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The plot (to buy a Detroit school building) thickens: Efforts to keep sold property from housing charter schools might have become illegal

The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.
Anna Clark

The co-founder of Detroit Prep had a problem when trying to buy an old Detroit school building for her charter school: When the city school district sold the building to a private real estate company in 2009, it reserved the right to reject any use beyond housing for the next decade.

This week, the restriction threatened to hold up the developer’s sale to Kyle Smitley, Detroit Prep’s co-founder, at least until she explained that she promised to pay the district $75,000 on top of the $750,000 she was spending for the building.

But according to a group that lobbies on behalf of charter schools, that restriction might have been rendered void over the summer. The group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told Smitley about a law that became effective on July 13 that aims to “limit the powers of local governmental bodies regarding the selling, transferring, leasing, or renting of property; and to provide remedies and penalties.”

Section 5(2) of the law reads: “A local governmental body shall not impose any deed restriction that prohibits property sold, leased, or transferred by the local governmental body from being used for any lawful educational purpose by an educational institution or private school.

“Any such deed restriction in effect on the effective date of this subsection is void.”

Alycia Urbain, the group’s vice president of government and legal affairs, said in an email to Smitley and representatives of her school’s authorizer, that the law appears to clear the way for Smitley to purchase the old Anna Joyce building but there could be some legal complications.

Smitley received the advice with cautious optimism. “We win, it seems!” she wrote in an email passing MAPSA’s analysis along.

The Detroit school district did not immediately return a request for comment.

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