As the Detroit district weighs taking back some of its leased buildings from charter schools, anxiety grows

The five officials from the Detroit school district spent more than an hour in late October touring Escuela Avancemos Academy, and as they asked questions about the dimensions of classrooms and the school’s ability to serve older students, alarm bells went off for Principal Sean Townsin.

Townsin concluded, based on the questions, that officials were looking to take back the building the school has leased since the days the district was controlled by emergency managers.

It’s an unsettling reality for some of the charter schools authorized by the district, whose charters or contracts to lease district-owned buildings — or both — are up for renewal at the end of this school year. If the district takes back their buildings, it would displace hundreds of students. At Escuela Avancemos alone, more than 300 students are enrolled.

The buildings are a legacy of state-appointed emergency managers who converted some schools to charters, then leased the buildings; or took old, shuttered buildings and leased them to charters. Both angered some Detroiters, who complained about taxpayer property being handed over to competing schools.

“Now that we have new leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement, and reiterated in a later interview. “This means possibly reusing currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools.”

Townsin’s school still leases a building from the district, but has already found another authorizer, Central Michigan University.

“We have no idea what the district’s intentions are,” said Townsin.

District officials say a thorough review is underway, but no decisions have been made.

The possibility of using the buildings as traditional public schools again may seem odd in a district with plenty of underutilized schools — and more than a dozen vacant buildings. But the district also has a number of schools with massive facility problems and some with crowded classes.

Vitti said the district could use the buildings currently leased by charter schools to replace some of its older buildings that have high repair costs. Or, he said, the district could use the buildings to add a school in an area where a district school is struggling with crowded classes and “another traditional public school does not exist.”

He also noted that if the district doesn’t continue a charter school’s lease, the charter to operate could still be renewed.  But the onus will be on the school to find a new location. That could be tough, given there are few school buildings available that aren’t in disrepair.

Since he took the reins of the district in 2017, Vitti has said he believes the district’s efforts should be focused on students enrolled in the district, not on authorizing charter schools. The district’s board of education has been deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to renew a charter school contract. And some charters have sought new authorizers.

Currently, the district authorizes 10 charter schools.

The head of a state charter association said he has advised charter leaders who might be affected by the district’s shift to have an alternate plan. He also hopes the district makes decisions sooner rather than later.

“Whether it’s a chartering decision or a facility decision, we want to make sure we’re giving people time for transition,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “We all know that not having appropriate time is disruptive and we all are trying to avoid doing things like that.”

Quisenberry said he understands why the district wants to focus on its own schools.

“I’m not in a position to make any judgments. The district is thinking about the students they’re serving. And the charter schools are thinking about the students they’re serving. If we all keep our focus on that, we’ll all end up in the right place, even with tough decisions.”

Vitti said the district’s standards will be high when making decisions about renewing a district’s charter.

“Ultimately, charter schools were initiated to be laboratories of reform … to initiate best practices and to improve achievement,” Vitti said. “It doesn’t make sense to authorize charters that are not outperforming the district average or doing better than our high-performing schools.”

Hamilton Academy is in danger of losing not only its authorizer but also its building. Both contracts are up for renewal in June.

“My hope is that DPSCD does keep it open,” Superintendent Jeff Hamlin said. “The neighborhood really does need a school. I’m not sure where they would go.”

Hamilton was part of the school district until 2011, when an emergency manager converted it and several other low-performing elementary schools into charter schools to cut costs. Hamlin has received no official word that the district isn’t renewing the school’s charter or lease. But “we’re looking for another building and another authorizer.”

Finding both could prove difficult. Hamlin said authorizers are often resistant to approving charters that don’t have a building, and banks are often hesitant to help charters finance buildings if the schools don’t have an authorizer.

Escuela Avancemos leaders, too, are searching for a new building.

“The options we’re looking at are designed to minimize any disruption,” said Townsin, whose school provides door-to-door transportation to a significant number of its students. It was one of the most improved schools academically this year.

He said the academy has reached out to inquire about purchasing its building, but was told the district isn’t selling any real estate right now.

“That is perplexing to me, considering their financial position,” and a $500 million price tag put on repairs needed to existing schools, Townsin said.

Vitti said the district isn’t looking to sell property for the same reasons it might not lease a building, because the district might reuse them.

LaMar Lemmons, a member of the Board of Education whose term expires at the end of the year, said the district should look to get out of leases with charter schools.

“If we’re getting out of the charter business, there is no way we should be sustaining our competition,” Lemmons siad.