Why do West Bloomfield schools fear competition?

Oakland County school district has drifted from its A+ ways

In admitting it would rather tear down a 104-year-old building than sell it to a possible competitor, the West Bloomfield School District’s honesty was refreshing.

The neighborly spirit? Not so much.

Carol Finkelstein, treasurer of the West Bloomfield School Board, said the quiet part out loud last week testifying in favor of House Bill 5025, which would repeal a Snyder-era law that denies school districts the right to put restrictive covenants in their deeds. These legal instruments prevent future owners from using a former school building to house another school.

“Roosevelt is a beautiful 104-year-old historic building that is facing demolition because we simply cannot afford to have it become a competing school,” Finkelstein said of Roosevelt Elementary School in Keego Harbor, the building at issue.

Despite winning many a school-choice battle with rival districts, West Bloomfield fears charter school competition so much it would demolish literal beauty and history to prevent it.

My journey with West Bloomfield School District began when I became a student in 1999.

My family had just moved from Inkster to Detroit’s west side. We were too late in arriving to take placement exams for Cass, King or Renaissance High Schools. And the neighborhood option, Detroit Mumford, was a non-starter.

As I pondered a return to John Glenn High School in Westland, my dad came home with another idea, many miles north: West Bloomfield High School. Dad was studying for his master’s degree and took classes at Wayne State with a man named George Fornero, who was the principal of West Bloomfield High.

My sister and I didn’t know anything about the school, other than it sounded rich. Perhaps too rich for our blood. At first glance it looked like an airport, and inside it felt like the school on Clueless.

But soon it became home.

Commuting from Detroit every day, sometimes requiring multiple round trips, was not easy. What awaited us at the end of those drives made it worthwhile: the education of a lifetime.

West Bloomfield’s superintendent at the time, the late Seymour Gretchko, was a three-decade veteran of Detroit Public Schools. He knew what we were fleeing, and he knew what West Bloomfield had to offer. He built it into the A+ school district it was at the turn of the century.

Gretchko’s biography reads: “He is dearly remembered for moving West Bloomfield School District from a mediocre school district to one of the best in the country. Dr. Gretchko was soft hearted, compassionate, demanding of excellence and a leader of unparalleled competence.”

His motto: “If I must err, let me err on the side of the child.”

Years later, I would learn from a former teacher the instruction Gretchko gave regarding school-choice students: Treat them like any other kid. Because they are.

In my three years at West Bloomfield and my sister’s four years, we never encountered anything but teachers, coaches and leaders who wanted to help.

When unrivaled competence is your calling card, what do you have to fear from competition? And if competition is good for Detroit schools and Pontiac schools, why is it bad for West Bloomfield schools?

These days, with one-third of students coming from other districts, West Bloomfield is more reliant on school choice than ever.

The district should stop talking about tearing down buildings. And get back to erring on the side of the child.

James David Dickson is a Detroit News columnist and managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at column ran first in The Detroit News on March 6.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.