DETROIT – Legislators are questioning the use of funds by the Detroit Public Schools Community District amid a lawsuit over an abandoned elementary school.
Detroit Preparatory Academy is trying to buy the elementary school, renovate it and move in, but the district is blocking the move. Lawmakers said the district shouldn't be fighting it or spending money to do so.
For children at Detroit Prep Charter Academy, they're in the basement of a church, the classrooms are small and the playground is in the back corner of a parking lot.
That's why Kyle Smitley, the executive director of the school, is eyeing Anna Joyce Elementary, which is a former DPSCD school. The school was sold in June 2009 and has been falling apart ever since.
"I can just envision our kids here," Smitley said. "I can envision how bright and joyful it's going to be. ... We think that with some TLC it can be a perfect, joyful place for our students. We love the neighborhood."
Detroit Prep is trying to buy the school, but they can't get the title because DPSCD has placed a deed restriction on the property, limiting its use despite no longer owning it.
But the Michigan Legislature changed the law, making those restrictions illegal. It was a hot topic at Thursday's hearing with DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
"We, as a school district, find the act problematic, that it usurps the right of elected school boards to determine the future of their own assets," Vitti said.
"The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now," House Education Reform Committee Rep. Tim Kelly said. "Whether you like them or not, whether it's good for your district or not, is immaterial. It's the law."
"This is a political fight about charter schools versus traditional public schools," Kelly said. "They don't want another charter school open in their district. That's what this is about."
The biggest sticking point for some residents is the district's use of funds to defend the lawsuit.
"There should be no resources sent by DPSCD for a building that they do not own to prevent kids from learning in the city of Detroit," House Education Reform Committee Rep. Daniela Garcia said.
In the meantime, Smitley said she appreciates Vitti's passion, but finds it misdirected.
"You can be a great advocate for your students and simultaneously all students in Detroit, and following the law," Smitley said.
There isn't necessarily a deadline, but Detroit Prep is out of room and would like to move into the building by the next school year. Contractors said they could fix up the building in time, but they would need to start in January.
The charter school has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to clarify the law and make a ruling. There was a hearing in October, but the judge has yet to make a decision.
A DPSCD spokesperson said they don't comment on pending litigation.