Battle to buy a school

After legal fight with the Detroit district, local charter Detroit Prep is ‘back full force’ working on the building

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 leader of a charter school that has been battling the Detroit district over a property says she expects her school to move into its new home in December.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a pro-free market think tank that has ties to the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released a promotional video on Wednesday highlighting its support of Detroit Prep, an elementary charter school. The video offers an update on the building that the charter school hopes to occupy by December.

“We are back full force, working on the building,” Kyle Smitley, the co-founder and executive director of Detroit Prep said in the video. “Our architects are here regularly, our contractors are here regularly. We are behind schedule but everyone’s working really hard to pick up the pace.”

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said final sale documents have “not yet” been signed but said he is not aware of “major issues” still holding up the sale. 

The building is currently owned by a private developer who bought it from the district in 2014.

The school, currently located in Indian Village, operates out of a church basement and serves 75 students. Smitley wanted to move her school to the vacant Joyce Elementary School because she plans to add a grade level every year, and the larger space allows for that.

The sale drew national attention as it ran into problems last year when Detroit Prep tried to buy the elementary school, which had been owned by the Detroit district. The purchase was prevented because of a deed restriction added to the property when the district sold it to a developer.

“It was a way to avoid competition,” said Jason Gourley in the video, the pro bono lawyer and Detroit Prep parent who took on the case. Detroit Prep filed suit against the district last year.

But Vitti said the district gave up the legal fight after Gov. Rick Snyder in January signed legislation giving a major boost to Detroit Prep, making deed restriction language much more clear.

“As a district, we defended the right of Detroit taxpayers and voters to determine the use of their community’s assets,” Vitti said in an email.

The bill clarified language making it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to prevent educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

Watch the video below.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that renovations are underway at the school. Smitley informed Chalkbeat after this story was published that renovations had not yet begun. (Smitley did not respond to a request from Chalkbeat for comment before publication of the initial story). The story also has been updated to better reflect the status of the building sale.

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid what they deserve if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise pay for the first time in years.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

In the past, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of newly hired teachers who could help alleviate the shortage. New teachers could only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts.

Vitti has said low pay in the Detroit district is the main reason it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep the ones they have. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The subcommittee also recommended giving a one-time bonus for teachers at the top of the salary scale to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes would make a huge impact. It’s a major change for district teachers who have been stuck in a pay freeze and could draw new teachers into the district now that their experience may be recognized, allowing them to start at a higher salary.  

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” she said. Specifically, the federation wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.