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Voyageur Academy in southwest Detroit.

Voyageur Academy in southwest Detroit.

Unpaid bonuses leave former Detroit charter school teachers steaming. But who’s on the hook?

No one denies that 19 former Voyageur Academy teachers qualified for bonuses last year.

No one denies that one teacher earned $5,000 last year after her students made unusually rapid academic gains, or that her colleagues earned bonuses as high as $9,750.

But months after a total of $58,500 in bonuses were supposed to be paid out, teachers who left the school this spring haven’t seen a cent. There’s little agreement on who, if anyone, should pay them.

The dispute over bonuses for a handful of teachers underscores broader questions about whether charter school boards or the management companies they hire are ultimately responsible for teacher contracts.

In Michigan, as in many U.S. states that allow charter schools, charter school boards have the final say over the budget and school policy. But day-to-day operations — things such as hiring teachers and office staff, keeping the lights on, and paying bonuses — are typically contracted to a management company.

In the case of the Voyageur bonuses, that arrangement has led to a lot of finger-pointing.

“We don’t employ teachers,” said Gerry Richter, a lawyer for the Voyageur board, when asked about the teachers’ claims. “We contract with a management company to do that.”

That argument isn’t flying with 11 former Voyageur elementary teachers who say they want a judge to weigh in.

“That’s kind of a cheesy answer if you ask me,” said Caren Burdi, an attorney for the teachers, upon being informed of the board’s position.

“They fund the management company. Where else would the money come from?”

The management company — a non-profit organization called Promise Schools — is no longer running Voyageur Academy. Melissa Hamann, CEO of Promise Schools, says her organization is not responsible for the bonuses, either.

“As of June 30, 2018, when our term as management company for Voyageur was over, all obligations to employees assigned to Voyageur Schools were fulfilled,” she said in an emailed statement. “We were disappointed to hear that the Voyageur Board elected to pay bonuses only to those staff members who returned this fall.”

Melanie Wiggins, a former Voyageur teacher, is among the teachers who say they’re ready to pursue legal action to recover a total of $58,500 in bonuses. A letter dated Sept. 7 that the group sent to the board about their case went unanswered, Wiggins said.

“I feel disrespected,” she added. “We don’t get paid very much to begin with, but when you get offered an incentive, and it’s not followed through on — it’s unfortunate.”

Last year was a turbulent one for Voyageur, a charter school network in Detroit that enrolls more than 1,200 students. In the spring, the board began to consider hiring a new management company as part of an effort to boost test scores. Voyageur is authorized to receive state education funds by Ferris State University, a college in Western Michigan, but with its charter set to expire in June, the pressure to show improvement was mounting.

Teachers followed the proceedings closely, knowing that there was no guarantee they would keep their jobs under new management. When a new manager was hired, more than one-fourth of the teachers left for other jobs. One teacher told the board at a public meeting that he didn’t want to leave the students, but felt he had no choice “because of the leadership of the board.”

Teachers were assured in a January 2018 letter from the school board that they would receive their bonuses even if they left, but in June the board changed course, saying it had never made that promise.

Curtis Wade, board president, referred Chalkbeat to his attorney for comment.

“I was absolutely incensed,” recalled Shaina Wilson, who’d spent the first two years of her career teaching fourth grade at Voyageur. She organized departing teachers to publicly denounce the decision at a board meeting.

Labor leaders in the state have long criticized the structure of charter schools, saying employee interests can be pushed to the wayside when schools change managers.

Charter school proponents, however, say the ability to easily change administrators and staff gives schools the flexibility to try innovative approaches.

Wilson agrees. She blames the unpaid bonuses on the individual failings of school officials. Like many teachers who left Voyageur last year, she is now working at another charter school.

Still, she says she wants the school board held accountable.

“The school board is ultimately the higher power within the school system,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they don’t answer to anyone.”