Detroit public schools unveils $700M plan for facility repairs, new schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ambitious plans to spend $700 million in federal COVID funds on aging school facilities and to build new schools were announced Tuesday by the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The proposed overhaul would address decades of disinvestment in Michigan's largest school district, said Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD superintendent, and if approved would allow the district to spend the next five years working on buildings as it seeks "equitable state funding" to address its long-term facility needs that exceed $2 billion.

Vitti is proposing a 20-year facility master plan for the district which once boasted more than 250,000 students and 200 school buildings. It now educates about 50,000 students and operates around 107 buildings.

Schools slated to be rebuilt because the original buildings are not repairable include Cody High School, with its leaking roof, buckling floors and ceiling tiles that have fallen or are damaged.

"Access to federal relief funding provides us now with an opportunity to make a substantial short and long-term investment in our school buildings that paves the way to a broader investment plan to right-size the district and provide each employee and student with a school building they deserve,” said Vitti, who has been superintendent since 2017.

The district has struggled with expensive, growing capital needs across its school buildings, which were largely neglected for nearly a decade under state-run emergency management, which ended in 2016.

The proposal, which would be paid for out of the district's $1.2 billion in COVID funding, is a vision and investment plan for the district, Vitti said.

The district actually needs $2.1 billion to upgrade all school buildings to a “good” rating, Vitti says, based on a facilities condition index, which determines what is needed to restore a building to its best operational level.

Mike Simmons, executive director for the district, left, and Machion Jackson, assistant superintendent of operations, examine the buckling floor in a classroom at Cody High School on Tuesday.

It includes $281 million in new school buildings; $35 million to reactivate school buildings for preschool and to address overcrowding; $82 million to add new buildings on existing school campuses to address overcrowding and improve enrollment; $296 million to renovate school buildings districtwide with a focus on HVAC systems, roofs, and masonry; and $11 million to demolish school buildings that will be deactivated.

Schools slated to be rebuilt because the original buildings are not repairable: Cody High School, Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, Pershing High School, Carstens at the Golightly Career Tech Center and Phoenix, a closed school in southwest Detroit.

Building additions would be made to Charles Wright Academy of Arts and Science, Communication and Media Arts High School, John R. King pre-K-8, Western International High School and Southeastern Career Tech Center.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti proposes a 20-year facility master plan for Michigan's largest school district,  during a press conference on Monday, Feb. 15, 2022.

The district wants to reopen vacant buildings or reactivate parts of under utilized buildings in high-demand areas where capacity is insufficient. These schools include Vetal, Chrysler at Bunche Prep, Chrysler, Fleming,  Adult Ed West, Hancock and Northern High School.

The proposal also calls for the closure of some schools and school programs using a phased-out approach. They include Ann Arbor Trail, Sampson Webber, Clark, Catherine Blackwell and Thurgood Marshall.

Vitti said the plan seeks to protect neighborhood schools and their "feeder patterns," which are groups of schools where children consistently attend elementary, middle and high school together. The district allows students to attend any school they choose within the district.

The district recommends investing $700 million by 2027 as it works to acquire state funding to address its long-term facility needs, Vitti said.

The district has scheduled seven public meetings, some in-person and others online, to discuss the plans and get feedback from the community before it makes a final recommendation to the school board in June.

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, school board chair, said the district needs the help of students, staff, families, and community members to share feedback to help refine the plan.

"This is another step in the process to making impactful short and long-term changes to provide a sustainable path forward for the largest public school district in the city and the state; this plan is not set in stone," Peterson-Mayberry said. "The plan is thorough and thoughtful guided by strong data to inform and steer the conversations, engagements, and final realistic solutions."

The first meeting is online from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 1 for the Cody, Mumford, Henry Ford feeder pattern.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the union was presented with a draft of the proposal about a week ago and there are several aspects he is excited about.

A classroom at Cody High School is shown with a buckling floor on Tuesday.

"Cody and Pershing are slated to get brand new facilities which is long overdue," Martin said. "Those school communities certainly deserve it. A quality school, a brand new school would help retain and attract new students."

Martin said he appreciates the district's decision to phase out schools as opposed to closing them suddenly as was done with past emergency managers.

Martin said the way it was explained to the union was that grades would be phased out every year starting with younger grades while allowing current students to be promoted until the last grade has finished.

"We've been accustomed to emergency managers giving us a few months and saying 'sink or swim.' The phase-out approach serves us better," Martin said.

Discussion on school closures prompts discussion on layoffs, Martin said. 

"We need to protect jobs and the people in those buildings," Martin said. "It was the first question we asked the district. They have underutilized buildings and they are moving more students there. There would be no need for layoffs. That’s what we were told. What this ends up seeing we will see." 

Chris White, an education activist and Detroit resident whose child attended DPSCD, said he is glad the plan won't cost taxpayers more, but he thinks the district should focus on retaining and recruiting students by improving programs inside the schools.

"Building new buildings doesn't make enrollment grow," White said.

The district plans to replace Cody High School because the original building is not repairable, it said.

In 2020, the district used its fund balance and created a capital fund for $132 million in facility investments to make what it calls the first set of improvements to buildings.

In 2018, Livonia-based OHM Advisors estimated it would cost $500 million to address inoperable boilers, corroded plumbing fixtures, missing ceiling tiles in classrooms, exterior walls with cracks, roof leaks and a host of other problems.

By 2023, the price tag would soar to $1.4 billion, according to a facilities assessment done by the firm.

jchambers@detroitnews.com