Looking to leave?

As two Detroit districts merge, uncertainty over leadership and pay stokes fear of teacher exodus in 11 schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

Stefanie Kovaleski loves teaching kindergarten at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

“I love this building. I love the kids in it,” she said as she doled out hugs and high-fives to her young students while they lined up to get their backpacks at dismissal. “I love that I have autonomy and that I’m treated with professionalism here.”

She hopes to stay in her classroom and remain a part of her students’ lives, she said, but she’s actively talking to banks and credit unions about working outside education.

“I can’t see myself out of teaching but I’ve definitely started looking in the private sector,” she said.

Kovaleski, 33, is one of many teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority who say they’re considering leaving their schools in what some fear could be a mass exodus — the kind of disruption that could drive down test scores, drive up behavioral issues and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives,” Kovaleski said of a school where 98.7 percent of students are identified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. “The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

The EAA teachers fear major pay cuts and changes to school leadership when their schools return this summer to the main Detroit school district after five years of state control. Their departures could undermine  a group of 11 schools that have weathered multiple changes and enrollment declines since they were taken out of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012 and put into the state’s recovery district.

As the two districts prepare to reunite July 1, officials in both districts say they’re taking steps to ensure as much stability as they can.

The main district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — extended offers to all EAA teachers who have not been rated ineffective so they can stay in their current jobs.

The Detroit school board this week lifted a hiring freeze that had been holding up decisions about principal and assistant principal jobs in the schools.

And leaders from both districts have been meeting regularly to discuss details of the transition, from summer school to building upgrades.

But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, EAA teachers still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who their principals will be and they’ve grown impatient with the lack of information.

“Many of us now feel that our backs are against the wall,” wrote Rubye Richard, an English teacher at the EAA’s Mumford Academy High School, in one of many letters EAA teachers have written to the Detroit school board in recent weeks.

“If decisions are not made and communicated to us, we are forced to continue searching for employment in other districts,” she wrote.

The delay in teachers knowing their salaries is related to the fact that the main district is negotiating a contract with its teachers union.

If negotiations don’t change salaries much from the current contract, EAA teachers could see major pay cuts. First-year EAA teachers, who are not in a union, now make $45,000 a year compared to less than $36,000 for their unionized DPSCD counterparts.

Some of the pay discrepancy is because EAA teachers worked summers while Detroit district teachers can make extra money teaching summer school. A DPSCD spokeswoman noted that the main Detroit district also pays more generous benefits than the EAA.

But the larger impact on EAA teachers will come from the decision about how much experience EAA teachers will be given credit for when they become DPSCD teachers.

When the EAA calculated teacher salaries, it gave new hires credit for all their years of experience. That means Kovaleski now makes $65,000 a year — a salary based on ten years of teaching including four years at Bethune, one year in the Dearborn school district and five years at a Detroit charter school.

But under Detroit’s current union contract, new teachers to the district typically get just two years of credit, regardless of how long they’ve worked in other districts.

Though the contract lets the district credit teachers with up to eight years of experience under special circumstances, such as critical vacancies, teachers like Kovaleski could essentially have to start from scratch.

The current Detroit teacher contract pays $40,643 to teachers with a master’s degree and two years of experience so Kovaleski could be looking at a nearly $15,000 pay cut.

Kovaleski’s mother lives with her, has congenital heart failure and $50,000 in debt from a recent hospital stay, she said. “The bills keep rolling in so when I stop and think, man, can I afford to take [a pay cut]? I just don’t know.”

Teachers union president Ivy Bailey said she regrets that some EAA teachers might take pay cuts. But she also notes that teachers in the main district have had stagnant wages for years.

“It would not be fair for someone from the EAA with only two years to come in here and make more than a teacher who has been here and … weathered the storm through all of this,” Bailey said.

Salary Comparison

The uncertainty has already driven some EAA teachers out the door.

District data show that 43 percent of EAA teachers did not come back for the current school year — twice the attrition rate from the year before. And principals say more teachers than usual have left mid-year.

At Bethune, principal Alisanda Woods said four of her 32 teachers have left since September.

Some left because they were worried about their salaries in DPSCD, Woods said. Others left because Bethune was one of 25 Detroit schools that were threatened with state closure this year. The closures were averted when the district this month signed a “partnership agreement” with the state, but some teachers were already gone.

Massive teacher turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s part of a deliberate improvement plan, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.

In Washington D.C., public schools saw improvement as a result of teacher turnover. “It was a very high functioning school district investing a lot of effort into screening new teacher applications and encouraging ineffective teachers to leave,” Goldhaber said.

But absent an effort like that, he said, studies show that too many new teachers will hurt kids. “Even if you were to replace a teacher with a second teacher of equal quality, just the disruptive effect of a teacher leaving will have” a negative impact, he said.

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, who is leaving Detroit to start a new job in July, said she’s been working closely with her DPSCD counterparts to keep the EAA schools as stable as possible after the transition, but unanswered questions about teachers and principals are making that difficult.

“I’m really worried about the fact the we haven’t finalized offers” for teachers, Conforme said. “It’s the middle of May … That’s deeply concerning.”

The EAA schools, which were put into the district originally because of years of poor results, are still some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but most of them have seen recent improvements. Conforme said she worries that progress could be disrupted if teachers leave.

The main Detroit district is already trying to fill more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

The EAA schools saw dramatic teacher turnover back in 2012 when the new district began.

“There was a big shakeup,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who wrote a paper on the early years of the EAA. But that big shakeup wasn’t well planned, he said. “The EAA was a spectacular train wreck right out of the gate.”

These years later, he said, he was hoping the process of returning the EAA schools to the main district would be smoother. (Of the original 15 EAA schools, three have been converted to charter schools and one has closed).

Conforme said she hopes most of her teachers  ultimately will decide to stay because if they leave, families will follow.

“What families and students care about is that there’s consistency with the teachers that have been teaching them, the support staff that have been supporting them and the leaders the families have gotten comfortable with,” Conforme said. “That part is critical.”

 

Battle to buy a school

Judge orders Detroit district leader to appear after issuing a stay in charter school property dispute

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

A Wayne County judge charged with settling a dispute between charter school Detroit Prep and the main Detroit district on Friday issued a stay and demanded that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti or one of his top deputies, along with a school board member, appear in court next month to discuss the case.

“Let’s get somebody, a board member, the superintendent – that would be my preference – or the deputy superintendent would be acceptable with the superintendent available by phone,” Judge David J. Allen said. “I’m sure he’s a busy man.”

Allen agreed on Friday to postpone making a decision over the disputed former Joyce Elementary School until next month. By then, Gov. Rick Snyder is likely to have signed legislation that could help the charter school, Detroit Prep, in its quest to buy the former Joyce school.

“I would bet my house that the governor will sign it,” said Detroit Public Schools Community District attorney, Jenice M. Mitchell Ford.

Detroit Prep has been trying to buy and renovate the former school building on Detroit’s east side but has been blocked by the district’s refusal to waive a deed restriction on the property. The building is owned by a private developer but a deed restriction requires the district to sign off on all uses of the buildings other than residential. Detroit Prep filed suit against the district in October.

The legislation, which was fast-tracked this week by state lawmakers — and supported exclusively by GOP members — clarifies language barring deed restrictions on buildings to be used for education purposes. Detroit Prep asked Allen to postpone his ruling until that law is signed.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.” Vitti said in an email to the state House Education Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Tim Kelly.

Detroit Prep’s lawyer, Jason R. Gourley, said that the bill could “be on the governor’s desk as early as next Tuesday.”

Battle to buy a school

Michigan House passes bill that will help local charter in its fight against the Detroit district

State Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the Education Reform Committee, speaks on Senate Bill 702

GOP State House representatives today fast tracked a bill that will help local charter Detroit Prep in its fight against the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The bill, which was passed without the support of a single Democrat, clarifies language on deed restrictions, making it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use them to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer. The district invoked a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property. Detroit Prep, seeking more room for its growing student population, then filed suit in October against the district.

In December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in an email to state Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee, that the proposed legislation would affect the district’s ability to fight Detroit Prep in court.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.,” Vitti wrote.

Representative Kelly has been a vocal critic of Vitti’s actions in the case, seeing the blockage as part of a larger pushback by the superintendent against charter schools. In a heated exchange at a hearing in Lansing last November, he aimed at Vitti, saying, “The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now. Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

The bill passed on Thursday clarifies a law that’s already in existence, Kelly said during the hearing, “but currently being flouted in certain areas of the state.”

The matter now shifts to the Wayne County Circuit Court on Friday, where the charter and district lawyers will meet at a hearing on Detroit Prep’s request for a delay in the case to give the bill enough time to be signed into law by the governor. Meanwhile, the district is arguing for the case to be thrown out altogether.

“I’m curious about the timing of this hearing when the judge is considering this case already,” said State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) during the hearing. “Is it appropriate for us to be pushing this legislation when there is a court hearing scheduled for tomorrow?”