Residents showed up at a West Bloomfield School District Board of Education meeting March 18 to protest the demolition of the Roosevelt Elementary School in Keego Harbor. At the meeting, in a 4-2 vote, the board approved bids for abatement and demolition.

Residents showed up at a West Bloomfield School District Board of Education meeting March 18 to protest the demolition of the Roosevelt Elementary School in Keego Harbor. At the meeting, in a 4-2 vote, the board approved bids for abatement and demolition.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Regional elected officials, residents speak out against WB Board of Ed’s 4-2 decision to demolish Roosevelt

Community group takes matter to court, secures injunction

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published March 28, 2024

 Bob Hoffman, an Oakland County commissioner, addresses the West Bloomfield School District Board of Education.

Bob Hoffman, an Oakland County commissioner, addresses the West Bloomfield School District Board of Education.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


KEEGO HARBOR — Heading into a West Bloomfield School District Board of Education meeting March 18, some residents were hoping that board members would reverse course on a previous decision to approve demolition of the Roosevelt Elementary School building in Keego Harbor.

However, by the end of a lengthy meeting that included approximately 45 public comments, those hopes had been dashed.

At a Board of Education meeting last September, in a 5-2 vote, board members passed a recommendation to demolish the Roosevelt building and playground.

At that meeting, Deborah Evans and Carol Finkelstein were the two members to vote against the recommendation, with Julie Beaty, Stacy Brickman, Nelson Hersh, Ashleigh Davis and Wm. Art Holdsworth voting in favor of the recommendations.

Some residents had hoped for at least two other board members to align with Evans and Finkelstein and make a motion to revisit the previous decision at the March 18 meeting.

However, at the meeting, demolition and abatement bids were approved in a 4-2 vote, with no motion put forth to reconsider the previous decision.

Evans and Finkelstein voted no on the demolition and abatement bids, with Brickman, Hersh, Davis and Holdsworth voting yes.

Due to an unforeseen circumstance, Beaty was not present for the vote.

The vote was followed by a chorus of boos from some residents in attendance.

Following the meeting, one of the residents in attendance, Brad Babbitt, said the decision was disappointing.

Prior to the meeting, it was revealed that JSN Architecture, located in Berkley, had expressed an interest in purchasing the building and land for $1.7 million.

“For years, they’ve been lying to the community about supporting Keego Harbor, supporting the residents,” Babbitt said. “It’s malfeasance to demolish a building and sell it for $600,000 when you can sell it to someone else for $1.7 million — three times the amount you could get. It doesn’t make any sense. … We’re doing the best we can, but when people are unreasonable, it’s hard to know what to do.”

Following the meeting, neither Superintendent Dania Bazzi nor Brickman, Hersh, Davis or Holdsworth would comment.

The district instead sent a press release.

“According to a formal appraisal, the value of the vacant land at the former Roosevelt site is worth more than the land with the building intact,” the release states. “The district received a non-binding letter of intent for an amount above that appraised value from an LLC established on Friday, March 15, the same day the letter of intent was emailed.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, Keego Harbor resident David Emerling announced another step that had been taken in order to try to prevent the demolition of Roosevelt, which is over 100 years old.

“We filed an injunction on Friday (March 15),” Emerling said. “If they went in our favor, we would (have) dropped it.”

The injunction was filed in Oakland County Circuit Court, with Heart of the Lakes Community Inc. listed as the plaintiffs, and the West Bloomfield School District, Brickman and Hersh listed as the defendants.

The plaintiffs are being represented by Doerr MacWilliams Howard PLLC in Bloomfield Hills.

In a press release dated March 22, it was announced that Sixth Circuit Court Judge Phyllis McMillen had issued a temporary restraining order to stop the district from demolishing Roosevelt.

“The nonprofit Heart of the Lakes Community filed the injunction to allow WBSD to instead sell and repurpose Roosevelt, which would provide the greatest benefit to the district, its students and the community,” the release states. “On March 21st we amended the motion because the defendants have started demolition immediately rather than April 8 as they previously stated. We are disturbed by the district’s brazenness in commencing demolition before the Court even ruled. HOTLC conducted a months-long investigation, including internal WBSD documents obtained by FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), independent expert opinions, and the district’s own words, revealing that the district has repeatedly made false claims and hidden important information from the Board of Education and the public for many years to justify demolition.”

The plaintiffs’ said there have been continued and intentional violations of the Open Meetings Act by the district, including conducting secret meetings outside of public view in a “concerted” effort to demolish Roosevelt.

It has also been alleged that at the meeting in March, the defendants never publicly discussed or deliberated on any of the demolition or asbestos abatement bids for Roosevelt, and instead voted to “rubber-stamp” a recommendation on a demolition bid and an asbestos abatement.

At the meeting the board voted to award asbestos abatement work to Environmental Maintenance Engineers for $93,000, and building demolition to International Construction for $465,000, totaling $558,000.

The belief among some residents is that the district wants to demolish Roosevent to ensure that it won’t become a charter school out of fear that a new school could attract students away from the district, taking their per-pupil dollars away from the district as well.

In order to try to alleviate that fear, Noah Arbit, who is the representative for state House District 20, sponsored House Bill 5025, which is a bill that aims to repeal Public Act 98, which prevents deed restrictions from being included on properties sold by public schools.

The bill sponsored by Arbit would allow public schools to include deed restrictions that could prevent buildings from being sold to charter schools.

Arbit addressed board members during the public comments section of the latest BOE meeting.

“I expect to succeed in passing my legislation through the House by the end of June, and through the Senate in the fall, and onto the governor’s desk thereafter,” Arbit said. “That’s why I’m asking you as state representative to pump the brakes on this decision, on demolition and abatement. Give me the time that I need to pass my bill and give you the tools you need to make a holistic decision that’s in the best interest of the community, the district’s financial health, and students and teachers. That is what I’m asking for, both as a constituent of yours and as a state representative: delay this decision until July, by which time the disposition of my bill will be clear.”

Aside from House Bill 5025, during board comments, Evans cited the “outpour of community opposition” and other factors, including data research, as reasons for not approving the demolition and abatement.

“Our goal is to support all the students in the district, and one way of doing that is to be good stewards of taxpayer funds, exercising fiscal responsibility, so the best course of action at this point is to optimize our capital asset, which is the building and the land, and that is for, in my opinion, to delay this demolition and to market the Roosevelt building and sell the Roosevelt building as-is, and get the highest return, with the terms that benefit the district,” Evans said. “A proposed sale of the Roosevelt building would help the West Bloomfield district maximize the value of the access property that we no longer need, but it will also provide Keego Harbor with a valuable, beloved, historic asset to service its community for maybe 100 more years and add to its tax base. … I do not support demolishing Roosevelt.”

Evans’ comments were followed by enthusiastic applause from some in attendance.

Joseph S. Novitsky, of JSN Architecture, said during public comments that the firm wants to turn the school into an apartment building.

“It’s not a stretch to see how easy that is to accommodate,” Novitsky said. “We’re offering the school board first right of refusal, with a handsome offer to purchase, we believe. We will allow the board first right of refusal, take over the property, and keep the 5 acres.”

During board comments, Finkelstein said that she had to be the one to collect charter school data to prove that it was “nothing but fear-mongering.”

“Earlier today, I asked the superintendent to provide some very simple financial data, comparing demolishing this building and selling vacant land for the appraised value against this $1.7 million offer, this generous offer, to sell it. I got nothing; I didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply to my email today,” Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein went on to relay facts as “I understand them.”

“The revenue to the general fund if we sold the property as-is, based on this current offer, is $1.7 million to the general fund,” she said. “There is no broker’s commission, no sales commission for selling this property. However, we do save $558,000 by not abating and not demolishing this building. That (ends) up being $2.258 million in district coffers by taking this deal and exploring this deal.”

Finkelstein said that the appraised value for the vacant land is $1.210 million.

“I (want to) see $1.7 million go into the general fund, not $1.2 million go into the general fund,” she said.

Prior to closing in 2022, after a ceiling collapsed in an unused classroom necessitating that students be moved to the former Abbott Middle School, Roosevelt was the longest continuously operating school building in Oakland County.

Finkelstein referred to it as a historical building, and one that is “very important” to the Keego community.

She also pointed out that none of the board members live in Keego, and that the board represents every ZIP code in the district, “not just some.”

“There’s been this push for demolition from the get-go,” Finkelstein said. “What’s the hurry? Legislators are working to address concerns with House Bill 5025. … The board now has data that does not support the charter school concerns. Again, what’s the hurry?”

From Finkelstein’s perspective, the board has an obligation to pause when new data emerges that does not support a previous decision.

She said that the board needs to take a step back and look at all of the data, and not just some of it.

“The data, though, is clear right now in front of me. This offer provides significantly higher financial gain for this district,” Finkelstein said. “I have a fiduciary responsibility to vote no on these bids and to pause all discussion of demolition, and to take time to review and consider this substantial purchase offer. Ignoring this offer and proceeding to demolition … amounts to malfeasance.”

Arbit wasn’t the only public official to travel to West Bloomfield High School to discuss the potential demolition of Roosevelt at the meeting.

Oakland County Commissioners Bob Hoffman and Kristen Nelson also addressed board members during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Hoffman said that there is a moral obligation to protect the taxpayers.

“We can repurpose that. We can bring students here. We can create a tax base, and we can set it up so you can be assured there won’t be a charter school there,” Hoffman said. “We can sign some kind of development agreement with the city of Keego Harbor (where) we have to follow their ordinances. We can have a mixed-use walkable community right in the center of Keego Harbor.”

Nelson said that she was born and raised in Keego and has memories of Roosevelt.

“It brought joy to drive by, walk by Roosevelt, and see and hear the children play,” she said. “Public input, voices of our community, have continued to be dismissed throughout this important decision-making process. Members of our community have clearly expressed their desire to preserve and repurpose Roosevelt for community use, and it is extremely disappointing that this body has proved to have no interest in finding a way to make that happen. … Take your foot off the gas pedal and let’s work together in the public’s interest and look at a different way of moving forward.”

Although Keego Mayor Rob Kalman stated that concern about Roosevelt becoming a charter school is not lost on him, he also brought up other points for the board’s consideration.

“I also hear builders and architects are willing to invest $1.7 million to give you an option,” he said. “They’re willing to propose if they don’t meet the objective of apartments, it would go back to the school board. … There’s wins across the board. It’s a win for our community as well because we are looking for a walkable downtown.”

Devan Anderson, who is secretary for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, was one of the attendees at the meeting.

“More than one reputable developer has recognized the building’s soundness and made offers — they’ve all been ignored,” Anderson said during the public comments portion of the meeting. “The demand to do cost-benefit analysis (has) also been ignored; mounting protests from your own citizens have likewise been ignored. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network is here this evening to voice its strong dissent to wasting this valuable state and local asset.”

Aside from the building being the focal point of downtown Keego Harbor, Anderson shared his opinion as to the potential effects of demolishing Roosevelt.

“The city of Keego Harbor would lose a large part of its history, while repurposing Roosevelt school would serve as a reminder that we value not only the memories and lives of the thousands who’ve passed through its doors, but the history of this structure,” he said. “An entire community, in fact, the entire area, would be impacted by removing this piece of its history. It is truly something that can never be replaced. As a preservation architect in the city of Detroit, I’ve spent the last 25 years repurposing exactly this sort of historic structure.”

Anderson added that, “it can be done, it should be done and your community deserves it.”

Anderson’s comments were followed by an enthusiastic round of applause.

Keego resident Mark Bank said that he served on the Board of Education for Bloomfield Hills Schools from 2011-2021.

He said that his biggest regrets as a board member are properties that were sold and buildings that were torn down.

“We should never sell off the land that we have,” Bank said during public comments. “Space creates opportunities for the future. I don’t know anything about the right of first refusal that’s come up, that I have heard about tonight, but if it were me, till I learned more about the charter first refusal, I would not sell this property. I would not sell off the future of this district.”

Other concerns that were brought up during public comments were the potential for environmental harm that could come to the community from asbestos if the building is knocked down and that bond money that Keego voters were a part of approving for the district in 2017 could now be spent on demolishing Roosevelt.

“I have heard board members feel that the 2017 bond is play money, or free money that can be used to demolish Roosevelt,” local resident Marilyn Svaluto said during public comments. “It’s neither. … It’s our money, and to use it to demolish Roosevelt is reprehensible.”

The release from Heart of the Lakes Community Inc. also addressed potential environmental concerns.

“Demolition could contaminate the air and nearby lakes,” the release states. “Preserving and repurposing Roosevelt provides environmental sustainability and community benefits.”

Emerling also addressed the board. He said that when the drop ceiling fell in the unoccupied room, that was what the district needed to push for the closure of Roosevelt.

“But the problem was the engineering report that was dated July 1, 2022, stated clearly that it was a simple fix to repair that room and others,” Emerling said. “The building is totally safe; it’s fixable with screws. Many offers to repurpose the building have been made, and the district has rejected them without any counter. On Friday, a $1.7 million offer was made to convert the classrooms to apartments to create a nonprofit, but leave the common areas to the community.”

Aside from Roosevelt, the district’s recent announcement about redistricting was also on the mind of Keego resident Kirsten Douglass during public comments.

“From the plan to demolish the Roosevelt building, centered in the heart of the community, to the removal of the community-built playground … to the redistricting plan and splitting of the community in half, every one of these decisions lacked data and have been made behind closed doors, without authentic community input, and a lack of consideration of all members of the community,” Douglass said. “I ask you to pause and change course. I’m asking you, once again, to listen to your community. … Consider that $1.7 million offer — a decision that can provide affordable community housing and additional income to the district.”

The district’s release addressed redistricting, stating that families were given the opportunity to request a change of placement.

It also stated that families were kept together, and that every fifth-grader who requested a change of placement “was granted that move.”

The district’s release also further addressed the decision to demolish Roosevelt.

“This process to right-size the district for today’s enrollment realities began in 2012 and the board is moving forward with difficult decisions,” the release states. “They voted 4-2 to accept the abatement and demolition bids. WBSD is committed to a long-term master operations and facility plan to support the district’s vision to live out our mission of supporting each student’s needs by providing the opportunities, experiences, and educational tools for their journey.”

From Finkelstein’s perspective, $1.7 million could  fix a budgeting “oops” that occurred last year.

Bazzi has acknowledged that the district dipped into roughly $1.7 million of its fund balance due to an accounting error.

Finkelstein also further addressed the concern of Roosevelt becoming a charter school.

“Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Charter School Association, said that they won’t go where the community doesn’t want them,” she said. “I think we’ve heard that loud and clear. The community relations nightmare that this has created is (going to) go on for a long time, and it’s not needed. Let’s come together, let’s work together as a community, and let’s try to solve this to make it a win-win-win.”