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Invading Detroit

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

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

But Romulus officials are undaunted and unapologetic. The competition, they say, will mean better service for students who have quit school. They dismiss concerns about the district making a profit, saying that 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 Carr, assistant superintendent for the 4,100-student Romulus district. "This is break-the-mold."

Amid the mounting turf war between the two districts, the first full week of classes at the new school was cut short in early October when city officials closed the six-story building pending a safety inspection. "They just decided, without anybody's knowledge, to grab a building and open a school," said Robert Michalik, Detroit's fire marshal. He denied that the school was unfairly singled out for inspection, as some have suggested.

A school official said that any code violations would be cleared up quickly and that the Baron-Romulus School of Choice would open again soon. Meanwhile, state education officials suggested that new legislative action may be needed to resolve the jurisdictional dispute.

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

Company recruiters went door to door in Detroit signing up as many as 1,000 students for the new school, which will focus on job training. Students will receive a $50 transportation and meal stipend every two weeks if they maintain an 80 percent attendance rate.

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

But school officials in Detroit argue that Romulus has 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," Carter said. "We don't need colonizers to come in to set up shop and make money." He and other Detroit officials are hoping the state department of education will refuse to reimburse Romulus for the new school's students.

Robert Harris, spokesman for the department, said that Romulus found a loophole in the choice law, a loophole that only the legislature could close. He did not know whether the school would qualify for state funds.

Peter Bakema, part owner of Baron Schools, declined to say how much money his company has already put into the school and denied that profit is his sole motive on the project. "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."

"If students in Detroit are going to go to a Romulus school that's more convenient to where they live, what's the problem?" asked Ted Kolderie, a senior associate with the Center for Policy Studies, a nonprofit education research and advocacy group in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Romulus plan, Kolderie said, is a good example of how "the old public utility model of schools is breaking down."

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