EM’s School Closing Game: Tragedy for Students, Community

Detroit, MI—The School board is in the dark; parents are angry, the community is under threat and students, many of them special needs, face loss.

This is the newest round of emergency manager dictated school closings, announced without parent, board or community input.

Retired auto company employee Roy Roberts, the emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, announced April 11, that only four schools were to close before the 2013-2014 school year begins.

Roberts also announced reorganizations. The affected schools include: Oakman Orthopedic — pre-school through grade five will close — with most students transferred to Noble Elementary-Middle School, 16 blocks away and across Grand River; Davis Aerospace Academy will be moved from city airport requiring students to commute to the hangers; Northwestern will be internally shuffled and renamed Detroit Collegiate Preparatory at Northwestern.

Board President Lamar Lemmons calls the Northwestern High School closing a “pre-charterization” move. The alumni group is fighting the plan. Over 200 persons attended a special meeting April 20, after Alumni Association president Joe Barber sent an email blast warning, “The Emergency Manager of DPS Roy Roberts has dictated to NWHSAA (Northwestern High School Alumni Association), parents and the staff that he is closing Northwestern. His plans are to have another ‘unproven’ high school occupy the building.”

Across the city, those affected argue the closings are not justified, nor has the EM provided factual justification for his plans. Lemmons says the plan is “the further dismantling of DPS.”

DPS loses, on average, 60 percent of the students when a building closes, Lemmons said. As this paper reported exclusively last year, over 54,000 Detroit resident students are enrolled in suburban districts. They live in Detroit, but learn in the suburbs or charters.

“We are in the dark,” Lemmons said in an interview. “He [Roberts] hasn’t provided any rationale. We have no information whatsoever.”

Lemmons said Roberts had not responded to the board’s request for the EM’s plan of action for the school closings and consolidations, “ although he is compelled to by law.”

Under Public Act (PA) 436 — the new emergency manager law Snyder pushed through the legislature in December’s lame duck session after voters defeated PA 4 in November — the board has the right to review any expenditures over $50,000 and school closing plans. The elected officials have seven days to review and an additional 10 days to draft their own plan “with the same financial outcomes.”

However, Roberts has not submitted any information about finances, expenditures, school reorganizations or closing plans, Lemmons said.

The elected board voted to request plans from Roberts at its April 11 meeting and the formal request reached Roberts, April 22, Lemmons said. Under the new EM law, PA 436 uses “educational impairment” as a measure of a plan’s disqualification.

Parents at Oakman say educational impairment is exactly what will happen if their specially designed building will close.

The Oakman school, built in 1928 with a list of notable alumni including attorney Richard Bernstein, has an enrollment of 315 students, with 60 percent of them POHI (Physically or Otherwise Health Impaired), according to Aliya Moore, co-chair of the school parent group.

She believes there are advantages for children with special needs staying at the current building. The school has a boys and girls changing room, each equipped with washer and bath tub; there is a catheterization room for the 18 students requiring catheterization daily or administration of required prescriptions; specially equipped rooms for occupational and physical therapy; the building encloses a greenhouse and the playground, which are accessible to all the children; doorways, wide hallways and no stairs keep the building easily navigable.

Oakman test scores are above DPS average, Lemmons said. And the atmosphere within the building is one of happiness and success.

“It’s more like a home, than a school,” said a teacher asking not to be named. “It’s old-timey, nurturing.”

No one, Moore said, is quite sure what repairs are required that would cost the $900,000 the EM says is needed for flooring; mechanicals and security.

Nor does anyone know, Lemmons said, the amount Roberts plans to spend to retrofit the first floor of Noble school which will receive most of the special needs children from Oakman.

And, with a rising enrollment the last two years, Moore asks, why would Roberts say the building is below capacity which he claims is 446. There is only one empty classroom, Moore said, and 315 children are now enrolled. She believes Roberts is counting the library, treatment and therapy rooms, which meet the special needs of children as underutilized space.

A neighbor who has lived across from the school for 28 years said within the last five years the Oakman building got all new windows and new brick work.

The enrollment can expect to grow. There are seven new homes across the street from Oakman with a total of 38 new, three and four-bedroom low-income homes planned for the immediate neighborhood, according to the Web site for Kendall Homes Detroit, the builder.

Some parents speculate Roberts wants the building for a charter, since it is solid and the neighborhood is on a rebound. If he leaves the building empty, “it will devastate the neighborhood,” Lemmons said.

The Detroit Future City plan labels the neighborhood as one which can go either way — further decline or improvement and repopulation. An empty school building, following the closing of the renovated nearby Parker School three years ago, will likely tip the neighborhood toward ruin.

“They just don’t care about our children; that’s all,” said Moore. “It’s about their power.”

Roberts again did not respond through his communications director to a request for answers to questions from this newspaper.