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A new law, signed Friday by Gov. Snyder, prompts Detroit district to back out of property dispute with charter school

A hallway in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit. The building has been vacant since 2009.
A hallway in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit. The building has been vacant since 2009.
Anna Clark

A Detroit charter school now has a much clearer path to buy and renovate a vacant former school building on Detroit’s east side.

After Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday signed legislation giving a major boost to a Detroit charter school in its ongoing dispute with Detroit’s main school district, superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district would no longer defend a lawsuit over the school’s future.

The Detroit Prep charter school has been clashing with the district for months over the charter school’s efforts to buy the former Anna M. Joyce school in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood.

The district sold the Joyce School to a private developer in 2014 with a deed restriction requiring the property be used only for residential housing. The district has refused to waive that requirement, but Detroit Prep cited longstanding state law that made it illegal for government entities like school districts to put certain kinds of restrictions on buildings that could be used as schools.

Detroit Prep took the district to court last fall to try to enforce existing law, but the district argued that the deed restriction was legal because it believed property owners had the right to assert that properties they sell be used for only certain things such as housing.

The legislation that Snyder signed Friday essentially crushed the district’s argument, making it clear that government entities cannot put any kind of restriction on the deeds of properties that could become schools.

“At all times, past and current, DPSCD knowingly follows the law. And, we will continue to do so,” Vitti said in a statement. “Due to the amendment, the district will no longer argue that the Act is inapplicable. As a district, we defended the right of Detroit taxpayers and voters to determine the use of their community’s assets. We will continue to focus on rebuilding the district to improve performance while serving all children in the city.”

Vitti noted that the bill was passed without the support of Detroit legislators. It passed largely along party lines with Republican support in both the House and the Senate.

“Detroit Prep and the charter lobby procured a quickly passed amendment which was tailored to apply to this matter,” Vitti said. “If not for the amendment, the Act would not apply to this lawsuit.”

Detroit Prep wants to renovate the now-vacant Joyce school as a new home for its growing school. The two-year-old charter currently operates in a church basement in nearby Indian Village.

Detroit Prep director Kyle Smitley did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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