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School's in … or out?

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The uncertainty continues for nine alternative high schools in Detroit that are attempting to help dropouts.

In the past, schools participating in the district's Last Chance program received a waiver from the Detroit Federation of Teachers that allowed them to operate outside the union's contract with the school district. But this year, while negotiations regarding the waiver dragged on, the nine alternative schools — which are run by independent contractors — currently in operation pushed ahead with the hope that the union's OK would eventually be granted. (MT profiled one of the schools last week in "Learn the Hustle.")

The district has said the teachers union wants money in exchange for the waiver. The teachers union has said they want better oversight and accountability from the schools.

As of last week, the waiver still hadn't been granted. However, the schools have remained open — the district has been unable to tell us exactly how many students are involved — by relying on assistance from corporate sponsors, private foundations and nonprofit organizations.

Getting complete info from the district on this issue is like pulling teeth from a hen. For instance, News Hits wants to know if the schools will be able to make it without district funding. It's reasonable to suspect that the answer to that is a resounding "no," but we can't tell you that with absolute certainty because we couldn't get a response to that question. But one of the alternative school heads we talked to said making it past January would be unlikely if the district doesn't come through with the cash soon.

The state provides the district with $7,500 per full-time student, of which about 80 percent has traditionally been passed on to the folks running the Last Chance schools for students enrolled in them.

The latest twist in all this is that the alternative schools have now signed statements agreeing to abide by the terms of the union contract for now. The good news in that is funding from the district should now start to flow. The question is whether these schools can afford the higher costs. Without the waiver, the salaries, vacation plans, benefits, hours, holidays and other work conditions for alternative school teachers would have to comply with the regular union contract.

What will be the outcome of saddling the alternative schools with these increased costs? Again, we're still waiting for answers.

Here's what we do know: "As such, all contractors would have to comply with the DFT contract," says Hildred Pepper, the district's chief contracting officer.

We're told that it will be the union's responsibility to ensure compliance. And if the union finds problems?

"Any costs incurred by DPS as a result of the enforcement of the DFT agreements shall be paid by the contractor," Pepper says, quoting the letter. "And DPS shall have the right to withhold such payments to the contractor hereunder."

So far, the teachers union hasn't enforced its contract in the schools, which operate in churches, public housing complexes and corporate headquarters, according to Pepper.

"I'm not aware of any action. I'm not aware that anyone is not complying, as well," he says.

Meanwhile, Monique Marks, principal of the Success Academy at the Franklin-Wright Settlements, hasn't looked at the contract but thinks the five teachers at her school are "close" to meeting its provisions. She says she still has a "wait-and-see" attitude, though she realizes that won't last long. The school is paying its teachers with funds from the Franklin-Wright endowment, but those will run out after New Year's.

"When we got that letter, we were really shocked," Marks says. "We're pretty much operating in good faith."

With the situation still uncertain, the alternative schools administrators say they are keeping their "wait-and-see" attitudes as they keep their programs going.

"You've got to do what you've got to do if you're going to serve the community," Marks says. "We're not sitting on pins and needles worrying about it."

Complicating matters even further is the election of a new DFT president last weekend. Executive Vice President Virginia Cantrell won the presidency over incumbent Janna Garrison.

Union spokeswoman Susan Watson says Cantrell will take a close look at the waiver issue. "It's on her agenda and she'll be taking it up real soon," she says.

Pepper says he's hopeful that discussions can again begin about the waiver for the schools' sake.

"If we can approach the new administration, we can be very optimistic that it can be approved but at the present time, they are required to comply," Pepper says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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