New state legislation aims to help private and charter schools — like Detroit Prep — buy vacant school buildings

The Michigan state senate has approved legislation that supporters hope will pave the way for a Detroit charter school to buy a vacant former school building on the city’s east side.

The Detroit Prep charter school has been trying to purchase the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood from a private developer but the sale has so far been blocked by the main Detroit school district.

The district has the power to block the sale due to a restriction in the property deed that allows the property to be used only for residential purposes unless the district grants an exception. So far, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refused to grant that exception for the Joyce school saying the district first wants to conduct a review of the district’s property needs.

The legislation, introduced Dec. 5 and approved by the Senate last Wednesday, is designed to smooth the path for charter and private schools that want to buy deed-restricted buildings. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the bill would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to prevent educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

“These are taxpayer assets, that aren’t being used, and we want to make sure that these buildings are utilized,” said Brad Wever, who is the chief of staff to bill sponsor Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the senate education committee.

The new legislation is designed to clarify a measure that was signed into law over the summer. While the earlier legislation barred school districts and other government entities from imposing deed restrictions that would interfere with efforts by charter schools and private schools to acquire buildings, the new bill would specifically bar government entities from enforcing or applying those restrictions. 

The restriction on the Joyce school has been in place since the district sold that building to a developer, Dennis Kefallinos, for $600,000 in 2014. The property, like many former school buildings in Detroit, has a deed restriction that requires the building to be used for residential purposes. 

Any use of the building for non-residential purposes must be approved by the school district and, so far, Vitti has refused to grant approval for Detroit Prep’s purchase of the building.

The bill passed the senate largely along party lines, with no support from Democrats. The House could take up the bill as soon as January.

Detroit Prep’s founder, Kyle Smitley, said the bill would help her school — but not only her school.

“The legislation is intended to prevent buildings from becoming blight and to prevent neighborhoods from suffering,” Smitley said. “These deed restrictions are not a fair use of taxpayer money.”

The Joyce school has been sitting vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009.

Smitely hopes the bill becoming law will force the district to allow her to bring that building back to life, but Vitti has signaled that he plans to keep fighting.

When he was in Lansing last month testifying before a House committee, he was accused by a state legislator of violating the law with his refusal to sign off on the Detroit Prep sale.

“The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now,” Rep. Tim Kelly, head of the House Education Reform committee told Vitti, referencing the earlier law. “Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

But Vitti questioned whether that law was enforceable.

“I’m glad we have a court system,” he said.

After Vitti’s testimony in Lansing, he told Chalkbeat that signing off on the sale to Detroit Prep would “set a precedent with the court regarding our ability to determine the future of property owned by the local Detroit taxpayers.”

If the sale isn’t allowed by February at the latest, Smitley said she would need to find a different building to house her growing school. The school, now in the basement of an Indian Village church, serves students in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade but will be adding a third grade next year.

“Worst case looks like us having to find a building that is far away and completely letting down the kids and families that we currently serve and hope to serve, because we told them we would do our best to stay close,” Smitley said.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect more accurately how the bill was clarified.