Editorial: Detroit school fight only hurts kids

The Detroit News

Kyle Smitley wants to take an abandoned elementary school, fix it up, and then move her growing charter school into it. It would be a boon for families in the Indian Village neighborhood and transform an eyesore into a vibrant part of the community.

Sounds like a great plan, right? To her dismay, however, the co-founder of Detroit Prep can’t proceed with her vision because Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been fighting the sale of the building. Smitley took the matter to court last fall.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District doesn’t even own the former Anna Joyce Elementary School, vacant since 2009, after selling it to a private developer. But a deed restriction on that sale limited it to future use as a residential building. School districts do this so they can sidestep future competition.

Charter school advocates familiar with these laws say such restrictions were illegal to begin with, but lawmakers clarified the language last year to make it more obvious that school districts or local governments can’t prohibit the sale of a school to a charter school.

The 2017 law was spurred by the Detroit school district’s 2014 transfer of 77 vacant buildings and lots to the city as a way to reduce debt. That resolution, signed by Mayor Mike Duggan, prohibited the city from selling the properties to a charter school that would be in close proximity to a DPS school.

Despite that law, Vitti refused to back down from the deed restriction to allow Smitley to complete the purchase of the school. Her 80 students currently meet in the basement of a church, and she had wanted to have a new school renovated and ready to go by this fall. That’s looking increasingly unlikely, given the legal fight.

So lawmakers stepped in this month, quickly passing yet another bill related to the sale of school buildings, expanding the definition of deed restrictions.

This was done specifically to help Smitley in her efforts, and it should remove any loopholes in the language that Vitti and the judge (seemingly sympathetic to the district) were upholding.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township and chair of the Education Committee, sponsored the legislation.

“It took two tries at it to make sure the legislative intent for the law was clear,” Pavlov said. “And not just for Detroit, but clear for all districts that are grappling with this idea of having to close buildings and re-purpose them and sell them off.”

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation Friday.

The vote — not surprisingly — was partisan, with no Democrats supporting the stronger language. And while some Democrats, including Rep. Stephanie Chang of Detroit, have offered their quiet support to Smitley, their voting record says something else entirely.

“We are so, so grateful to folks for sticking up for our kids,” Smitley says. “We are so disappointed in our Detroit reps for choosing politics over their own constituent children.”

Given this latest legislative effort, Vitti seems to be changing his stance. He told The Detroit News earlier this month that the district “will no longer argue that the (law) is inapplicable.”

That’s good to hear. This is a fight that’s hard to defend, given the benefits for kids and the community by allowing the school sale to proceed.