MichiganVotes Bills

House Bill 5025 does not fix any problems, creates new ones

Measure would let school districts block charter schools and others, from using discarded school buildings

Michigan lawmakers are debating and may repeal a little-known law called the Educational Instruction Access Act. The law was enacted in 2017 and owes its existence to school officials in Detroit who tried to prevent a charter school from using one of their vacated buildings — one they had already sold. All the law does is prohibit school districts from blocking a different school from using their former buildings.

Detroit Prep was a successful and growing charter school in 2017that needed more space. It found the perfect fit: A private developer offered to sell an architecturally beautiful, but dilapidated, historic elementary school. The building, once owned by the Detroit school district, was in the community the school served.

But there was a problem.

Detroit school district officials had placed a deed restriction on the building when they sold it to the developer. This prohibited anyone from using the building as a school. That’s right: The taxpayer-funded public school district blocked another public school from using a former public school to educate children.

Why would the district do this? It’s simple: to make it more difficult for other types of schools, especially public charter schools, to serve children in Detroit. The district views other schools as competitors and suggests that limiting their access to local facilities somehow benefits the district. But deed restrictions do nothing to benefit the kids and parents who live in the city.

The Educational Instruction Access Act fixed this problem by prohibiting school districts from denying children educational options through deed restrictions. Detroit Prep got its school. The building, once an eyesore and crime hub, has become a valuable neighborhood asset. There’s no good reason why the Michigan Legislature should consider repealing this law.

This was evidenced at Tuesday’s hearing on the bill, House Bill 5025. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield, was joined by several local officials and government advocates. They struggled to make a case for the bill and offered up little more than red herrings. Most shied away from the fact that the bill would let districts block other schools from serving children.

Proponents of the bill conveyed heartfelt concerns for preserving old school buildings. The bill sponsor pointed to the potential demolition of a century-old school, the former Roosevelt Elementary in Keego Harbor, as a reason to repeal the current law. Many members of the committee expressed similar concerns for historic school buildings. But several presenters implied that the current law leads districts to demolish their vacant buildings. The bill, they suggested, would keep this from happening.

It should surprise no one that school districts in Michigan have vacant school buildings on their hands. Enrollments have been on the decline for more than a decade. Many factors influence decisions about what to do with these buildings, and school boards do not treat these questions lightly. Whether a district can apply a deed restriction on the future use of the building should have a minuscule impact on the decision to raze an old school.

That said, some school districts may be demolishing vacant buildings solely to prevent a charter school from ever using it. A member of the West Bloomfield Board of Education, the district that houses the former Roosevelt Elementary School, said the quiet part out loud at the committee hearing.

“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,” said Carol Finkelstein. Members of the board would apparently rob the community of a public building, even a historic and cherished one, rather than risk its being used in the future in a way they didn’t like. How does that benefit the interests of the local community?

Supporters of the proposed bill also implied that it would return control of unused school buildings to local communities. This is another red herring. School districts have never surrendered their control of vacant facilities. They can now, under existing law, freely sell, renovate or repurpose their vacant buildings. Nothing prevents districts from selling their vacant buildings to developers who could turn them into affordable housing, community centers, indoor farmers markets or anything else. The bill under consideration will not change any of that.

A lack of deed restrictions is not the most important factor that prevents old school buildings from serving communities in new ways. The problem is more likely burdensome regulations. Anyone seeking to convert vacant schools into something useful must navigate a network of laws — state rules, local building codes, zoning ordinances, permitting requirements and more. The process is complicated and seems only to grow over time. House Bill 5025 is the wrong tool for increasing the number of vacant school buildings repurposed for other uses.

All the Educational Instruction Access Act does is remove a district’s power to keep one of its former buildings from being used for educational purposes sometime later. It does not require districts to sell to other schools and it does not diminish the control they have over their assets. Districts are free to dispose of their vacant schools as they wish. If people disagree with how their districts use their vacant buildings, they should address the issue where it matters: at the next local school board meeting.

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.