Detroit to forgive $11.6 million in public school district debt for 57 vacant schools, 20 lots

Bankrupt Detroit and its public schools announced a deal Tuesday that will swap $11.6 million in district debt for 57 vacant school buildings and 20 empty lots.

The agreement comes as Detroit continues to step up efforts to deal with thousands of abandoned houses and vacant commercial structures across the 139-square mile city.

"This agreement is great for our neighborhoods and DPS schoolchildren," Mayor Mike Duggan said. "It also recognizes that the city is better suited to addressing the important issue of neighborhood blight and redeveloping these properties in a way that is in harmony with the surrounding community."

The city will do environmental analyses of the sites and secure the schools — many of which are dangerous and open to trespassers. Like other vacant structures, empty schools are targeted by scrappers who smash walls to get to metal pipes and electrical wiring.

Unpaid electric bills comprised most of the debt owed the city.

Duggan has asked the Detroit City Council to approve the deal.

Declining student enrollment has forced the district to shutter dozens of schools in recent years. Enrollment was 104,000 in 2007. It dropped below 100,000 the next year and was just under 49,000 last fall.

The district's real estate office has made more than $16 million by selling or leasing closed school buildings and vacant land.

"Our primary focus must be the education of the children of Detroit," said Jack Martin, the district's emergency manager. "This agreement allows us to stay laser-focused on this mission."

More than $4 million in federal neighborhood stabilization grant money will be used to demolish up to a dozen of the most dangerous school building by next summer. Other schools will be torn down when additional funding becomes available.

Buildings that still have use will be marketed by the city for redevelopment.