We Bought a School

After news this week that Governor Snyder lifted the limits on the number of charter schools operating in Michigan, you may be asking yourself, "What's stopping me from opening my own charter school?" Not much, in all likelihood. The legislation promises new reporting and accountability standards, but without a pesky union to negotiate with, you can hang a shingle and be the next SuperNintendo Chalmers. You'll want to choose a name for your school that exudes credibility and markets the particular mission of the school. Assuming it's still available, I recommend Academy for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.

Of course, if you're going to have a school, you're going to have to have a school. Good news: it's a buyer's market. The Detroit Public Schools Office of Real Estate currently has 81 schools listed for sale. I had never seen this site before today and now I can't tear myself away from it. If you can say one thing about the new DPS, it's that they've overcome a legacy of shady deals to be transparent almost to a fault. If you can say another, it's that they still own a lot of the old DPS' property.

I have no desire to open the Pandora's Box of the -- to put it diplomatically -- staggering challenges facing DPS. I spend a lot of time in Detroit schools and am consistently struck by how welcoming and functional they are, in spite of having the deck stacked against them. But I'm a sucker for data (and bullet points) and DPS' real estate portfolio just begs to be mined:

● The buildings combine for over five million square feet, just a little smaller than the Renaissance Center. (The properties, at least online, are more navigable than the RenCen.)

● The average vintage of the structures is 1935. Not surprisingly, after five from 1930, none of these was built for a decade. One from the Class of '30 is Dixon. I have more emotional attachment to Dixon than any school I actually attended, after spending three summers painting murals and leading youth programming there. When Dixon (the building) closed, Dixon (the school) took over Lessenger (the school and the building), but they lost some irreplaceable architecture in the move. Principal Beard says that, when she wants to see similar woodwork, she goes to The Whitney. But you don't have to take my word for it!

● The oldest buildings are a pair from 1905. Just imagine Jefferson East in 1905 -- it boggles the mind! When the cornerstone was laid in the building (most recently known as Trombly Alternative High School), Pewabic Pottery had opened shop but two years earlier and half a mile away. And both are standing guard, just a stone's throw from the River, over one hundred years later. Pewabic's kilns will probably still be firing away in another hundred. Trombly could survive this century too if someone picks it up before it falls down.

● Trombly has only only been closed since 2010, so it's probably in reasonably good shape. In fact, the least recent closures were two in 2003 and the average closure was 2008. Admittedly, many of the structures were probably mortally wounded before their official closure -- I think the Achilles' heel for Dixon was its prehistoric boiler -- but others should be in impressively good condition. The odds are good that the district pumped real money into some, in spite of their bleak long- (or medium- or short-) term prospects.

● But think about that for a moment: less than ten years ago, all eighty of these buildings -- and dozens of others than have been sold or "chartered" or demolished -- were open.

● To say the least, Tammy Deane has her work cut out for her. She is the district's real estate director. There are no prices listed for the property. Just "Highest/Best Bidder," which hyperlinks directly to her email address. Each prospective offer -- and there will be offers -- deserves a careful cost-benefit analysis: revenue up and liability down, but forever foreclosing on "higher/better" purchases or land uses. Before she got into real estate, Ms. Deane was a foster care worker, so at least she knows what it's like to work with orphans.

● These listings, mind you, are not an invitation to urban spelunkers looking for the next ruin-porn centerfold. According to the instructions, viewing a property is contingent upon "evidence, satisfactory to the District in its sole discretion, that the prospective party constitutes a viable and serious purchaser or lessee." They do note, however, that "all offers will be considered." The school district's most ironic (an unnecessarily capitalized) condition: "There are NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN THE PROPERTY during the showing appointment."

There's really no end to the conjectures and deductions that DPS' real estate endeavor invites, but here are a few quick hits:

● There is an offer pending for Redford High School, which bodes well for the prospective Northwest Detroit Meijer. If you have your heart set on a high school, Cooley offers a comparable footprint (17+ acres) and even bigger building: 321,024 square feet. (The acreage of Mackenzie High is listed as "unknown.")

● Just look at Cooley's auditorium. Maybe Mike Ilitch could give the Fox-Theater treatment to Cooley -- he graduated from there in 1947. Even conspiracy theorists shouldn't expect Jimmy Hoffa (Class of '59) to emerge as the Cooley's savior.

● If you're more interested in green(brown)field development than a building, DPS has fifteen vacant parcels available. Mad for midtown? Go west, young man and stake your claim to the edge of Woodbridge -- 20 prime acres at Forest and Grand River.

● Orange you glad you didn't pay a premium for Barsamian (two blocks northwest of Woodward and Grand Boulevard) before the light rail line got the axe?

● If you're more interested in the other end of Woodward, it appears most of Pontiac's assets are now for sale.

Webster Elementary School is in a great location in/near Southwest Detroit/Mexicantown/Hubbard Richard/Hubbard Farms/Clark Park/Summer in the City. Or it could just be a strategic acquisition if you want standing to give Matty Moroun hell. Expect him to return the favor.

Four active schools have their expiration date posted on the site -- "Available 6/2012." One of them, OW Holmes, anchors Romanowski Park near the Dearborn border, and has (had) a great principal and a diverse, active student body. I hope they like charter schools as much as the governor.