Closing forever

The Detroit school district fought to keep 24 struggling schools open. At the same time, it was closing an east side charter school

The Ross-Hill Academy charter school closed its doors in June, 2017.

Leaders of Detroit’s main school district spent much of this year fighting to keep schools open.

At the same, however, the district was preparing to shut a school down.

That school, the Ross-Hill Academy charter school, quietly closed forever last month after serving Detroit children on the east side for 19 years.

The kindergarten to eighth-grade school had taken on too much debt, district officials said, and was in danger of not having enough money to stay open through the next school year.

“As a district, we always try to do what’s right for children and, in this case, it would have been irresponsible to allow a school to stay open that had really any chance of potentially leaving parents stranded,” said Kisha Verdusco, the district’s director of charter schools. “If we had allowed them to go into another school year, you’re taking a gamble that they’re not going to have enough students to be viable.”

Ross-Hill, which enrolled just 110 students last year, had been one of 13 charter schools overseen by the Detroit district.

Under new superintendent Nikolai Vitti, the district has been rethinking its approach to charter schools. That could lead to additional charter school closings in coming years. But Vitti’s predecessors have been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Unlike the 100-plus traditional schools that are managed directly by the district, charter schools have independent managers who report to independent school boards.

In its role as authorizer, the district keeps tabs on charter schools, making sure they’re academically and financially viable. The district’s charter school office determined in March that Ross-Hill was not on stable footing.

“Enrollment had been declining for some years,” Verdusco said. “We track schools’ quarterly financial performance so we were really keeping a close eye on what was going on.”

Unless the school dramatically found a way to raise enrollment, which would bring in more state dollars, officials did not believe the school could survive, Verdusco said.

A woman who answered the phone at the school said its principal and management company were not available to comment. The school closed last month.

Ross-Hill has had a mixed academic track record over the years but its low scores last year put the school near the bottom of state rankings. It ranked in the 4th percentile, behind the vast majority of Michigan schools.

The school was hardly alone at the bottom of state rankings. Of 162 Detroit schools that were ranked in 2016, 69 were in the bottom five percent of Michigan schools.

That’s part of why state officials announced plans to shutter 24 Detroit schools that had been in the bottom five percent for three years in a row.

That effort triggered loud community protests and lawsuits by school boards that led the state to back down. Instead of closing schools, state officials brokered partnership agreements designed to help them improve.

As a result, the only Detroit schools being shut down this year are charter schools. (One district school, Durfee Elementary-Middle School, is moving into the adjacent Central High School).

Ross-Hill is among at least seven charter schools in or near Detroit that closed forever last month.

Central Michigan University, the state’s largest charter school authorizer, declined to renew the charters of the Woodward Academy and the Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit; the Starr Detroit Academy in Harper Woods, the Taylor International Academy in Southfield and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck. Also closing is the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, a strict discipline academy that served children who had been expelled by other schools or referred by the juvenile courts. It had been overseen by the Wayne County intermediate school district.

At some of those schools, parents complained that they weren’t notified in a timely manner. At the Woodward Academy, some parents found out about the closing from a Chalkbeat reporter. At Taylor International, the school abruptly shut its doors two weeks before the end of the school year when it ran out of money and its management company left.

Verdusco said she took steps to make sure the closing of Ross-Hill went smoothly. A parent meeting was held in April for parents to voice their concerns about the closing and an enrollment fair helped families find other schools options.

Some parents chose district schools. Others chose charters, she said.

Converting Ross-Hill to a district school was not an option because the charter school was in a building owned by a church, Verdusco said.

Teachers stiffed

Detroit charter school teachers get tough news: Their school was in debt so they won’t get paid

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George notified teachers at the now-closed Michigan Technical Academy that they won't get their summer paychecks.

Furious teachers at a recently shuttered Detroit charter school were notified Wednesday that they won’t be paid thousands of dollars they earned during the last school year.

Teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy had contracts that required the school to pay them through the summer for work they did during the school year. But the school’s management company, Matchbook Learning, alerted teachers in an email Wednesday that the money would instead go to pay off the school’s debts.

“Last Friday, Matchbook Learning became aware that the holders of MTA’s outstanding bond debt are refusing to allow use of funds for any summer payroll and instead, are requiring that any available funds be used toward payment of the bond debt,” Matchbook’s CEO Sajan George told teachers in the email. “We are disappointed and deeply saddened by this development because this means funds will not be there for July or August payroll.”

The school, which Chalkbeat wrote about last fall, closed its doors forever last month when Central Michigan University revoked the school’s charter citing academic and financial difficulties.

The school was one seven Detroit area charter schools that closed this year including five that had been overseen by Central Michigan.

Matchbook Learning, which had been running the school since 2015, had a contract with the school’s board that expired on June 30, George wrote in the email to teachers.

“Matchbook Learning never received and does not expect to receive any funds from the MTA Board, CMU or the bondholders to fund payment of any July or August payroll — meaning Matchbook Learning is not in a position to make payment to you,” George wrote. “Unfortunately, the closing of MTA has had a severe effect on everyone involved. We thank you for your time at MTA, sympathize and empathize with your position, and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

George told Chalkbeat that his New Jersey-based school management organization, a non-profit, hasn’t been paid by the school’s board since February due to lack of funds. Matchbook is owed what he characterized as “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He said he knew Matchbook wouldn’t be paid for the last few months of the school year but that the organization stayed until the last day of class in June.

“If we left, the employees wouldn’t get paid and the school would shut down,” George said.

He said Matchbook asked the school board to approve payments that would enable the teachers to get paid in July and August. The board knew it would receive payments from the state in July and August and authorized a portion of that money to go toward paying teachers. But the bondholders are priority creditors, meaning they get paid first. The bondholders have refused to allow money to go to the teachers, George said. 

“Ultimately it wasn’t in our control,” he said.

The school borrowed about $16 million for building improvements when it first opened and only about $1 million had been paid off when the school closed last month, George said. Had the school stayed open, it would have continued to receive money from the state that could have been used to make payments on the debt. Without money coming in, the creditors moved to collect as much as they could. 

Angry teachers say they’re contacting lawyers in hopes of trying to collect what they’re owed.

“That’s money that we’ve all worked for,” said Maeve Rochon, a kindergarten teacher who said she’s owed around $5,000. “That’s for time we spent in those kids’ lives, doing our jobs. We all stuck it out to the end and now you’re telling us the money we worked for, we’re not going to get?”

Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said there’s not much the university can do to help the teachers.

“Some creditors of Michigan Technical Academy have ordered an acceleration of payments due on Academy loans,” Brzezinski wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The acceleration of payments means that the Academy received no funds from the scheduled July 20, 2017 state school aid payment sent by the state of Michigan. The Academy board and the Center had been working with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Treasury officials to ensure continued flow of state aid through July and August to allow the Academy to meet payroll and other outstanding obligations. Unfortunately, the decision of the creditors to accelerate payments under the Academy loans means that there will not be sufficient funds for the Academy to process the July 31, 2017 scheduled payroll and there may not be sufficient funds to meet the August payrolls.”

Brzezinski encouraged teachers to contact Matchbook or the Wage and Hour Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!