Battle to buy a school

The ongoing fight between the Detroit district and a charter school now heads to the state House and court

PHOTO: Detroit Prep
An empty room inside the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School.

The dispute between the Detroit school district and a charter school over the use of a former district building is coming to a head this week, with the state House taking up a related issue on Thursday, the two sides headed to court on Friday — and powerful forces like the Wall Street Journal weighing in on the side of the charter.

The charter, Detroit Prep, may get some support for its legal case from the state House, which will hold a hearing on Thursday on legislation affecting such building sales. The House is considering a bill that, if approved, would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

District and charter school lawyers will also face off on Friday at a hearing in the Wayne County Circuit Court that will take up Detroit Prep’s request that the case be halted long enough for the house bill to pass.

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, taking advantage of a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property.

Detroit Prep had wanted to buy and renovate the vacant building in Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood to house its growing student population. The school is currently in a church basement in nearby Indian Village.

The deed restriction meant the district will get a cut of the proceeds of the sale — roughly $75,000 — but the district has objected.

The district’s legal argument is that the deed restrictions put on many school buildings that were sold in recent years are valid and are designed to ensure that when property is sold, there is a long-term benefit to taxpayers.

“The district owns a great deal of real estate in the City of Detroit,” the district argued in a recent court motion. “DPSCD is very sensitive to the instability that a neighborhood can suffer when a school building is closed. To that end, DPSCD carefully selects the entities to which it sells property. Its property belongs to taxpayers. They are assets of the community, not private property. DPSCD is not only concerned with the purchase amount – but seeks to ensure that the potential purchaser is committed to: (i) not speculating (i.e., buying property for the purpose of investigating ways to re-sell at a profit); and (ii) offering a single consistent use for at least 10 years. These two contractual requirements are designed to lessen the impact of instability of a school closing and for the public good.”

Detroit Prep, alternatively, claims the restrictions are an unfair constraint on buildings that were built initially with taxpayers dollars. Legislation signed into law over the summer clarified that putting deed restrictions on former school buildings is illegal.

The school’s supporters also say they are not sure how allowing the building to sit vacant in an otherwise stable neighborhood is a benefit to the community.

The matter is playing out against a backdrop of simmering tensions between pro-charter school proponents and defenders of district schools. The tensions have escalated in Detroit since the arrival last spring of Vitti, who has been a vocal critic of charters, even vowing to put charters out of business by competing successfully for Detroit students.

The Wall Street Journal, a proponent of school choice, criticized the district in an editorial last week, describing the issue as “a case study in how far Detroit will go to punish charter-school students.”

“The farce is that the Detroit school district is spending money to defend the lawsuit even as it claims to lack the resources for basic education,” the editorial said.

To read more about the case, scroll down to court documents filed by  Detroit Prep and Detroit Public Schools Community District in advance of the hearing on Friday.







Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.