Here’s which Detroit schools could be closed, as confusion about their future deepens

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Dozens of Michigan schools could get some tough news Friday as school closures loom

The panic is back.

Struggling Detroit schools that breathed a collective sigh of relief this month when Gov. Rick Snyder essentially offered them a stay of execution from tough new school closure requirements were sent reeling again today after the state’s top lawyer stepped in.

But what happens next in the whiplash-inducing school closure fight remains unclear and seems likely to end up in the courts. Here’s what we know — and what we still don’t.

Wait, what’s going on?

The central issue is a law passed last spring as part of the $617 million rescue package for Detroit Public Schools.

The law requires the state school reform office to shut down every school in Detroit — both district and charter — that landed in the bottom 5 percent on state school rankings for the last three years, except in cases where closure would cause “unreasonable hardship” to students.

Chalkbeat broke the story in August that the school reform office planned to use the results of state exams given in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to make closure decisions, even though the test had changed and schools had been told by another state agency that they wouldn’t face high-stakes consequences during the early years of the new M-STEP test.

It looked like dozens of Detroit schools could be doomed. The bottom 5 percent list hasn’t been published yet for 2016, but 27 schools in Detroit’s main school district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — were on the list in both 2014 and 2015.

Many seemed like they were in danger of closing until Snyder, early this month, said he’d accepted a legal finding that took the schools off the chopping block. Essentially, it meant that since DPSCD schools are now officially in a new district, they should get a fresh start. Detroit schools were told their past scores wouldn’t apply to school closure decision until 2019.

What happened today?

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the state’s top lawyer, issued a legal opinion that DPSCD schools can, in fact, be closed, even though their district is new. Schuette had been asked for that opinion by Republican lawmakers who said the intent of their legislation was to see long-struggling schools shut down. “The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school,” Schuette said in a statement. “Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.”

Not only can schools be closed, Schuette said, but he asserts that the law demands it. “The SRO is required to close schools in accordance with state law, unless closure would result in an unreasonable hardship because there are insufficient other public school options reasonably available.”

So now what?

That’s hard to predict. It’s not clear if the attorney general has the power to order the governor or the School Reform Office to use his interpretation of the law. That is also in dispute, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for the governor.

“The governor has said all along that it is his intent to follow law,” Adler said. “As different opinions are presented, he will review them and address them accordingly.”

Snyder may decide to accept Schuette’s opinion and proceed with school closings or he could hold his ground, in which case GOP lawmakers, parents, or advocates could take him to court to force him to close schools. Defenders of public schools also say they’re prepared to take this battle to the courts — so the odds of any schools being closed without some kind of judicial review seem low.

What does the district say?

Not much yet. A spokeswoman from DPSCD issued a statement saying: “We have seen the news release issued by the State’s Attorney General in regards to his opinion about DPSCD future school closures and will need to closely and carefully review the opinion with counsel and determine our course of action.”

What about charter schools?

There are five Detroit charter schools that were on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. Three of them — Hamilton Academy, Marvin L. Winans Academy of Performing Arts, and the Michigan Technical Academy — could all be in danger of closing if they land on the 2016 list as well. Two others, Murphy Performance Academy and Stewart Performance Academy, may not be affected since the law applies only to charter schools that have been open for four or more years. Those schools became charter schools in 2012, but the law is vague about when the clock starts on the four-year period.

What about the Education Achievement Authority?

There were 10 schools in the state-run recovery district on both the 2014 and 2015 bottom-five lists. But the law requiring mandatory school closures only applies to the “community district,” which is DPSCD, and to charter schools. State officials said last month that they planned to close any school in the state that was on the bottom-five list for three years, which could include EAA schools, but the EAA has a murky legal status since its schools are expected to revert back to DPSCD next summer. When asked about the EAA schools’ likelihood of facing closure, an EAA spokeswoman pointed out that state law requires the school reform office to take certain steps such as ordering a redesign plan before closing a school. None of the steps have been taken with any EAA schools, she said. (Those steps aren’t required under the new law that applies to DPSCD and to charters.)

Which Detroit public schools are in danger of being closed?

There were 27 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. A third strike on the 2016 list, which is expected around November 1, could spell trouble for these schools. They are:

Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School

Bow Elementary-Middle School

Brewer Elementary-Middle School

Clark Preparatory Academy

Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern

Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody

Durfee Elementary-Middle School

Fisher Magnet Lower Academy

Fisher Magnet Upper Academy

Gardner Elementary School

Gompers Elementary-Middle School

Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School

Henderson Academy

King High School

King Academic and Performing Arts Academy

Marquette Elementary-Middle School

Thurgood Marshall Elementary Schools

Mason Elementary School

Osborn Academy of Mathematics

Osborn College Preparatory Academy

Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy

Pulaski Elementary-MIddle School

Sampson Academy

Thirkell Elementary School

Western International High School

Coleman A. Young Elementary


Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”