Plan to spend $700 million renovating, building schools approved in Detroit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit schools will spend $700 million in federal COVID funds on repairing aging school facilities and building new schools, an effort that aims to chip away at $2.1 billion in infrastructure needs at Michigan's largest school district.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the funds will allow the district to build five new schools that will replace existing buildings that require excessive repairs; construct additions at five buildings to address overcrowding or boost enrollment; and renovate 64 buildings with a focus on roofing, exterior enclosures, heating and cooling and lighting.

The plan, approved by the Board of Education on Tuesday, also pays for phasing out four buildings that have extensive repair needs and demolishing 12 buildings including schools slated for phase-out and vacant buildings on school campuses.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The district once boasted more than 250,000 students and 200 school buildings. It now educates about 50,000 students in preschool through 12th grade and operates around 107 buildings.

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.

Vitti said the infrastructure investment is the largest since he became superintendent in 2017. 

"It’s a $700 million investment without increasing taxes for Detroiters by one penny," Vitti said. "We are just excited to do this and do it right. Down the road, we have to do these projects on time, within budget and with a great deal of quality to improve our reputation."

The plan calls for $293 million in new school buildings; $27 million to reactivate school buildings for preschool and to address overcrowding; $69 million for additions on existing school campuses; $290 million to renovate school buildings and $11 million to demolish schools.

Schools to be rebuilt include 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.

Additions will 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.

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 Elementary-Middle School; preschool centers at Fleming, Adult Ed West and Hancock; and Northern High School as a new district central office location.

Building demolitions include Post, Biddle, Van Zile, Carrie/Law, Foch and Phoenix.

The plans also calls for the phased closure of some schools and school programs including Ann Arbor Trail, J.E Clark, Catherine Blackwell and Greenfield Union.

Vitti said he is concerned that based on the latest inflation estimates, the current cost for the projects may increase in excess of the estimated inflation rate of 4.7%. 

"We are not the only district who has these funds. You are seeing this huge demand for construction work," Vitti said. "We will stay committed to new buildings, new wings, demolitions – some renovations would be vulnerable."

Public discussions on new schools are expected to begin this fall. The district will hold public engagement sessions to get input on new school building designs and features. Work could begin the following spring, Vitti said.

In 2018, Livonia-based OHM Advisors estimated it would cost $500 million to address the district's 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.