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Rubin: District’s fear of charter schools puts historic building in jeopardy

In World
February 25, 2024

The West Bloomfield School District wants to demolish a century-old school in Keego Harbor and then figure out what to do with a 6½-acre bare spot in the middle of the tiny city.

A group of increasingly peeved Keego citizens and fans of the building would prefer to see it sold to one of the developers who’ve already made offers for Roosevelt School and want to preserve it as residences, retail or both.

It’s not hard to pick a side to root for here, and it gets easier when the district explains its objection to selling rather than bulldozing:

It doesn’t want a charter school to take over the property.

In fairness, the budget bite can be substantial when a charter school sets up shop, which is why so many fly-by-night operators do it. A student body of only 50 kids, said district spokesperson Rebecca Fannon, would siphon off in one year the entire $500,000 that one prospective buyer offered in cash for Roosevelt.

Some of the many upset Keego Harbor residents in front of Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. The West Bloomfield School District closed Roosevelt School and wants to demolish it instead of selling it, even though there have been buyers interested in the building and property.

Some of the many upset Keego Harbor residents in front of Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. The West Bloomfield School District closed Roosevelt School and wants to demolish it instead of selling it, even though there have been buyers interested in the building and property.

Then again, said Bob Hoffman, “I thought competition created a higher standard of excellence.”

Hoffman, 72, of Highland Township, owns a demolition company. “We like to wreck stuff,” he said.

But Hoffman, an Oakland County Commissioner, also likes to preserve stuff, if it’s old and significant. He’s the guy who showed up at a school board meeting last month with a $500,000 offer and a $5,000 check for a deposit, along with a promise not to sully the grounds with a charter school.

The problem there, the district has said, is a 2017 state law — passed by Republicans with a fondness for charter schools, and sparked by a situation in Detroit — that prohibits deed restrictions, easements or pinky-swears that would keep former school buildings from becoming future school buildings.

David Emerling, the informal leader of the Roosevelt support group, has an opinion in hand from a lawyer with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network that says a historic preservation easement can be a workaround to fend off pesky competitors.

Fannon said the district’s lawyers say otherwise, “and our legal experts do only in-school law.”

A gym at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor, as seen in the fall of 2023 by David Emerling, one of the mainstays in the campaign to keep the school.

A gym at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor, as seen in the fall of 2023 by David Emerling, one of the mainstays in the campaign to keep the school.

While the schoolyard dispute continues, the district is mulling bids for demolition and asbestos removal, which would cost about $500,000 at the low end and potentially as much as $1 million.

It plans to get the wrecking ball rolling come summer, which makes Hoffman wonder whether someone hasn’t been paying attention in class.

“The way school boards think … I don’t get it,” he said. “They talk about dwindling enrollment. Turn Roosevelt into housing, you get more residents.”

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Yes on screws, no on soccer

Roosevelt opened in 1920. Three stories tall, it was a high school at one point, and photos of long-past graduating classes line the hallways.

The student count was only 345, including residents, school-of-choice students and a magnet program, when a chunk of the original plaster, concrete and metal ceiling plunged through a false ceiling in June 22. The district closed the campus, which had already been scheduled to be mothballed, and sent the students to another school.

A subsequent engineering report recommended a low-tech solution for what it said was an otherwise sturdy structure: screws, to ease the load on aging nails.

Debris from a partial collapse of the original plaster, concrete and metal ceiling litters a classroom at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor. The school was closed after the incident in June 2022, in which no one was hurt.

Debris from a partial collapse of the original plaster, concrete and metal ceiling litters a classroom at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor. The school was closed after the incident in June 2022, in which no one was hurt.

Emerling, 64, an automotive engineer, sent two daughters to Roosevelt. In Michigan’s third-smallest city, all of 0.55 square miles, “that school literally is the anchor for our town,” he said.

One early proposal from the district, he said — from a planning committee that included no Keego Harbor residents — proposed replacing the school and playground with two soccer fields.

The community was less than entranced with the prospect, in his telling, so the district scrubbed the fields, stood back and waited for applause.

It’s still waiting.

Concepts and a collaboration

Other districts, Fannon said, including Walled Lake, Northville and Flat Rock, have opted to clear-cut schools for the same reason hers wants to eliminate Roosevelt.

Emerling wonders why a charter school would alight in a building that was already closing for lack of students, in a city with a population of 2,700 that’s part of a wealthy and well-regarded district.

And again, he said, the proposals he has seen have been for repurposing the building, not resurrecting its past.

Kyle Westberg, owner of the Flagstar Strand Theatre in Pontiac, topped Hoffman’s offer and promised not to let a charter school through the door. Hoffman proposed lofts, with each classroom an apartment.

Then Emerling looped him in on a call Wednesday with a builder whose sister was once Roosevelt’s principal.

His proposal included apartments and condos in the classrooms, with the gym and kitchen adapted for public use and perhaps a nonprofit’s headquarters in the mix.

“The guy dropped from heaven,” Emerling said, and Hoffman was so impressed he offered to join forces.

The district, however, still isn’t officially accepting bids.

Some frames on the wall at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor, as seen in the fall of 2023 by David Emerling, one of the mainstays in the campaign to keep the school.

Some frames on the wall at Roosevelt School in Keego Harbor, as seen in the fall of 2023 by David Emerling, one of the mainstays in the campaign to keep the school.

Though an appraisal on the property isn’t expected to arrive until later this week, Fannon said, “the offers we have received are below market value.”

Then again, they would eliminate the need to pay for demolition. But the important thing at this point remains fending off imaginary competition that might somehow take root in a historic building the district doesn’t want anymore.

Reach Neal Rubin at [email protected].

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: West Bloomfield’s fear of charter schools threatens historic building

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