Three Detroit schools aren’t waiting around for the outcome of a debate over the future of charter schools overseen by the main Detroit district. For others, the clock is ticking.
Nearly a year after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti first suggested that the district should stop authorizing charter schools, a final decision over the fate of 13 district-authorized charter schools serving roughly 4,000 students has been slow in coming.
A vote that was expected earlier this year still hasn’t happened even as some schools — Murphy, Stewart and Trix academies — have charters that are set to expire in just 47 days, at the end of June. For those schools, the window for a “plan B” is closing.
Vitti has argued since last summer that the district shouldn’t use its resources to monitor the same schools it competes against for students, teachers, and state funds.
Now, facing unclear signals, some charters overseen by the district are leaving. New Paradigm Glazer and Loving academies, part of one charter school system, received a seven-year charter in February from Grand Valley State University, extending the schools’ lives until 2025. A third school, Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center, is awaiting approval from GVSU to transfer out of the district under a similar contract.
To operate in Michigan, charters need the backing of a college, university, or school district. These backers are called authorizers. When a new school board took over the main Detroit district last year — the first elected board after seven years of state-appointed emergency management — the district assumed oversight for 13 charter schools, some of which were previously district schools.
Now the board is reconsidering its role with those schools. After putting off a vote originally scheduled for December, they are set to take up the issue at a meeting of the finance committee on May 21, Vitti said.
Questions about the future of district-authorized charters come as Vitti has promised to ratchet up competition between the main district and charters, boasting that he can improve district schools enough to put charters out of business. For the moment, about half of Detroit schools are charters — including the handful that are overseen directly by Vitti’s staff, some of which also lease buildings from the district.
If that arrangement comes to an end, students at Murphy, Stewart and Trix academies could find themselves scrambling this fall.
“We’ll be in a very difficult position,” said Earl Phalen, head of Phalen Leadership Academies, which manages the three schools. Phalen says he is expecting the contract will be renewed, despite mixed signals from the district.
If he’s wrong? “It would obviously be complicated to make that fast of a turn. It would be challenging,” Phalen said. “But we’re really committed to our scholars. Difficult, not impossible, is how I’d say it.”
The schools have discussed transferring their charter to Central Michigan University, but have not submitted the paperwork to initiate a transfer, said Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for CMU’s charter office.
Adding another layer of doubt, the buildings that house Murphy, Stewart, and Trix are owned by the main district and leased to the schools, raising the possibility that they could eventually be forced to find new buildings in addition to new charters.
Taking on more school buildings could pose a challenge for a district that has struggled to fill its 106 existing schools, some of which sit nearly half empty. It would also add to the district’s building roster as it gears up for a review of deteriorating district properties. But the move fits with Vitti’s long-term goal of creating an array of specialized schools to compete with charters.
“I still believe overall as a district that we need to focus on our 50,000 students,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last week. “Every second we spend trying to manage and problem-solve with district charters is time away from that focus.”
The board, meanwhile, has shown no sign of agreeing on next steps. Last week, the district entered a one-year lease with Escuela Avancemos!, allowing the charter to stay in a district-owned building at least until its charter expires next year.
But officials also made clear that things could soon change. When the lease is up, “the District will consider whether it is feasible to continue leasing Escuela space in its building or, whether it will use the building for its own educational purposes,” according to documents presented at the meeting.
Rob Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at GVSU, says some of the district’s charters have begun asking themselves whether they can win the approval of other authorizers.
“It’s creating a level of uncertainty for them,” he said
School board members argue that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, says he would be willing to reauthorize certain charters, but not schools — like Murphy, Stewart and Trix — that were removed from the district’s control by emergency managers, only to be returned as charters.
“I don’t want to undercut a parental choice,” he said. “On the other hand, if the charter is receiving students only because it’s the only school in the vicinity, then that school needs to be returned to [the district] as soon as possible.”
The uncertainty is being felt in neighborhoods already hit by school closures. Escuela Avancemos! occupies a building that formerly housed Logan Elementary, a district school that was shuttered in 2012 by state-appointed emergency managers. Rosa Placencia, a parent who lives nearby in Southwest Detroit, says she would be forced to make extreme sacrifices to get her children to school if they attended buildings further from her neighborhood. Placencia drops her children off at three different schools before work.
Sean Townsin, principal of Escuela Avancemos!, insists that his school will find another backer if the main district stops authorizing charters. The school has a year to figure out what’s next — not a month, like Murphy, Stewart, and Trix — but it is still under pressure. It could be forced to move because it occupies a building owned by the district.
That’s a bleak prospect for Placencia, who is pleased with instruction her eight-year-old is receiving in Spanish, the language they speak at home.
“I hope they never move it, because where else would they go?” Placencia said
Townsin says his staff isn’t focusing on scouting alternate locations. Instead, they are working to hit performance goals that would help them appeal to another charter authorizer if the main district follows Vitti’s recommendation.
“In the event DPS chooses not to authorize charter schools, we’ll have more options in front of us,” he said.