Three Detroit charter schools face renewed uncertainty after two school board panels voiced opposition to renewing their contracts.
Murphy, Trix, and Stewart academies were removed from the city’s main district by the state in 2012 and placed into a state-run recovery district that converted them into charters. They remained charters when the recovery district dissolved last year and its schools returned to the district.
Now the schools managers that run the three schools must find a new backer — and perhaps move into a new building, too.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s position has been clear for months: The main district competes with charter schools for teachers and students, he says. It shouldn’t spend its time overseeing them.
Dealing with district-authorized charter schools “is not a priority,” he told board members at a public meeting on Monday morning. “The lift is so heavy right now with our own schools, that one second not spent on our schools seems to be… a lost opportunity.”
But when Vitti brought the issue to the board in November, the board didn’t come to a decision.
Facing an uncertain future, some district-authorized charter schools chose to find other backers. But the organization that operates Murphy, Trix, and Stewart — an Indianapolis-based charter network called Phalen Leadership Academies — held out, hoping the school board would grant the schools more time.
On Monday, board members on two sub-committees decided not to do that. They agreed not to renew the schools’ charter, which is set to expire in June, meaning the issue will not go before the full board.
Sonya Mays, chair of the finance subcommittee, declined to support the renewal of the schools’ charter despite concerns that the transition could be turbulent for students there.
“My primary concern is not having the academic experience of those students disrupted,” she said.
Dozens of universities and school districts authorize charters in Michigan, and Vitti expressed confidence that Murphy, Trix, and Stewart, which together enroll more than 700 students, will be able to find an authorizer elsewhere. Phalen Leadership Academies contacted at least one other charter authorizer about a transfer, but did not submit the requisite paperwork. Creating a new charter can take much of a year, but officials at Central Michigan University, the authorizer contacted by Phalen, said a three-month turnaround is not impossible.
Earl Phalen, the organization’s president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For LaMar Lemmons, who joined Mays in opposing the charter, the issue was clear-cut.
“They were basically funneling our children into the charters,” he said of the state officials who spun off the former district schools into independent entities. “Those students walk to school to Trix. We would immediately absorb 90 percent of those students.”
But the district likely won’t be able to open a school on Trix’s building for a couple of years. Vitti wants to renegotiate the lease on the district-owned building with Phalen’s organization, saying it was “very generous.” If those talks fail, the district would regain control of the building, but Vitti says the buildings are in poor repair.
Starting a new school could pose a challenge for a district already racing to fill nearly 200 open teaching posts by next fall. The building already has many buildings that are far from fully occupied.
“I don’t want to start the school year with 25 vacancies at one school,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who also opposed renewing the contract.
It will be years before the district can get out of the charter business entirely. Three of its 10 remaining contracts don’t expire until 2022 (see below for a full list).
Without a means of exiting those agreements, the Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the district’s charters, won’t close its doors any time soon. Indeed, even as the finance subcommittee spoke out against renewing charters for Trix, Murphy, and Stewart, it approved $4,000 to send district employees to training for charter authorizers.