new approach

As charter schools close, Detroit’s main school district pounces: ‘This is what competition looks like.’

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks with Detroiter Judy Lewis. whose granddaughter Kymora now attends the Woodward Academy.

With a slew of charter schools closing and thousands of Detroit families expecting to be displaced, Detroit’s main district is swooping in to pick up as many new students as it can.

If that seems cut-throat for a district that narrowly averted the forced closure of 24 of its schools earlier this year and has endured scores of painful school closings, new district superintendent Nikolai Vitti is making no apologies.

“This is what competition looks like,” he said Tuesday. “We’re not going to be passive. We’re not going to be apologetic about celebrating our programs and our schools and our teachers and our principals.”

Vitti personally visited an enrollment fair Tuesday at the closing Woodward Academy in hopes of drawing parents to the district.

Lawn signs have popped up at city intersections asking parents: “Is your charter school closing?” with a phone number urging them to call the district.

Vitti said he’s sympathetic to families who are losing their schools.

“Obviously I feel for the parents of the children who placed their child in a school and now the school is closing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would want that to happen. But the reality is that this is the landscape of choice and this is an opportunity for us to be more competitive and to tell our story.

By the time Vitti arrived at the Woodward Academy late in the afternoon, most of the parents had already collected their children from school and left. But parents met with representatives of district schools — and Vitti met with the leaders of those schools.

“If I’m here, it models for everyone what we should be doing,” he said. “Taking an active ownership role in bringing parents back to our school system.”

Vitti said the district is planning other events for families with children enrolled in closing charter schools. Among schools in and near Detroit that are closing are the Woodward Academy, the Starr Detroit Academy, the Academy of International Studies and the Taylor International Academy. The Michigan Technical Academy is also in danger of closing.

Swooping in: Wth several charter schools closing this year, Detroit’s main district is seizing on the opportunity to try to lure displaced students. Signs like this have sprouted at major intersections.

Battle to buy a school

Judge orders Detroit district leader to appear after issuing a stay in charter school property dispute

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

A Wayne County judge charged with settling a dispute between charter school Detroit Prep and the main Detroit district on Friday issued a stay and demanded that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti or one of his top deputies, along with a school board member, appear in court next month to discuss the case.

“Let’s get somebody, a board member, the superintendent – that would be my preference – or the deputy superintendent would be acceptable with the superintendent available by phone,” Judge David J. Allen said. “I’m sure he’s a busy man.”

Allen agreed on Friday to postpone making a decision over the disputed former Joyce Elementary School until next month. By then, Gov. Rick Snyder is likely to have signed legislation that could help the charter school, Detroit Prep, in its quest to buy the former Joyce school.

“I would bet my house that the governor will sign it,” said Detroit Public Schools Community District attorney, Jenice M. Mitchell Ford.

Detroit Prep has been trying to buy and renovate the former school building on Detroit’s east side but has been blocked by the district’s refusal to waive a deed restriction on the property. The building is owned by a private developer but a deed restriction requires the district to sign off on all uses of the buildings other than residential. Detroit Prep filed suit against the district in October.

The legislation, which was fast-tracked this week by state lawmakers — and supported exclusively by GOP members — clarifies language barring deed restrictions on buildings to be used for education purposes. Detroit Prep asked Allen to postpone his ruling until that law is signed.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.” Vitti said in an email to the state House Education Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Tim Kelly.

Detroit Prep’s lawyer, Jason R. Gourley, said that the bill could “be on the governor’s desk as early as next Tuesday.”

Battle to buy a school

Michigan House passes bill that will help local charter in its fight against the Detroit district

State Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the Education Reform Committee, speaks on Senate Bill 702

GOP State House representatives today fast tracked a bill that will help local charter Detroit Prep in its fight against the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The bill, which was passed without the support of a single Democrat, clarifies language on deed restrictions, making it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use them to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer. The district invoked a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property. Detroit Prep, seeking more room for its growing student population, then filed suit in October against the district.

In December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in an email to state Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee, that the proposed legislation would affect the district’s ability to fight Detroit Prep in court.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.,” Vitti wrote.

Representative Kelly has been a vocal critic of Vitti’s actions in the case, seeing the blockage as part of a larger pushback by the superintendent against charter schools. In a heated exchange at a hearing in Lansing last November, he aimed at Vitti, saying, “The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now. Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

The bill passed on Thursday clarifies a law that’s already in existence, Kelly said during the hearing, “but currently being flouted in certain areas of the state.”

The matter now shifts to the Wayne County Circuit Court on Friday, where the charter and district lawyers will meet at a hearing on Detroit Prep’s request for a delay in the case to give the bill enough time to be signed into law by the governor. Meanwhile, the district is arguing for the case to be thrown out altogether.

“I’m curious about the timing of this hearing when the judge is considering this case already,” said State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) during the hearing. “Is it appropriate for us to be pushing this legislation when there is a court hearing scheduled for tomorrow?”