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State argues schools on potential closure list filed lawsuit prematurely, ask judge to dismiss

Empty classroom
Kevin Wong
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Classrooms could get crowded if cuts go through.

In January, the state’s School Reform Office sent a warning letter directly to parents at 38 low-performing schools. The letter told parents their child’s school was at risk of closing by the end of June “due to academic failure for many years” and they would get an update by March.

The schools on this list scored in the bottom 5% on state standardized tests for three consecutive years.

Since then, the School Reform Office (SRO) has taken a lot of heat from parents, politicians and educators about the process. In February, Governor Rick Snyder announced any decision on closures would be delayed until May so districts could work on “partnership agreements” with the State Superintendent.

Nonetheless, Detroit schools filed a lawsuit against the SRO two weeks ago. Public school districts in Kalamazoo and Saginaw have not dropped a separate lawsuit filed last month. Last week the state filed its response to the legal complaint. Here’s a list of some of the state’s legal responses.

  • Lawyers working on behalf of the districts in both cases argue the state does not have the authority to close their low-performing schools.

State’s legal response says: “Education is not inherently a part of the local self-government" and "Control of our public school system is a State matter delegated and lodged in the State Constitution."

  • In both cases, the school districts argue the governor violated the state constitution when he signed an executive order in 2015 moving the School Reform Office into the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget. MDTBM is a department under his control, instead of the state superintendent and the education department.

Snyder’s executive order says that since the SRO was created in 2010, hundreds of low performing schools have implemented “redesign plans” to improve academic achievement. But at that time, it notes, none of the identified under-performing schools had “implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes” nor been placed in the SRO’s reform district.
State’s legal response says: State Superintendent and State Board of Education are within the executive branch and therefore, under the governor’s control.

  • Kalamazoo and Saginaw schools argue the head of the School Reform Office has not outlined basic definitions, like what “satisfactory results” schools need to meet to keep a school open.

State’s legal response says: “The plain language of the statute is reasonably precise when read in context of the Revised School Code” and the particular section outlining the rules for SRO “even if broader than the Plaintiffs might desire."

  • The school districts claim the School Reform Office has not followed the state law outlining the process for closing schools; particularly a provision that requires the School Reform Officer to move schools that aren’t making good enough progress into a School Reform District. Only then, they say, can the office attempt to close the school.

State’s legal response says: "In their zeal to race to court, Plaintiffs have overlooked the starting line." It hasn’t happened yet, but here the state hints that it still could place these schools in a reform district or appoint a CEO if the SRO decides to. The state’s attorney notes the statute doesn’t outline a timeframe for such steps.
"The SRO is free to order a school into a Reform District at any time, or to recommend the appointment just prior to the anticipated time the CEO will be needed."

The state attorneys argue the districts filed the lawsuit prematurely, because decisions to close schools were, and are still not, final.

School Reform Office has completed “hardship reviews” to determine if kids at the schools slated for closure have adequate options nearby. But those reviews have been shelved for now while the “partnership agreements” with the state superintendents are hammered out.

Meanwhile, there's republican-backed legislation in the state senate to repeal the law that allows the state to close failing schools.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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