Battle to buy a school

New state legislation aims to help private and charter schools — like Detroit Prep — buy vacant school buildings

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School has sat vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009. A charter school has been blocked from buying it.

The Michigan state senate has approved legislation that supporters hope will pave the way for a Detroit charter school to buy a vacant former school building on the city’s east side.

The Detroit Prep charter school has been trying to purchase the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood from a private developer but the sale has so far been blocked by the main Detroit school district.

The district has the power to block the sale due to a restriction in the property deed that allows the property to be used only for residential purposes unless the district grants an exception. So far, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refused to grant that exception for the Joyce school saying the district first wants to conduct a review of the district’s property needs.

The legislation, introduced Dec. 5 and approved by the Senate last Wednesday, is designed to smooth the path for charter and private schools that want to buy deed-restricted buildings. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the bill would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to prevent educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

“These are taxpayer assets, that aren’t being used, and we want to make sure that these buildings are utilized,” said Brad Wever, who is the chief of staff to bill sponsor Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the senate education committee.

The new legislation is designed to clarify a measure that was signed into law over the summer. While the earlier legislation barred school districts and other government entities from imposing deed restrictions that would interfere with efforts by charter schools and private schools to acquire buildings, the new bill would specifically bar government entities from enforcing or applying those restrictions. 

The restriction on the Joyce school has been in place since the district sold that building to a developer, Dennis Kefallinos, for $600,000 in 2014. The property, like many former school buildings in Detroit, has a deed restriction that requires the building to be used for residential purposes. 

Any use of the building for non-residential purposes must be approved by the school district and, so far, Vitti has refused to grant approval for Detroit Prep’s purchase of the building.

The bill passed the senate largely along party lines, with no support from Democrats. The House could take up the bill as soon as January.

Detroit Prep’s founder, Kyle Smitley, said the bill would help her school — but not only her school.

“The legislation is intended to prevent buildings from becoming blight and to prevent neighborhoods from suffering,” Smitley said. “These deed restrictions are not a fair use of taxpayer money.”

The Joyce school has been sitting vacant since it was closed by the district in 2009.

Smitely hopes the bill becoming law will force the district to allow her to bring that building back to life, but Vitti has signaled that he plans to keep fighting.

When he was in Lansing last month testifying before a House committee, he was accused by a state legislator of violating the law with his refusal to sign off on the Detroit Prep sale.

“The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now,” Rep. Tim Kelly, head of the House Education Reform committee told Vitti, referencing the earlier law. “Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

But Vitti questioned whether that law was enforceable.

“I’m glad we have a court system,” he said.

After Vitti’s testimony in Lansing, he told Chalkbeat that signing off on the sale to Detroit Prep would “set a precedent with the court regarding our ability to determine the future of property owned by the local Detroit taxpayers.”

If the sale isn’t allowed by February at the latest, Smitley said she would need to find a different building to house her growing school. The school, now in the basement of an Indian Village church, serves students in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade but will be adding a third grade next year.

“Worst case looks like us having to find a building that is far away and completely letting down the kids and families that we currently serve and hope to serve, because we told them we would do our best to stay close,” Smitley said.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect more accurately how the bill was clarified. 

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?”