Proceeding with caution

A controversial joint bus route for Detroit district and charter schools hits a speed bump

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Students load the bus outside Greenlee Elementary School in Denver, August 22, 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A city effort to create a shared bus route that would transport children to both district and charter schools in Detroit is catching flack from community members and getting some extra scrutiny from the Detroit school board.

The school board is now planning to consider just a one-year contract for the bus route — rather than the five years that were initially proposed — and to recalculate its costs to ensure that the district doesn’t overpay.

Mayor Mike Duggan announced the bus route — an unusual effort of cooperation between historically combative district and charter schools — with great fanfare during his State of City address in March. He called the meeting where he brought district and charter school leaders together to discuss the idea “almost historic,” adding: “They’re getting along.”

But the plan to use buses that would drive a fixed route, picking up and dropping off students at a mix of district and charter schools and delivering some to a shared after-school recreation center, hit a snag soon after when Superintendent Nikolai Vitti learned that the cost to the district would be higher than he initially believed.

He told a school board finance committee in March the he had thought the bus route would cost the district $25,000 in total but soon learned that the cost would actually be $25,000 per school — up to $125,000 if all five district schools planned for the inaugural loop were included. The plan also involves five charter schools.

Vitti has since renegotiated the deal with the city and other parties and now says the district will pay per student, rather than per school.

Vitti told a community school board meeting Monday night at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men that current plans call for the district to pay $1,000 per student. Riding the bus to an after-school program, where district and charter school students will together participate in programs such arts or robotics, will cost an additional $500 per student.

Duggan’s chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, said the mayor’s office has offered all participating schools several options for how to pay for the bus route.

“We’ve been working with all the schools involved in hearing out their concerns and making sure we’re addressing them so we can collectively provide a much-needed resource to children who live in this area,” she said.

It’s not yet clear how much the per-student funding structure will cost schools that choose that option since it’s hard to predict how many students will choose to ride the buses. But Vitti said the new structure enables the district to avoid paying for buses that are primarily serving charter school students. He said he wanted to avoid subsidizing expenses for charter schools that weren’t previously providing busing. 

The plan, which will be funded one-third by the city, one-third by philanthropy and one-third by participating schools, will start with a pilot involving a group of schools in northwest Detroit. The after-school programs would be held at the Northwest Activities Center.

The idea has been controversial. Several people questioned the district’s involvement during Monday’s community meeting, where community members were invited to address Vitti and two school board members on any topic.

Vitti told the audience that the district is scaling back from previous plans by going with a one-year contract instead of a five-year to see how things go before making a bigger commitment. The contract will be renewable at the end of the first year. 

“I would never make a final recommendation to the board if I didn’t think it was in the best interest of DPSCD and students,” Vitti said.

School board president Iris Taylor said the board plans to scrutinize the plan before authorizing it.

“To date, we have not seen the final agreement,” Taylor said at the meeting. “In concept, there are some pros and cons to engaging, but we want to be sure that we vet the entire proposal very clearly.”

The contract is expected to be considered by two school board committees in May and is scheduled for a final vote before the full school board in June, Taylor said.

Mayor Mike Duggan shows proposed school bus route that could bring students to district and charter schools in northwest Detroit.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.