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For-Profit School for Dropouts Sparks Turf Battle in Detroit

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A suburban school district has opened a for-profit school in downtown Detroit and has recruited dropouts from the city's public schools to enroll in it.

The unusual arrangement, created by the Romulus district under a new statewide school-choice law, has evoked charges of colonization from irate critics in Detroit, who say it is illegal.

The school's supporters say the competition will bring better service for students who had quit school. They dismiss concerns about the Romulus district making a profit, and say nothing in the new law precludes the suburban system from opening a school in another district.

"Yes, we're in it to make a few dollars and try to do something good for our kids," said Joel R. Carr, the assistant superintendent for the 4,100-student Romulus district. "This is break-the-mold."

Amid the mounting turf war last week between the two districts, the first full week of classes at the new school was canceled when Detroit's fire marshal closed the six-story building pending a safety inspection.

A state education official said last week that legislative action may be needed to resolve the dispute. The head of Michigan Association of School Boards said, however, that the two districts had agreed to meet with an independent mediator.

"I think they're trying to de-escalate this," Justin King, the executive director of the Lansing-based group, said late last week.

The Romulus school board voted 6-1 in July to sign a contract with Baron Schools Inc., an 8-year-old Detroit company that operates one other Michigan school.

Under the choice law that took effect this summer, Romulus will get $5,300 a year in state aid for each student it enrolls in the school. It will pay Baron Schools $4,240 per student and keep the rest--more than $1,000 per student in potential profit for the middle-class suburb.

As many as 1,000 students were recruited door to door and enrolled in the school, which will focus on job training. They will receive a $50 transportation and meal stipend every two weeks if they maintain an 80 percent attendance rate.

The school was open for only two days last week before Detroit fire officials shut it down.

"They just decided, without anybody's knowledge, to grab a building and open a school," said Fire Marshal Robert Michalik. He denied that the school was singled out unfairly, as some suggested.

Peter Bakema, a part owner of Baron Schools, said in a telephone interview that any violations would be cleared up quickly, and that the Baron-Romulus School of Choice would be open this week.

Legal Questions

The new state law allows Michigan students to attend a public school in any participating district within their intermediate school district. Such districts roughly follow county borders.

But school officials in Detroit argue that Romulus had no legal authority to open a school within the Motor City.

Deputy Superintendent Arthur Carter said lawyers for the 172,000-student city district are gathering information on the school and its hiring practices for a possible lawsuit.

"This was not a well-planned, well-thought-out procedure," Mr. Carter said. "We don't need colonizers to come in to set up shop and make money."

And he hopes that the state education department will not reimburse the Romulus district for the new school's students.

Robert Harris, the spokesman for the department, said the Romulus schools found a loophole in the choice law, which does not preclude one school district from opening a school in another district. But he said he did not know whether the school would qualify for state funds.

Mr. Harris said it might take action by the state legislature to close the loophole.

Mr. Bakema of Baron Schools declined to say how much money his company has put into the project, and denied that his motives are purely for profit.

"I don't think Dr. Carter knows what he's talking about," he said. "This is not a cash cow."

Besides, he argued, "these kids don't belong to Romulus or any district. They have the right to be educated wherever they want."

Media Attention

With choice and charter school policies evolving in many state legislatures, the Detroit controversy has drawn attention from school policymakers, researchers, and the news media--including a lengthy article in the The New York Times.

If students in Detroit "are going to go to a Romulus school that's more convenient to where they live, what's the problem?" said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate with Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit education research and advocacy group in St. Paul, Minn.

He called the Romulus plan an example of how "the old public utility model of schools is breaking down."

"I still have serious questions about whether public money should go to create private profits," said Heidi Steffens, a school-privatization specialist for the National Education Association.

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