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Detroit school district still suing state over threatened school closures

DPSCD Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and district staff announce new schools programs in March 2016.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
DPSCD Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and district staff announce new schools programs in March 2016.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is following through on its threat to sue the state School Reform Office, even after the state has largely backed off plans to close some of the state’s lowest-performing schools this year.

DPSCD had 16 schools on the SSRO’s “next level accountability” list, which also included eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority. EAA schools will join DPSCD after the EAA winds down in June.

While those schools will apparently be spared for now, the board says it’s going ahead with the lawsuit to “clarify our relationship with the SSRO going forward.”

The lawsuit challenges the SSRO’s right to shut down the district’s “failing” schools on several grounds.

DPSCD contends that the SSRO “failed to publish a valid annual list of the lowest achieving 5% of schools in the state, as a precedent for closure.”

The state didn’t release such a list in 2014 or 2015, initially saying schools needed time to adjust to new standardized tests. It later backtracked on that position after Gov. Snyder moved the SSRO from the Michigan Department of Education to his own office.

DPSCD also claims the SSRO was “was given powers that are ill-defined, completely open-ended and, subject to arbitrary enforcement through a legislative act that may have been a constitutional violation.”

A third claim is unique to DPSCD’s situation. It argues that DPSCD technically became a new district after a state-led restructuring of the near-bankrupt Detroit Public Schools last summer.

“Schools must be on the closure list for three years” before the SSRO can shut them down, the district argues in its complaint. “The new district has not been in operation for three years, so its schools do not qualify for closure.”

“We firmly believe DPSCD is entitled to operate schools for at least three years without the threat of closure or other SRO intervention,” school board president Iris Taylor said in a written statement. “This issue must be resolved because our parents and children deserve stability. We do not want to be in this same space again next year. We cannot be expected to grow and improve if the threat of closure continuously looms over us.”

The district is already armed with an August memo from the Detroit law firm Miller Canfield, which takes the position that as a legally “new” district, DPSCD schools are entitled to a three-year reprieve.

Gov. Snyder initially embraced that position. But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued his own opinion rejecting that argument.

The district is currently working with the Michigan Department of Education on possible turnaround plans for the 24 at-risk schools. The school board’s statement went out of its way “to make it clear that filing suit is not a rejection of MDE’s offer to enter into a partnership agreement.”

State officials have declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, which was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims Monday.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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