Detroit school district sues to head off closures

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Detroit’s new public school district is suing the state to stop any forced closures of academically failing schools or “coercion” into a partnership model that would allow them to stay open for at least another 18 months.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District filed a summons and complaint Friday in the Michigan Court of Claims, spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson confirmed.

The lawsuit alleges the state School Reform Office is exceeding its authority in violation of various Michigan laws, administrative rules and the state constitution. The district is seeking a court order prohibiting closures or related actions.

If Detroit public schools are closed, the debt-free district created last year through state legislation “will never be given a proper opportunity to fulfill its intended purpose, which is to turn around its lowest achieving schools,” according to the complaint.

The School Reform Office in January announced it could close up to 38 Michigan schools this summer, including 16 DPSCD schools and eight others that have been run by Gov. Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority state turnaround district.

Superintendent Brian Whiston announced this month that districts can avoid forced school closures by reaching a “partnership agreement” with the state, local officials and third-party support groups.

All 10 districts presented with that option have requested meetings to discuss partnership agreements, according to Martin Ackley, a spokesman for Whiston and the Michigan Department of Education. The meetings began last week and will continue through the end of April.

The School Reform Office previously appointed a chief executive officer in the East Detroit Public School District. The office announced Monday that CEO, Gary Jensen, will end his work in the Macomb County district April 7.

The East Detroit district “made great progress, after a steady decline in academic achievement for almost a decade,” School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said in a statement.

The Detroit lawsuit argues that by “hanging this unlawful threat of school closures” over the district, the state is forcing involuntarily agreements.

It also alleges Snyder violated the state constitution when he transferred the School Reform Office from the Department of Education to his own Department of Technology, Management and Budget in 2015.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton declined to comment, saying the administration does not comment on pending litigation. School Reform Office spokesman Chris DeWitt said it would be inappropriate to comment on a lawsuit the SRO has not yet seen.

The $617 million bailout Snyder and Michigan legislators approved last summer created the new Detroit public school district, replacing a debt-saddled entity that had been run by state-apppointed emergency managers since 2009.

The financial rescue package also called for new accountability actions, including the closure of any district school whose academic performance ranks in the bottom 5 percent of the state for three consecutive years.

But the complaint filed Friday argues that three-year clock was reset when Detroit schools were transferred to the new district, meaning the state should not be able to force any closures until July 2019. Attorney General Bill Schuette, in an official legal opinon, rejected a similar argument last fall.

The new complaint, filed on behalf of the school district by attorney Scott Eldridge of the Miller Canfield law firm, also argues recent top-to-bottom lists published by the School Reform Office have been based on outdated or improper data.

The district is seeking a quick review by the Michigan Court of Claims, noting closures would have a disproprationate impact on minority populations because the students in targeted Detroit schools are predominately African-American.

The School Reform’s announcement of potential school closures has already “caused tremendous distress, confusion, and anxiety” for students and parents, according to the complaint. “The threats have created an atmosphere of uncertainly about the future of the students’ education.”

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