SVSU drops bid for charter school in Ferndale district

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Plans to open a charter school in the Ferndale Public Schools have been shelved in the wake of opposition from the district and revelations that the would-be operator has a felony record.

Saginaw Valley State University, which was to be the authorizer of the proposed Victory Academy of Science and Technology, released a statement Friday saying the university would not go forward with the school.

"Leaders of Saginaw Valley State University’s School-University Partnership Office spoke with leaders of Victory Academy of Science and Technology (VAST Academy), a proposed charter school, late Thursday night," university spokesman J.J. Boehm said. "As a result of that conversation, VAST leaders have formally withdrawn their application seeking to have SVSU authorize the school. SVSU will not be authorizing VAST Academy."

The controversy over the school has drawn comparisons with the debate in the Legislature over whether to limit the opening of charter schools in Detroit as part of a rescue of the financially troubled Detroit Public Schools.

SVSU had pulled possible approval of the school off the May agenda for the university’s Board of Control after opposition surfaced from Ferndale school officials.

District Superintendent Blake Prewitt had written SVSU officials earlier this month to protest the planned charter school, arguing it would duplicate services offered by the Ferndale schools and objecting to the academy’s proposed operator, Michael Bartley, whose most recent listed address is in Southfield.

According to public records, Bartley pleaded guilty to fleeing from police in 2007 and was sentenced to probation.

Bartley did not respond to phone messages.

Plans called for the school to be housed at the site of a former charter school, the Academy of Oak Park, on Mendota Street in Royal Oak Township.

Prewitt met Thursday with two SVSU officials regarding the proposed school.

I would like to thank SVSU for not allowing this charter school to open," he said Friday. "I hope this experience leads to changes on the state level regarding oversight of charter schools especially in the application process."

Prewitt said an alternative high school shouldn’t be opened practically down the street from the district’s University High School, a college-prep school that’s run in partnership with Wayne State University.

“There is no need for another school because all they’ll do is pull from the current schools,” he said.

State Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, also had expressed concern about Bartley and the proposed charter school in a statement Thursday. Wittenberg said a tutoring company run by Bartley, Metro Educational Concepts, received a grade of D+ from the Michigan Department of Education in 2007-08.

According to a document posted on the department’s website, 13 percent of teachers “agreed this tutor positively impacted students’ learning,” compared with a statewide average of 41 percent.

“I urge the SVSU president and board of control to not authorize the V.A.S.T. school in the Ferndale school district,” Wittenberg said. “With all that is happening with Detroit Public Schools, we do not need to open another school without any oversight or accountability measures.”

The dean of education at SVSU, which authorizes 18 charter schools throughout Michigan, acknowledged the school was not initially aware of Bartley’s criminal record.

Dean Craig Douglas and David Lewis, SVSU’s charter school supervisor, met Thursday with Prewitt to discuss the proposed charter school.

Asked if he knew about Bartley’s background, Douglas said he did not.

“Typically, unlike you or me, a background check is not conducted on a group that puts together a concept for a charter school,” he said. “But we want to be fair and thorough, and that’s why we are doing our due diligence.”

Douglas said he was in town not only to meet with Prewitt, but also to see the vacant charter school site.

“I want to eyeball the facility and see how close it is to the other school and to see if it will be a good fit,” he said. “I did not know much about the area, so we’re going to get (our) feet on the ground.”

Wittenberg said the controversy raises questions about the role of charter authorizers and their supervision by state education officials. He called for state school Superintendent Brian Whiston to investigate.

A state Department of Education spokesman did not immediately respond to a message Thursday.

He cited a report from the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based think tank, that listed SVSU as one of the state’s worst-performing charter authorizers. According to the report, one-fourth of their eligible schools ranked among the lowest performing 10 percent of schools statewide, according to the Michigan Department of Education’s 2013-14 accountability rankings.

Douglas challenged those findings, saying the report claiming SVSU has a poor record “relies upon methodology that is flawed, in our view.”

“ Among other deficiencies, it does not take socioeconomic status into consideration, when that is widely acknowledged to be a factor in student performance,” Douglas said.

Prewitt said moving forward, universities “should spend time researching the people who want to run charter schools.”

“If a superintendent of schools can find through simple Google searches about these individuals, I would expect a university to do a much more exhaustive search in a year and a half,” he said. “Our kids deserve the best.”

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