statement

For the first time in nearly a decade, the City of Detroit has a true school board, made up of educators, executives, and community leaders, empowered to make decisions that will improve our schools and lead to better educational outcomes for Detroit’s children.

Yet, just days into our term, the State School Reform Office (SRO) has listed 16 low performing DPSCD schools and eight EAA schools on a potential closure list, regardless of whether those children and families have a quality school in their neighborhood.  The SRO advised Detroit parents that if their child’s school is closed, they should consider sending their child to communities as far as Holly and East China to find a quality school.

Since 2009—when the state emergency managers took over Detroit schools—over 150 schools in Detroit have been shuttered.  These closures have imposed serious hardship on Detroit schoolchildren.  Study after study has indicated that when students are forced to switch schools unexpectedly, their academic performance suffers, their absenteeism rates increase, and the risk that they will drop out of high school skyrockets.  Yet the SRO is considering closing still more schools—inflicting new educational injuries on a population of students that has already suffered.

That is simply not right.  The DSCD school board is committed to improving our schools not shutting them down.

To that end, the board has directed DPSCD management to rapidly complete improvement plans for each of these schools.

We have spoken with Governor Snyder’s staff and he has committed that thoughtful analysis will be done before any schools are closed.

Meanwhile, we are authorizing DPSCD to take legal action when timely and appropriate to present why we believe these school closures cannot legally move forward.  We are hopeful that we can work with the state to avoid any action, however, we reserve the right to do so.

We look forward to presenting a plan for improvement to the SRO and the families of Detroit.

Statement from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather

On behalf of myself, our families, teachers and our administrators I want to thank the Board of Education for their leadership. We stand with their decision to work to keep our schools open. We have no doubt that closing schools without providing high-quality options would be devastating to our families. It would mean undue hardships in transportation, safety and access to critically needed wrap around services.

We also understand that it is critically important that each of these 16 schools shows dramatic improvement. As I speak, our leadership teams are working around the clock to create data-driven improvement plans for each school. These plans will be presented within the 10 days. We are confident that each one of these neighborhood schools can be a high-quality option for our students.

Finally, I want to thank the community – Mayor Duggan, our legislators, pastors, residents and friends for your outpouring of support. We sense that you are behind us and that you are locking arms with us to help us create better outcomes for our students. Thank you.

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.”