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Detroit Free Press

Officials from Detroit and the city’s public school system on Tuesday announced an agreement to swap $11.6 million in district debt for 57 vacant schools and 20 vacant lots.

The city will cancel the debt and plans to secure or demolish the buildings, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said. About a dozen of the most dangerous vacant schools will be razed by July.

The deal comes as Duggan has stepped up efforts to eliminate the blight across the city. Detroit Public Schools, meanwhile, is struggling to eliminate a multimillion-dollar deficit. Most of the $11.6 million debt stems from unpaid electricity bills.

Duggan said the approach makes more sense than trying to sue the school district over its defaced property, a process that would ultimately divert money from education.

“This deal is great for our neighborhoods and the DPS school children,” Duggan said in a statement. “It allows DPS to put all of its energy into its core mission of educating our children.

“It also recognizes that the city is in a better position to address the significant issue of neighborhood decay and redevelop these properties in a way that is in harmony with the surrounding community.”

The city will conduct environmental assessments of the properties, which could take up to three months.

Duggan said the city plans to secure 14 to 16 buildings for future use. Selling some of the properties is an option the city could explore, Duggan spokesman John Roach said.

Schools with viable playgrounds will become city-run recreation areas, Duggan said.

“The day will come when people will return to the city, and if the building is structurally sound, it is more appropriate to secure it than to tear it down,” Duggan said.

Now facing a $127 million deficit, the DPS has closed dozens of buildings over the years as its enrollment dwindles. In 2002-03, the district had over 156,000 students. Current projections are for approximately 47,100 students.

DPS emergency manager Jack Martin said protecting vacant schools from scrappers was a challenge.

“While every effort has been made to sell or lease closed buildings, some of which have been closed for many years, we understand that we have a responsibility to be good stewards within the communities in which we own property” , did he declare.

Kenyetta Campbell, executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action alliance, was thrilled to learn that four vacant schools near her were on the list.

“A lot of young people have told us how unsafe they feel going to school, especially early in the morning when it’s dark. We want children to be safe,” she said. declared.

As part of the deal, about $4.3 million from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority will pay for the demolition, officials said. The $1.9 million it will cost to complete the environmental reviews will come from a quality-of-life loan that a judge approved earlier this year as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.

Up to 150 Detroiters between the ages of 18 and 21 will be hired with federal funds to secure the buildings. They will receive training through the Greater Detroit Building Trades Council.

Properties will be placed in receivership until they pass environmental reviews. The Detroit City Council and the Detroit Public Schools Board, which have limited powers because the district is under emergency management, must sign the agreement, officials said.

The 77 schools and lots cover over 241 acres. Thirty-one buildings are secure and 26 are unsecured or open, officials said. But some of the buildings listed as secure have been opened up and damaged by scrap metal workers, such as Oakman Elementary-Orthopedic School.

The DPS has come under much criticism for leaving vacant schools open to scrappers.

“They’re not secure. (The district) is creating a plague,” said school board member Elena Herrada.

Martin said that since 2009, DPS has sold 59 buildings or properties and leased 38 buildings, grossing $27.3 million.

Under Duggan’s leadership, the city has demolished more than 4,000 vacant structures in recent months.

This isn’t the first time the city and school district have reached an agreement regarding unpaid electric bills.

After amassing millions in unpaid bills, DPS struck a deal with the Detroit Lighting Department several years ago, paying $15 million and transferring a school building to the city for use as a police academy. But DPS quickly fell behind.

Writer JC Reindl contributed to this report. Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 ​​or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @AnnZaniewski.