Lawmakers back Detroit charter in building fight

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — A growing Detroit charter school is poised to win its fight to purchase an abandoned school building in the city’s Indian Village neighborhood after Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature took action to tilt a lawsuit in its favor.

The Michigan Senate on Tuesday sent Gov. Rick Snyder a fast-tracked bill that would tighten a prohibition on the kind of school-building deed restrictions that critics say Detroit has used to discourage competition from charters.

The city’s public school district “flouted” a 2017 law by refusing to waive a deed restriction on a long-vacant building that Detroit Prep charter school is trying to purchase, House Education Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, said last week in a hearing.

Detroit Prep sued the Detroit Public Schools Community District in October, but the district argued the 2017 law did not apply to the former Joyce Elementary School building, which it had sold to a private developer with a deed restriction limiting it to future use as a residential structure.

But with the bill heading to Snyder’s desk for expected signature, the district “will no longer argue that the (law) is inapplicable,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement to The Detroit News.

“As a district, we defended the right of Detroit taxpayers and voters to determine the use of their community’s assets,” Vitti said.

Detroit Prep operates kindergarten through second-grade classes out of a church basement but wants to expand into the nearby former Joyce Elementary, which has been sitting empty since 2009. The building is “perfect” for the growing school despite its outward appearance, co-founder Kyle Smitley told legislators head of a House vote on Thursday.

“It’s been completely stripped of electrical, it is decrepit, there are holes in the roof,” she said. “But we feel strongly we can bring a tremendous about of joy and life back to the building for our kids, but also for the neighborhood that’s been held down by the blight by this abandoned building for the last eight years.”

Detroit Prep is an “intentionally diverse” school that has had “excellent” academic results, Smitley said. More than half of its students are African-American and 65 percent live below the poverty line.

The Legislature last year approved a law designed to prohibit deed restrictions that prevent school building sales to charter operators. The 2017 statute targeted Detroit’s public school district, which in 2014 transferred 77 vacant buildings and lots to the city to erase $11.6 million in debt.

Under a resolution allowing the transfer, the city was prohibited from selling any of the properties to a charter school that would operate within a one-mile radius of a traditional public school.

The 2017 law prohibits a local school or government from refusing to sell, lease or rent any property solely because a charter or private school wants to use it for a legitimate educational purpose. It also sought to void such deed restrictions.

“We believe that it already is illegal, but based on some questions during some court hearings about what is an ‘affirmative use’ versus a ‘negative use’ restriction, we just want to make sure the judge has all the information and is crystal clear on the legislative intent,” Alicia Urbain of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies told lawmakers.

Vitti had criticized the 2017 law in testimony before legislators on Nov. 30.

“We as a school district find the act problematic, that it usurps the right of (an) elected school board to determine the future of their own assets and the assets of taxpayers at the local level,” he said at the time.

Vitti said this week that Wayne County Judge David J. Allen may have agreed that existing law did not apply to the Joyce Elementary deed, so “Detroit Prep and the charter lobby procured a quickly passed amendment which was tailored to apply to this matter.”

“At all times, past and current, DPSCD knowingly follows the law,” Vitti said. “And, we will continue to do so.”

Sen. Phil Pavlov, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and sponsored the new legislation, said it simply clarifies the goal of the earlier deed restricting law.

“It took two tries at it to make sure the legislative intent for the law was clear,” said Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township.

“And not just for Detroit, but clear for all districts that are grappling with this idea of having to close buildings and repurpose them and sell them off.”

Pavlov introduced the measure in December. It was approved by the Senate in a 26-11 vote last month and by the House in a 61-45 vote last week.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, a Democrat whose district includes Detroit Prep, voted against the measure, saying she supports the charter school’s efforts but had to “balance” that with support for students in traditional public schools.

The legislation “would take away a tool that some school districts would want to pursue if they believe locally that it would help improve the chances for success of the traditional public schools in their area, as those schools work continuously to improve and thrive,” Chang said in a statement explaining her “no” vote.

While the bill applies statewide, Pavlov said legislators acted with urgency because Detroit Prep would help fill a “service gap” in the Indian Village neighborhood by expanding educational opportunities there.