State can’t close DPS schools until ’19, law firm says

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s School Reform Office, which plans to make a determination by the end of the year on which low-performing schools to close, may need to slow down – at least when it comes to possibly closing schools in Detroit.

A memo from the Miller Canfield law firm to Detroit Public Schools Community District transition manager Steven Rhodes says the office cannot close any failing schools in the state’s largest district until July 1, 2019.

State law allows the School Reform Office to close schools that are in the lowest performing 5 percent for three straight years.

The memo, written by Amanda Van Dusen and Michelle P. Crockett, argues the Detroit district is a new entity created under the state’s $617 million rescue legislation passed in June, meaning the state can’t close any of its schools before July 1, 2019.

“DPSCD did not ‘operate’ the schools outlined on a lowest achieving 5% list for the three immediately preceding school years and a result the SRO is precluded from automatically closing these schools,” the memo reads.

Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said his administration would study the memo.

“The governor’s office will review the opinion, as will the School Reform Office,” she said Friday in an email.

Natasha Baker, a state school reform officer, told The Detroit News earlier in the week that the office will have “data formatted by the end of the calendar year that will determine which schools are facing a next level of accountability, which is not exclusive to school closures.”

Baker did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the Miller Canfield memo.

Detroit Public Schools Community District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The memo is dated Aug. 2. It is titled, “Jurisdiction of the State School Reform Office and Its Ability to Close DPSCD Priority Schools Pursuant to Public Act 192 of 2016.”

In it, the law firm argues that allowing the State Reform Office to close DPS schools before July 2019 would “potentially sabotage” the new Detroit district.

“An adoption of the SRO’s isolated and narrow interpretation of MCL 391(1) could potentially sabotage the financial health of DPSCD before it even has an opportunity to begin educating Detroit’s schoolchildren,” the memo reads. “This cannot be the outcome intended by the Legislature given the herculean efforts of the governor, the state House of Representatives and Senate to reach consensus and ultimately enact Act 192.”

The six-page memo begins by introducing the creation of the State Reform Office on March 12, 2015, by an executive order signed by Snyder. It then outlines the SRO duties.

The memo then describes what Act 192 provides for when DPS became a community district, saying all functions, responsibilities and assets of DPS are transferred to DPSCD.

It argues that because the State Reform Office based its 2015 list of the lowest performing schools on 2013 test scores, the office cannot immediately close schools in the new Detroit district.

“Because, as the SRO admits, the 2015 lowest 5% achieving school list is based on 2013 data the state has not, and cannot, satisfy the prequisite that DPSCD schools subject to closing have been on the 5% list for the three immediately preceding school years.”

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