State-controlled DPS neglects schools as they flood, get hammered by thieves

Van Zile Elementary School is submerged in water. By Dan Sommers III
Van Zile Elementary School is submerged in water. By Dan Sommers III

Update: The flooding at Van Zile Elementary School continued as of Dec. 1. 

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker

Classrooms at Van Zile Elementary School are submerged in several feet of rising water. Two cars are abandoned in the hallway of another east-side school. And thieves are gutting vacant schools that were closed to trespass just a month ago.

Detroit Public Schools, which is run by the state, has an ugly history of failing to safeguard its abandoned properties, but the problem is worsening at an alarming rate and at a time when Mayor Mike Duggan may soon take over the vacant schools. And no one from DPS wants to talk about it.

Van Zile Elementary School is an architectural gem. By Dan Sommers III
Van Zile Elementary School is an architectural gem. By Dan Sommers III

Dan Sommers III, who has chronicled the demise of the abandoned schools over the past several years, spotted serious flooding late last week at Van Zile Elementary School on East Outer Drive near Mound. The electricity was still on as water gushed unimpeded. Just two miles west, Sommers found flooding and ceaselessly running water at the vacant John Marshall Elementary School.

Another nearby school, Mason Elementary, has been hammered by thieves.

“The schools aren’t in bad neighborhoods,” Sommers said. “They need to be protected. Plus, they’re historic buildings.”

Sommers and others who monitor abandoned DPS schools said there has been a sharp increase in the number of schools being broken into and ravaged.

“The scrappers break in and pop out a window or bust off a door or a VPS panel,” Sommers said. “Then they destroy the control box to the cameras.”

Zack Blackerby, who also monitors DPS schools, found what appeared to be stolen cars dumped inside Detroit Transition East near I-75 and the Davison.

By Zack Blackerby
Car inside Detroit Transition East. By Zack Blackerby

About six years ago, just before the state took over the school system, schools were monitored more tightly.

“If a building was opened, DPS PD responded and it would be sealed up in the next few days,”Blackerby said. “Now, the schools get left open and blown out.”

In January, we wrote about the city and DPS ignoring other flooding schools, despite the cost to taxpayers.

If all goes as planned, Mayor Duggan will soon have control of 57 vacant schools in exchange for forgiving DPS’ $11.6 million of debt, mostly for electric bills.

The deal must still be approved by the state.

What happens with the vacant schools has yet to be determined.

Check out what happened to Highland Park High School under state control.

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.