Calming the chaos

A year after the tearful demise of a proposed Detroit school oversight commission, backers seek another way to bring order to Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit district and charter school leaders are meeting to see if they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

It’s been more than a year since the tearful, emotional night when a divided state legislature blocked a major effort to bring order to Detroit schools.

Now some of the parties involved in last year’s fight are regrouping and looking for new ways to improve city schools.

Only this time, they’re less likely to look to Lansing for laws that would force schools to report to a powerful school oversight commission.

Instead, early discussions appear to be centered on bringing together the historically competitive leaders of district and charter schools. The hope is that they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

“We’re trying to figure out as a group how we can work together on finding solutions that are in the best interest of providing quality education for students,” said Cindy Schumacher, who heads the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees many of the city’s charter schools. “We all have different roles but there are things that I think we can find common ground on.”

Roughly half of Detroit schools are run by the main city school district and the other half are run by a host of unaffiliated charter school management companies, overseen by unaffiliated charter school authorizers. But unlike Denver, New Orleans, Washington and other cities that offer families many school options, Detroit does not have any kind of centralized board, agency or coordinating partnership to help parents navigate the landscape.

No single entity in Detroit has sway over where new schools should open or where struggling schools should close. That means many children live in neighborhoods without quality schools and have to travel long distances to access better options.

Families searching for schools face a dizzying mix of enrollment procedures and deadlines. Some schools offer bus transportation. Others don’t. And schools aggressively compete for students and teachers while parents are often left with few tools to figure out which of the city’s largely low-performing schools can meet their children’s needs.  

When top community, civic and business leaders came together in 2015 as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, they offered a solution to bring more cohesiveness to Detroit’s school landscape.

That solution was a single, powerful school oversight board called the Detroit Education Commission that would have had authority over the opening and closing of district and charter schools. The proposed commission would have graded schools, held them to high standards and helped coordinate things like enrollment and transportation.

But when the plan for a seven-member, mayoral-appointed Detroit Education Commission was sent last year to the legislature as part of a package of bills designed to keep the Detroit schools out of bankruptcy, the idea was met with strong, vocal opposition.

Both district and charter school supporters saw the DEC as a threat to their independence, and charter supporters feared the commission would favor district schools over charters. One of the commission’s chief critics was Betsy DeVos, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. Her powerful Michigan political organization led the fight against the commission and her family contributed $1.45 million to the lawmakers who eventually voted it down in a politically charged, highly partisan episode.

The final package of bills sent $617 million to Detroit to create the new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. But, with no DEC, the bills passed without support from Detroit lawmakers or Democrats.

Now, a year later, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the school, union, business and community leaders that proposed the DEC in the first place, has begun a process called Coalition 2.0. This year’s goal is to take on some of the unfinished business from last year’s school improvement push.

The Coalition 2.0 effort has eight focus areas including special education, student attendance, teacher recruitment and retention, literacy, parent support, and pathways for students to college and careers. The group will study ways to increase the number of Detroit students who attend schools in Detroit, including both district and charter schools.

And, to take on the work that the initial Coalition hoped the DEC would tackle, Coalition 2.0 is bringing together top leaders of the main Detroit school district and the only two charter school authorizers that currently have the credentials to approve new charter schools in Detroit: Central Michigan and Grand Valley State universities.

Leading up this “citywide coordination and planning,” group for Coalition 2.0 are Schumacher from CMU; Rob Kimball, who leads the charter school office at Grand Valley; and Alycia Meriweather, the first Deputy Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Charter school authorizers have been criticized for allowing poor-performing charter schools to proliferate in Detroit and across the state.  But last year’s Detroit education law raised the standards that authorizers have to meet. Now, only authorizers that have been accredited by a national organization can open new charters in Detroit.

Kimball said having the two accredited authorizers involved could help pave the way to solving some of the problems the DEC aimed to address. Authorizers were not involved with the original Coalition, though individual charter school leaders were.

“The table is now more diverse,” Kimball said. “The authorizers are now at the table, participating in designing a process in which many of these DEC-like functions can occur.”

The citywide coordination and planning group could, in theory, propose something like a legally empowered DEC but early conversations appear to be geared more toward creating voluntary collaborations between schools.  

A preliminary planning document shared this month with city and community leaders says the group plans to review the DEC recommendations from the original Coalition report and “identify areas/measures that can be implemented voluntarily” by district and charter schools.

The group will also “develop recommendations to collaboratively advance DEC-like functions” including planning for how schools open and close, and looking for ways that schools could work together on enrollment, transportation, data, common standards and common learning/practices. 

If a new citywide commission comes together, it could take over some of the functions that had been done by the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last week.   

Excellent Schools Detroit, which was founded in 2010 to help families find quality school options in the city, published an annual report card that graded schools. It also led a $700,000 effort to create a unified enrollment system that would allow parents to use a single application to apply to district and charter schools. The unified enrollment effort has been largely stalled amid political controversy but its future could be one of the subjects discussed as part of these new conversations. For now, the Excellent Schools Detroit’s functions have been passed on to other organizations. 

Whatever the group comes up with, it’s not likely to be something that would require support from Lansing.

In a memo to Coalition steering committee members earlier this year, Coalition co-chair Tonya Allen wrote that, this time around, the group is looking at things Detroiters can do without state lawmakers.

“Our intentions and energy will look to Detroit, not Lansing,” wrote Allen, the President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat supporter). “Detroiters must develop a vision, a plan and execute it with fidelity if we are to improve education practices in our city.”

“The initial work of the Coalition was …triage,” Allen wrote. “Our efforts were focused on keeping the district alive.”

Now, she wrote, “our next body of work must be focused on transition …. This phase is about setting an education vision for our city and mobilizing ‘doers’ to begin to implement strategies locally.”

The Coalition last year got many of the things it fought for including the new district and the return to power of a locally elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

This year’s effort has an ambitious timeline. Organizers hope to have a list of final recommendations by early August with an eye toward publishing them in the fall. 

 

Teachers stiffed

Detroit charter school teachers get tough news: Their school was in debt so they won’t get paid

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George notified teachers at the now-closed Michigan Technical Academy that they won't get their summer paychecks.

Furious teachers at a recently shuttered Detroit charter school were notified Wednesday that they won’t be paid thousands of dollars they earned during the last school year.

Teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy had contracts that required the school to pay them through the summer for work they did during the school year. But the school’s management company, Matchbook Learning, alerted teachers in an email Wednesday that the money would instead go to pay off the school’s debts.

“Last Friday, Matchbook Learning became aware that the holders of MTA’s outstanding bond debt are refusing to allow use of funds for any summer payroll and instead, are requiring that any available funds be used toward payment of the bond debt,” Matchbook’s CEO Sajan George told teachers in the email. “We are disappointed and deeply saddened by this development because this means funds will not be there for July or August payroll.”

The school, which Chalkbeat wrote about last fall, closed its doors forever last month when Central Michigan University revoked the school’s charter citing academic and financial difficulties.

The school was one seven Detroit area charter schools that closed this year including five that had been overseen by Central Michigan.

Matchbook Learning, which had been running the school since 2015, had a contract with the school’s board that expired on June 30, George wrote in the email to teachers.

“Matchbook Learning never received and does not expect to receive any funds from the MTA Board, CMU or the bondholders to fund payment of any July or August payroll — meaning Matchbook Learning is not in a position to make payment to you,” George wrote. “Unfortunately, the closing of MTA has had a severe effect on everyone involved. We thank you for your time at MTA, sympathize and empathize with your position, and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

George told Chalkbeat that his New Jersey-based school management organization, a non-profit, hasn’t been paid by the school’s board since February due to lack of funds. Matchbook is owed what he characterized as “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He said he knew Matchbook wouldn’t be paid for the last few months of the school year but that the organization stayed until the last day of class in June.

“If we left, the employees wouldn’t get paid and the school would shut down,” George said.

He said Matchbook asked the school board to approve payments that would enable the teachers to get paid in July and August. The board knew it would receive payments from the state in July and August and authorized a portion of that money to go toward paying teachers. But the bondholders are priority creditors, meaning they get paid first. The bondholders have refused to allow money to go to the teachers, George said. 

“Ultimately it wasn’t in our control,” he said.

The school borrowed about $16 million for building improvements when it first opened and only about $1 million had been paid off when the school closed last month, George said.

Angry teachers say they’re contacting lawyers in hopes of trying to collect what they’re owed.

“That’s money that we’ve all worked for,” said Maeve Rochon, a kindergarten teacher who said she’s owed around $5,000. “That’s for time we spent in those kids’ lives, doing our jobs. We all stuck it out to the end and now you’re telling us the money we worked for, we’re not going to get?”

Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said there’s not much the university can do to help the teachers.

“Some creditors of Michigan Technical Academy have ordered an acceleration of payments due on Academy loans,” Brzezinski wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The acceleration of payments means that the Academy received no funds from the scheduled July 20, 2017 state school aid payment sent by the state of Michigan. The Academy board and the Center had been working with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Treasury officials to ensure continued flow of state aid through July and August to allow the Academy to meet payroll and other outstanding obligations. Unfortunately, the decision of the creditors to accelerate payments under the Academy loans means that there will not be sufficient funds for the Academy to process the July 31, 2017 scheduled payroll and there may not be sufficient funds to meet the August payrolls.”

Brzezinski encouraged teachers to contact Matchbook or the Wage and Hour Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!