DPS dilemma: Fund education or demo

Detroit Public Schools has a dilemma every year.

More than 50 vacant schools are scattered across the city, often left to rot because the cash-strapped district must decide between demolishing the eyesores and educating children.

“If you have schools that are vacant, and you are going to spend money on that, you aren’t going to be able to spend money on educating kids,” DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts said. “That’s the paradox.”

This summer, at least four notable DPS schools will be demolished – the Paul Robeson Academy, Mackenzie High School, Mumford High School and Redford High School.

When classes start this fall, new schools will replace Mumford and the Aztec-themed Mackenzie, which are in various stages of demolition.

The most opulent of the bunch – the Paul Robeson Academy – was severely damaged in a fire last summer and needed $68 million for repairs, which compares to $35 million to build a comparably sized school, according to Roberts. The school is expected to be demolished by November, said DPS spokesman Steve Wasko.

Crews were removing asbestos this week from the mighty Redford High School, which will be replaced by a Meijer store. The adjacent ballparks and running track also will be destroyed, but a nearby park offers the same amenities.

Of the many vacant schools that won’t be demolished, they sit in hardscrabble neighborhoods, vulnerable to thieves who rip apart the structures to steal everything from copper wiring to plumbing.

Fires also are common in abandoned schools, an easy target for arsonists.

Under both emergency managers, the school system has done an admirable job securing the buildings. Some are protected by alarms, others by neighbors.

“We have to make sure that every building open to trespass is boarded up,” Councilman Gary Brown said.

A Motor City Muckraker survey of more than two dozen schools found that nearly half were open to trespass.

The cost to demolish a school ranges from $600,000 to $1 million.

View our photo gallery of these schools.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.