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Deal to hand Detroit school over to non-profit raises questions

Durfee Elementary-Middle School in Northwest Detroit
Jenna Belevender
Durfee Elementary-Middle School will be turned over to the non-profit group Life Remodeled, and the 600 students will be moved into the high school next door.


Durfee Elementary-Middle School on Detroit’s northwest side is a spectacular neo-gothic building flush with architectural detail. As you walk through the main entrance, you’re greeted by highly decorative arches, rich paneling, and Pewabic-tiled floors.


Built in the early 1900s, generations of Detroiters have attended Durfee.  


“It’s where block clubs hold meetings, it’s where parents hold their parent meetings, it’s where students during school, after school use the outside facility to play, they use it to vote. It is the center of our community,” says community leader Lisa Leverette.


But earlier this year, Leverette and her neighbors found out the school district had quietly cut a deal to lease Durfee to a non-profit, which plans to turn the school into a privately run business incubator.


“This is an issue that sits at the intersection of development and education," says Leverette. "It’s outside folks and entities in the city profiting off of the backs of black and poor children."

Questions about how deal came about, who benefits

Details about the deal are vague. Judge Steven Rhodes, then the transition manager of Detroit Public Schools, signed the 20-year, $1 per year contract with the non-profit group Life Remodeled. He says he can’t remember who brought Durfee to his attention, or recollect how the one dollar per year price tag came about. Rhodes signed the lease on December 30, 2016, his last day on the job.


“I remember that the leadership of the [Life Remodeled] organization was very eager to get it done,” says Rhodes.

Judge Steven Rhodes turned Durfee over to a non-profit in a 20-year, $1/year lease on his last day as transition manager for Detroit Public Schools.

Life Remodeled's stated goal is to spend $5 million in cash, labor and materials on one Detroit neighborhood each year. CEO Christopher Lambert says the idea for Durfee wasn't his.


“The person who brought the idea up initially was interim superintendent [Alycia] Meriweather and the executive team came up with that idea. We met over several months and eventually we were able to work out an agreement,” says Lambert.

Detroit Public Schools Community District neither confirmed nor denied that interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather brought the idea to Life Remodeled. In a statement, DPSCD wrote:


Under the leadership of Judge Rhodes an arrangement was made with Life Remodeled as indicated in the lease agreement. The newly elected board was not yet in place. There was no formal moratorium issued regarding school closures. Rather Judge Rhodes stated he would not close any schools.

But Durfee is closing, and the 600 students currently enrolled there will be moved into nearby Central High School.


Parents worry about move to high school


Natasha Johnson has two kids at Durfee. She says she's not happy with the decision to close the school, and doesn’t want her eight-year-old in the same building as high school students.


“I don’t think they’re thinking about the children," Johnson says. "They're thinking about the nickel and dimes of things, and when you think of the nickel and dimes of things, kids get lost in the shuffle.”


Life Remodeled has promised the business incubator will provide learning opportunities for Detroit students. But Johnson says she's skeptical.

"They're thinking about the nickel and dimes of things, and when you think of the nickel and dimes of things, kids get lost in the shuffle."


“This doesn't benefit my child,” says Johnson. “Work on bettering the students, work on decreasing class sizes, work on paying the teachers more."


And other critics see transparency problems.


“So many times, these deals are done behind closed doors and nobody can actually trace whose idea was it, who was pushing it," says Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University who closely follows issues around equitable development in Detroit. "If it’s a valuable community asset, the community has a right to have a voice in how that asset is going to be distributed."


Controversial land deals are nothing new in Detroit. In 2012, investment banker John Hantz and his company, Hantz Farms, purchased 140 acres of what many consider prime real estate from the city for far below market rate.


In 2014, the city sold 39 parcels of land to billionaire Mike Ilitch for $1 for a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, several privately owned pieces of land were sold in the arena's footprint for millions.  


Redevelopment in a neighborhood in need of investment


Life Remodeled says it plans to rent the space in Durfee to entrepreneurs for $1.25 per square foot. Lambert says they expect to exceed 75% occupancy within three years.


And some neighbors are thrilled about the deal.


“This community has been so underdeveloped for so long,” says Barbara Flowers, a lifelong resident and owner of multiple businesses in the neighborhood.


“It’s like we’ve been through some type of war when you look at it. New money has been invested into this community which will breathe new life into the community."