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Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Erin Einhorn

The future of 4,000 students is in limbo as Detroit district delays vote on charter schools

Shortly after arriving in Detroit last year, schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti put 13 charter schools on notice: They might have to scramble to survive.

Unlike most of the privately managed, publicly funded charter schools in Michigan, these schools are not overseen by colleges or universities. Instead, the schools got their charters, or contracts, from Detroit’s main school district, which now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The district has 106 schools of its own — and those schools compete with charters for student and teachers.

Vitti announced last summer that the district was thinking of getting out of the charter school business to better focus on the schools it runs directly. He put the matter in front of the school board at a special session in November, with the expectation that there would be a vote in December.

But the matter wasn’t on the school board’s December agenda. It wasn’t on the January agenda, and Vitti now says he’s not sure when a decision will be made.

“Until the board decides to move in a different direction, we are continuing to actively support our district charters,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last week. “At this point, a special meeting has not been called to change direction. When the contracts of individual district charter schools expire, district staff will review their status and make a recommendation to the board for renewal or non-renewal.”

The uncertainty has left about 4,000 students in limbo.

The schools — including some popular schools like David Ellis Academy West, Escuela Avancemos, and Timbuktu Academy — might need to find new authorizers to stay open. And seven of the schools might even need to find new buildings because they’re currently operating in schools that are owned by the district, which could decide to use the buildings in other ways.

“To start over, we would need to find an authorizer, but also find a building,” said a member of a charter school board that leases school property from the district. He asked not to be identified for fear that speaking out could hurt his school. “We would have to attract all new students, potentially in direct competition with the district, which is something we would not be happy about. It makes me tired just thinking about it.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said schools with contracts expiring next year would need to know soon whether they must find a new authorizer and potentially new buildings. Otherwise, administrators could be left scrambling and kids could be without schools.

Five of the schools’ contracts are set to expire at the end of 2019 and a sudden decision not to renew a contract could result in students being left without a school in the middle of the school year, charter leaders say.

“They’re certainly nervous,” Quisenberry said. “They have a very uncertain future now.”

Angela Miles, a parent whose child goes to the Timbuktu Academy, said she wants the Detroit school board to make a decision. “I want there to be a vote so I know ahead of time, so if it closed I could prepare and put my kids somewhere else,” she said.

“This school is dependable – there’s latch key, there’s activities, they’re very involved,” said Okima Smith, another Timbuktu Academy parent. “This is like the last neighborhood school in this area. It would be very hard if the school closed.”

But Vitti said the consideration to potentially stop authorizing charters is not intended to close charters: “Obviously district charters are more than able to shift authorizers and continue to support students,” he said.

The district has been open about its competition with local charters for students, although it continues to oversee the 13 charters. The district can get up to a 3 percent cut of state funding for each student enrolled in those charter schools to offset administrative expenses. 

There is no specific reason why the board has not voted on the issue, Vitti said, but members will be “more precise” in evaluating the schools when their contracts expire.

They plan to look at performance, the number of schools in the neighborhood, how full schools are, financial management, whether the school serves students with special needs, and whether the site may be an option for a traditional public school.

Read the district’s list of pros and cons of continuing to authorize charters presented at the special session last year below.