Private special ed school might be forced out of building

Competition for students, space continues in southeast Michigan

An agreement between Birmingham Public Schools and a Jewish congregation might force a small, private special education school to relocate or close, according to a school founder. The case is an example of the competition in southeast Michigan between conventional public schools, public charter schools and nonpublic schools for students and space.

Learning Circle Academy, a private school for students with complex learning disabilities, has rented space for four years in the Laker Educational and Youth Complex in West Bloomfield. Started by two parents as a nonprofit tutoring program, it is now a registered nonpublic day school serving 30 students with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorder.

Bonnie McDonald, one of the school’s founders, told Michigan Education Report that she had hoped to work with the West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Department this summer on a therapeutic camp for youth with disabilities at the site, as well as summer programs in cognitive training and a social skills group.

But the Laker building is owned by Congregation Shaarey Zedek, which purchased it in 1996 from Birmingham Public Schools. As part of the original sale, the school district and the congregation signed an agreement which limits the private educational uses of the former elementary school to programs that do not cause the school district to lose revenue.

The agreement allows such noncompetitive programs as nursery school or weekend religious schools, but prohibits any educational use resulting from parents choosing to send students who are assigned to the Birmingham school district to a program offered at the Laker building instead.

The congregation was not aware that leasing space to Learning Circle Academy could violate that agreement, according to Janet Pont, the congregation’s executive director. The school’s current lease expires on June 30, after which Learning Circle Academy may not use the building, she said.

"It has nothing to do with the congregation and everything to do with the school district," Pont said. "They feel that we may be taking students out of their district that they would potentially get funding for."

McDonald said only a few of the students who attend Learning Circle are residents of the Birmingham district. The school enrolls youth from Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne and Macomb counties, she said.

"If we are put out of the building, we will be at risk of losing our status as a registered nonpublic school," McDonald said. She is working with a real estate agent to find a new location.

"Our plans are to speak with people to try to see if we can convince them to help us acquire property," she said. Another alternative is to continue to meet with students at a different location under an arrangement in which the students would be considered home-schoolers.

The building is likely to have new owners by the time the lease runs out. Temple Shir Shalom, another Jewish congregation, has signed a purchase agreement with Shaarey Zedek to buy the Laker Building. Although the sale is not expected to be final until later this spring, Temple Shir Shalom has said it will honor any agreements that were in place between the school district and Shaarey Zedek, according to Andre Douville, executive director at Temple Shir Shalom.

He said he could not comment further about Learning Circle Academy because Temple Shir Shalom does not yet own the building.

Richard Perry, the Birmingham Public Schools deputy superintendent for business services, said he learned last fall that a student who resides in the Birmingham district is enrolled at the academy. The student’s parents had contacted the Birmingham district to request additional special education services. Under federal special education law, parents who place their children in private schools may request certain special education services from their assigned public schools.

This is the first time a parent has requested services beyond those the academy provides privately, McDonald said. In this case, the student requested several hours a week of speech and occupational therapy.

Perry contacted both Temple Shir Shalom and Congregation Shaarey Zedek about the request.

"I said, ‘You need to look at the tenant to see if that seems to be a violation of the agreement,’" Perry told Michigan Education Report. He said the district could end up providing services to a student for whom it does not receive per-pupil state funding.

Learning Circle is one example of the competition between private, conventional public schools and public charter schools not just for students, but also for location, particularly in southeast Michigan. There are more than 100 nonpublic school sites in Oakland County, enrolling more than 25,000 students. When an empty school building comes on the market, it often attracts bids from either start-up schools or established schools looking to expand.

When the former Kensington Academy in Beverly Hills, Mich., announced a merger with the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills in 2006, "I was inundated with calls" about plans for the Kensington building, said Amanda Chaborek, a former Kensington staff member. "The phone was lighting up."

Most of the calls were from private secular or religious schools, she said. Chaborek is now the communications director at Detroit Country Day, a private school that currently enrolls 1,600 students at four campuses in Oakland County.

Brendan George, a broker with CB Richard Ellis in Southfield, handled the sale of the Kensington site and said his firm, too, received a number of calls from potential buyers. Some wanted to convert the site to housing or an assisted living center, but others represented schools.

The final buyer was Beverly Hills LLC, a company organized in Michigan in 2007, according to state records which list Imad Al-Azem of Franklin as the president. He did not return calls asking for information about the future use of the building.

Birmingham Public Schools has sold a number of buildings over the years, and several are now used as private school sites. The Laker Building, formerly Walnut Elementary, was one of the last to be sold, Perry said. School board members at the time asked for restrictions that would protect the school district from another potential competitor, he said.

Detroit Country Day purchased two former Birmingham schools in the 1970s and 1980s.

"If the same situation happened today, they wouldn’t sell to us," said Gerald Hansen, former Country Day headmaster and now president of the Country Day Fund. "Once the money followed the student, everything changed."

Hansen is referring to Proposal A, which shifted public school operating funding away from local property taxes and to a per-pupil foundation allowance determined by the state Legislature. Under the former system, district funding was determined by the local property tax base and millage levies. Under the new system, student enrollment determines a large share of the school budget.

Facing competition from both public charter schools and private schools, some conventional public schools have avoided selling their closed buildings to either.

The Detroit Public Schools Board of Education, for example, has said it will not lease its empty schools to charter school operators, even though school leaders and law enforcement officials announced in late February that the district has incurred millions of dollars in damage through theft and vandalism at its shuttered sites.

In 1996, state legislators revised the Michigan School Code to say that public school districts may not impose a deed restriction on property for sale that prohibits "lawful public educational use" of that property by the future owner. The revision was intended to prevent conventional public schools from blocking the growth of public charter schools, according to Leonard Wolfe, a former Michigan Senate staffer who helped draft the legislation. He now is an attorney now with Dykema, a Lansing law firm.

The code does not require a conventional public school to accept a bid from a charter school, but it prevents advance restrictions. It does not specifically address private schools.

Elsewhere in southeast Michigan, the Ypsilanti Public School District is considering selling a vacant elementary school to the Hidaya Muslim Community Association and the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor & Vicinity for use as a private school, but only because the program "would not adversely impact our school district," Superintendent James Hawkins said. "We would not want to sell to a charter school."

The Ann Arbor association operates the Michigan Islamic Academy on Plymouth Road for preschoolers through high school students, but has outgrown the site and is collaborating with the Hidaya association to move at least part of the school operation to the Ypsilanti site, according to Youcef El-Mohri, president of the academy school board. He said that academy leaders considered expanding at their current site, but later learned that the Ypsilanti building was for sale.

Hawkins told Michigan Education Report that he does not believe the sale would affect his district’s enrollment. He has encouraged the school board to agree to the $3.9 million sale and use the proceeds to help balance the 2008-2009 budget.

The Ann Arbor Academy, a private, nonprofit school in downtown Ann Arbor which serves students with learning disabilities, attention disorders or other learning challenges, signed a lease on an empty factory and converted it to a school, later adding three outbuildings which serve as studios for fine arts programs, according to Peter West, head of school. In operation since 1998, the school’s search committee now is looking for a new location that would put all programming under one roof. School leaders want to stay in the Ann Arbor area, but real estate is expensive, West said.

"As Ann Arbor Academy, we’re getting name recognition and we wouldn’t want to lose that," he said. "When we make the move, we want to make the right move."

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s quarterly education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.