Lawmakers take action after 7 Action News report

Posted at 5:50 PM, May 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-19 17:50:18-04

We exposed the controversial backgrounds of a group of people trying to open a charter school in Royal Oak Township. Now, that story is getting attention in Lansing.

Ferndale Schools Superintendent Blake Prewitt says he learned that a group of people with questionable backgrounds were looking at opening up a school in his district. They were asking Saginaw Valley State University to authorize the  school, allowing it to open. Prewitt says SVSU was about to decide, so he made sure the university and 7 Action News knew his concerns.

7 Action News looked into the backgrounds of the people trying to open the school. We found the applicant who asked SVSU to take on the school was Regina Solomon. She didn’t provide her address on her application. It turns out she lives in Nevada. She lost her legal license for a time in Michigan after she allegedly stole government property.

Her application outlined a plan. She wanted Michael Bartley to be her superintendent. She says they aren’t anymore, but it turns out they were married. A previous plan to open a charter school in Nevada fell through when they failed to disclose this according to the Las Vegas Sun. They didn’t disclose their relationship in the application to SVSU.

That’s not all. Detroit Police say they arrested Michael Bartley for fleeing police in 2007. He also founded a failed school in 2003 and in recent years ran a company accused of lying to get money from schools in Florida according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Democrats say it is a sign more oversight of charter schools is needed.

“I am calling on the governor and everyone at Saginaw Valley State University to not authorize this organization,” said Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D - Ferndale).

Wittenberg says SVSU already has a poor track record as a charter authorizer. He pointed to a report from The Education Trust Midwest. It graded charter school authorizers. It gave SVSU a “D” and cited poor academic performance.

The study looked at 16 authorizers in Michigan. Four authorizers received a “D” or “F” grade. They included Detroit Public Schools, Saginaw Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University and Northern Michigan University.

"We currently authorize charter schools around the state, including several in metro Detroit. Student performance at most of them compares well to that of neighboring schools in the areas where our charter schools are located,” said a statement from SVSU in response to criticism of its charter’s performance.

Republicans say there is not necessarily a need for more oversight, but that SVSU should not approve this charter school’s application.

The Great Lakes Education Project is a conservative education policy group that lobbies for charter schools. It says it is for quality education choices in Michigan. It called Saginaw Valley State University to find out how they were going to handle this.

“I have been told by very good sources this contract is not going to be awarded by Saginaw Valley State University,” said Gary Naeyaert, Great Lakes Education Project Executive Director.

7 Action News reached out to Saginaw Valley State University. We were told the university could not say whether or not VAST Academy would be allowed to open.

"We are currently in the fact-finding stage as it pertains to VAST Academy. No decisions have been made on SVSU's part,” said a statement from Saginaw Valley State University to WXYZ.

Ferndale Public Schools Superintendent Blake Prewitt tells 7 Action News he met with the SVSU dean and he refused to commit that the school wouldn’t open.

Charter schools in Michigan get about $1.1 billion a year. Universities that are authorizers get 3% of that funding. That adds up to $33 million annually. Democrats say universities have a conflict of interest due to this funding.  They say there needs to be another layer of oversight.

“We need to make sure these organizations are held to a high standard,” said Wittenberg.

Rep. Sarah Roberts (D- Saint Clair Shores) says she is working on legislation that would require an assessment of need committee approve a charter school’s location. She says if a school is dealing with under enrollment or financially struggling, a charter school shouldn’t be allowed to open within a certain distance.  She says it sets both schools up to fail kids. She says hospitals only are allowed to open after there is a positive assessment of need.

“If we are going to open a school with taxpayer dollars, we should make sure it is needed,” said Rep. Roberts.

"We don’t think we need more hurdles from people whose real goal is to limit public charter schools in Michigan,” said Naeyaert.