New buildings at stake

At stake in school closings: Tens of millions of dollars spent on recent improvements to targeted Detroit schools

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
Among the Detroit schools on the state's closure list is Osborn High School, which got a $5.7 million facelift in 2015 from a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

Parents, students and staff at the Fisher Upper Academy on Detroit’s east side gathered at the school last fall for an exciting announcement:

The Ford Fund, the carmaker’s philanthropic arm, planned to spend $5 million on a new “resource and engagement center” inside the school.

Parents were thrilled to learn that they and their neighbors would soon have access to services like job training and a food bank in the same building where their children go to school, said parent Kenya Tubbs, whose 12-year-old daughter Camille is in 7th grade.

“The 48205 needs a lot of things,” Tubbs said of the high-poverty zip code where Fisher Upper is located. “A lot of people would not come to a community center if they need a job or if they need food, but they’ll come to a school.”

But three months after that joyful announcement, Fisher Upper was named to the list of 38 Michigan schools that state officials have targeted for closure because of years of low test scores.

Now, the effort to unite social services with education on the east side of Detroit has been thrown into question.

“We’re moving forward in the event that things are resolved at the state level,” said Ford Fund spokesman Todd Nissen. “But at the same time, we have to monitor what happens between the state and the district.”

The turmoil at Fisher Upper is just one consequence of a school closure effort that’s focused largely on academics without much consideration for neighborhood impact or the loss of investment in schools. The closures could mean schools that have received tens of millions of dollars in recent years from taxpayers, corporate donors or community service organizations might soon be left vacant.

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Officials from the Detroit Public Schools and the Ford Fund visited Detroit’s Fisher Upper Academy in October to announce a $5 million investment in a new school-based community center. Three months later, the school learned it’s in danger of closing.

Among them is Mumford High School in northwest Detroit, which moved into a brand new $50 million building in 2012.

The new Mumford was paid for with $500.5 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2009. That money also built a new $22.6 million Gompers Elementary-Middle School in the Brightmoor neighborhood and paid for major improvements to Denby High School ($16.5 million) and Ford High School ($16.85 million).

All of those schools are on the closure list.

Among the 25 Detroit schools that have been targeted for closure by the state are several that have from tens of millions of dollars in recent renovations.

Also on the list are schools that benefited from major corporate and community investments such as Osborn High School. The Osborn building houses three small schools, all of which are on the closure list. It got a $5.7 million overhaul in 2015 from a Detroit-based nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

And other schools have been put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if test scores don’t improve this year. Spain Elementary is on that list. It got a $1.2 million upgrade last year with help from a $500,000 check from Lowe’s that was delivered to the school on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The 38 schools targeted in 2017 — including 25 in Detroit — were identified for closure because they landed on the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row.

The schools will be ordered to close in June unless officials from the state School Reform Office decide that closing them would represent a hardship to students.

Final decisions were expected to be made in the next few weeks but Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday that decisions likely won’t be made until May.

When they are made, they’ll be based on educational concerns — not buildings, said School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.

“The SRO is focused on our mission: to turn priority schools into the highest performing schools in the state,” Baker said in a statement. “We do this through academic accountability and have no statutory authority with the financing or operational components of schools.”

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Students at the Fisher Upper Academy have worked with the Ford Fund to determine what will be offered to the community if a $5 million resource center is built in their school but a threatened closure of the Detroit school has thrown plans into question.

Advocates warn that closing a school impacts more than just students and teachers.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools,” said Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO of Life Remodeled. “You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? …  How are funders going to trust that their commitments are going to be sustainable and fruitful in the future?”

Lambert’s organization raises money and recruits volunteers to renovate schools, parks and homes in Detroit neighborhoods. In addition to the major renovations at Osborn, Life Remodeled did an estimated $5 million in improvements to Cody High School, a three-school building with one school on the 2017 closure list and two on the possible 2018 list.

Lambert said he never would have raised the money or put years of effort into renovating those schools if he had any inkling that closures were looming.

“I asked at length,” he said. “We did hours and hours and hours of research into these schools, talking with DPS, funders, stakeholders, community leaders. We’ve got to make sure that we’re stewarding the donations … and using them wisely and all factors pointed to ‘These are schools to invest in.’ ”

But school closings were not expected until state lawmakers last year approved a $617 million financial rescue to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy. The new law included language requiring Baker’s office to close persistently low-ranking schools in the city.

The law specifies that the district (or the authorizer in the case of charter schools) “may not open a new school at the same location … within three years after the closure of the school unless the new school has substantially different leadership structure and substantially different curricular offerings than the previous school.”

Detroit school officials could, in theory, put new schools into closing buildings or move existing schools into them. But new schools would need to be approved by the School Reform Office and it’s not likely that the district would be ready to open new schools by September.

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
The non-profit Life Remodeled organized donations and volunteers to renovate Osborn High School, which could now be closed by the state.

Some school buildings could be snapped up by charter schools if the district is willing to sell them but negotiations and sales could take months or years so Detroit — a city riddled with vacant and blighted buildings — could soon get some more. And that will cost money.

“Even a very brief period of vacancy is going to result in scrappers getting into buildings,” said John Grover, a Loveland Technologies staffer who last year authored a comprehensive report on school closings and vacancies in Detroit.

Grover’s report, called A School District in Crisis, found that the city had 82 vacant school buildings last year. Most had been stripped, damaged by fire and had become dangerous, blighted eyesores in city neighborhoods.

Past school closings by the Detroit Public Schools cost the district an estimated $100,000 per school in one-time “mothballing costs” such as securing the buildings, removing equipment and  turning off water so pipes don’t freeze in the winter, Grover said. The district also spends roughly $50,000 per year per school to maintain and secure vacant buildings, he said.

“At the worst of times in 2012, they had so many [vacant school] buildings that they were monitoring all night long, they were out there playing a game of cat and mouse with the scrappers, going from one building to the next,” Grover said. “If you dump another 20 buildings into the school police department, that’s going to put a lot of strain on their resources … and they have a hard enough time dealing with active school buildings.”

It’s not clear who would cover the expense of securing vacant school buildings if they’re closed down by the state but the district, now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, owns the buildings. Some of the schools including Mumford, Ford and Denby are currently part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority but they are scheduled to revert back to the district this summer.

Baker said the state has “made no decisions” about who will pay expenses related to closures. A spokeswoman for the district said city schools do not have the resources to shoulder those costs. “We would definitely need assistance,” she said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

measuring progress

Fixing Detroit’s schools won’t happen overnight. Here’s what new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he can do by next year.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.