Confusion and uncertainty

Confusion spikes as a popular charter school seeks to buy an empty Detroit school building

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

Detroit’s new superintendent sent supporters of a popular new charter school into a panic today, potentially killing their dream of buying  a “forever home” for their school.

Schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who is openly competing with charters for students, informed the co-founder through a district office that he intended to reject her plan to buy a vacant public school building. But later in the day, after learning more details about the sale, he agreed to give the matter more consideration before making a final call.

“Our goal is to ensure the best use of taxpayer assets,” said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for Vitti.

The resulting confusion reflects the complexity the district faces in making the best use of its former schools. In this case, restrictions in the building’s deed and a murky process for buying closed public school buildings make a tough road even more difficult.

Kyle Smitley, the co-founder of Detroit Prep and the Detroit Achievement Academy, signed a purchase agreement on July 18 for the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School, which closed in 2009.

The building’s current owner is a company run by Dennis Kefallinos, a major Detroit landlord. He bought the vacant Joyce school from the district for $600,000 in June 2014. This summer, Smitley agreed to pay him $750,000 for the building.

But because of a quirk in the initial deed, the agreement has to go through the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has the right to reject some sales. Vitti did just that this morning. He halted the Detroit Prep deal, telling Smitley in an email that the district would cease making any property sales while his team assesses the district’s holdings and needs.

But even though the district no longer owns the building, there are two major restrictions on the sale, according to the deed from the bulidng’s 2014 sale.

One restriction allows the building to be developed only for residential use until 2024. Any exceptions have to be approved by the school district.

The second restriction is an anti-flip clause that gives the district a percentage of the profit if the property is resold within five years. In Detroit Prep’s agreement, Smitley said the district would be paid about $75,000.

When Vitti rejected Detroit Prep’s request to turn the former Joyce building into a school, he didn’t realize Smitley had already agreed to pay the $75,000 to the school district in addition to the purchase price to Kefallinos’ company.

Smitley’s plan was to launch a complete $4 million rehab of the building and move Detroit Prep in by fall 2018, when the school will outgrow its current home in the basement of an Indian Village church. It anticipates eventually serving 430 K-8 students.

She first saw the former Joyce school, a stately red brick building on Sylvester Street, on July 20, 2016. But it took months before she could connect with Kefallinos’ company. “We get calls about the schools [we own] every day, all the time, and honestly, they’re a dime a dozen,” said Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Kefallinos’ property company.

Mihailovich said Kefallinos intended to turn Joyce into a residential building, but that all their properties are for sale at the right price. “We all know that. We’re businessmen. We don’t look at the human element, because it’s all about profit,” he said.

Kefallinos was at first uninterested in Detroit Prep, Mihailovich said, because his company could make “much, much more money” by sitting on the property another year or two. That strategy also had the advantage of outlasting some of the school district’s time-limited deed restrictions.

But they were persuaded that Smitley was worth talking to by a mutual friend who interceded on her behalf. “If not for the mutual friend calling, I’m not sure it would have gone any further,” Mihailovich said.

“To us, it’s a different kind of experience because we didn’t think of it as a business kind of deal,” he added. “We think of it as trying to help the community.”

Closing had been scheduled for Oct. 18. It remains unclear what the next steps are, though Vitti said in an email to Smitley that he will reconsider the Detroit Prep deal.

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee is looking at new jobs

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district could have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.