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DPS disregards its own rules in rush to close beloved community school

Analysis

By Dr. Tom Pedroni
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Former Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts could at times be disarmingly candid. One of those moments came in April as he unveiled the district’s new strategic plan. Closing more schools every year, he acknowledged, was a losing plan.

“When the team came to me with schedules for reviewing the list of schools that might have to close, I was extremely uncomfortable,” Roberts confided. “I said if this was a Fortune 500 company with a board of directors and the leadership team continued to bring that board plans year after year that did nothing to stop a loss of market share or a plant closing, the board would fire the entire team.”

Roberts, who had unparalleled authority over DPS affairs, didn’t fire his team. Instead, he set the district on a new course. Since 2009, DPS emergency managers had taken more than 100 schools off the books. Now, only four schools — not 28 — would be closed.  And these would be the last.

“I do not take the closing of any school or program lightly,” Roberts noted with gravity. “In fact, there is nothing that I take more seriously because I know the impact closing a school can have on a community.”

But Roberts’ seriousness in his decision to close at least one of those schools, Oakman Elementary/Orthopedic, is hard to discern.

Oakman serves about 300 pre-kindergarten to 5th grade children, about 40 percent of whom have special needs. Because special and general education students comingle from their first day of school, young children grow up seeing the humanity in each other. This goes a long way to eradicating the fear and stereotypes that lead to stigmatization.

The school’s distinctive features include a single floor layout, accessible entryways, rooms for performing diaper changes and catheterizations, and a wheelchair accessible greenhouse and playground. School personnel form a tight-knit, loving community of professionals who take tremendous pride in every facet of the school.

Roberts, in a message to the school’s families in April, explained the need to close the school: “Facility condition: Very bad flooring, requires new bathrooms, as well as complete security and mechanical system upgrades at a cost of over $900,000. Sharply declining enrollment: Just 288 students in a school with capacity for 446; approximately 50 percent of seats unoccupied. Lost 50 percent of enrollment since 2009.”

But the district has been unable to substantiate any of these claims.

Enrollment numbers for Oakman are readily available on the DPS Web site. Rather than declining 50 percent, enrollment has actually increased since 2009, when it stood at 265.  In 2003, DPS determined the school’s capacity to be 290 students. With an official enrollment of 288 today, the school is operating at 99.3 percent capacity.

The district maintains the building capacity is now 446, even though neither the square footage of the building nor the composition of its student body has changed. School leaders, who say they were never consulted in increasing the school’s stated capacity, surmise that the district has simply inflated the number by assuming every classroom in the school is a “regular education” classroom with a capacity of 25-33 students.

At Oakman, however, one of the classrooms in each grade is for students with physical and other health impairments. By law, such classrooms have a capacity of just 10 students.

My Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the district’s rationale for increasing the stated capacity was answered with a single line on a single page stating the school’s present enrollment.

School personnel also dispute the estimated $900,000 in needed upgrades. My FOIA request for an itemization of the needed repairs was answered, again, with a single line on a single page stating the current annual operating costs — and no itemization of needed upgrades.

When I informed the district’s FOIA coordinator that I had not received any of the requested information, which by law the district must provide, she told me that I was welcome to file an appeal.

For now, I’m filing a different sort of appeal, publicly and directly, to incoming DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin.

Martin, we need a plan for the district to win, not a plan for failure. Please revisit your predecessor’s unwarranted decision to close this commendable school.

Dr. Tom Pedroni is the associate professor of curriculum studies and policy sociology at Wayne State University.

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