The dispute between the Detroit school district and a charter school over the use of a former district building is coming to a head this week, with the state House taking up a related issue on Thursday, the two sides headed to court on Friday — and powerful forces like the Wall Street Journal weighing in on the side of the charter.
The charter, Detroit Prep, may get some support for its legal case from the state House, which will hold a hearing on Thursday on legislation affecting such building sales. The House is considering a bill that, if approved, would make it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use deed restrictions to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.
District and charter school lawyers will also face off on Friday at a hearing in the Wayne County Circuit Court that will take up Detroit Prep’s request that the case be halted long enough for the house bill to pass.
The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer, taking advantage of a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property.
Detroit Prep had wanted to buy and renovate the vacant building in Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood to house its growing student population. The school is currently in a church basement in nearby Indian Village.
The deed restriction meant the district will get a cut of the proceeds of the sale — roughly $75,000 — but the district has objected.
The district’s legal argument is that the deed restrictions put on many school buildings that were sold in recent years are valid and are designed to ensure that when property is sold, there is a long-term benefit to taxpayers.
“The district owns a great deal of real estate in the City of Detroit,” the district argued in a recent court motion. “DPSCD is very sensitive to the instability that a neighborhood can suffer when a school building is closed. To that end, DPSCD carefully selects the entities to which it sells property. Its property belongs to taxpayers. They are assets of the community, not private property. DPSCD is not only concerned with the purchase amount – but seeks to ensure that the potential purchaser is committed to: (i) not speculating (i.e., buying property for the purpose of investigating ways to re-sell at a profit); and (ii) offering a single consistent use for at least 10 years. These two contractual requirements are designed to lessen the impact of instability of a school closing and for the public good.”
Detroit Prep, alternatively, claims the restrictions are an unfair constraint on buildings that were built initially with taxpayers dollars. Legislation signed into law over the summer clarified that putting deed restrictions on former school buildings is illegal.
The school’s supporters also say they are not sure how allowing the building to sit vacant in an otherwise stable neighborhood is a benefit to the community.
The matter is playing out against a backdrop of simmering tensions between pro-charter school proponents and defenders of district schools. The tensions have escalated in Detroit since the arrival last spring of Vitti, who has been a vocal critic of charters, even vowing to put charters out of business by competing successfully for Detroit students.
The Wall Street Journal, a proponent of school choice, criticized the district in an editorial last week, describing the issue as “a case study in how far Detroit will go to punish charter-school students.”
“The farce is that the Detroit school district is spending money to defend the lawsuit even as it claims to lack the resources for basic education,” the editorial said.
To read more about the case, scroll down to court documents filed by Detroit Prep and Detroit Public Schools Community District in advance of the hearing on Friday.