The oath

New board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ of running a district plagued by serious challenges

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The seven members of the new Detroit school board were sworn in during their first meeting at Cass Tech high school.

The era of democratically elected school boards running Detroit’s schools officially returned tonight with the swearing in of the seven new board members chosen by voters in November.

“I do solemnly swear,” the board members said as they raised their right hands for the oath. “That I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this state and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Member of the Board of Education of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to the best of my ability.”

Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, a Michigan Court of Appeals and Court of Claims judge who administered the oath wished the board well. “And with that you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit,” she told them.

As of 5:57 p.m., the board formally took control of the 48,659-student, 97-school district.

The board meeting that followed, which drew roughly 250 community members to the Cass Tech auditorium, was largely civil, punctuated by a few comments and cracks from the audience — a far tamer scene than the raucous community meetings that were typical during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

There was some new board confusion — including a contract to run district warehouses that members voted down before acknowledging that they weren’t really sure what the consequences of the “no” vote would be.

Community members and reporters complained that the meeting’s agenda had not been posted and copies of the superintendent’s presentation were not distributed to the audience. (District officials say they’ll eventually be posted online.)

There was some controversy over the board’s announcement that it was hiring search firms to choose a permanent superintendent and to recruit new teachers.

And there were some interesting insights offered about the state of the district. Among the highlights:

The board elected its officers

The new school board president is Iris Taylor, the retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital. Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the director of community relations at UAW-Ford will be Vice President. Community activist Misha Stallworth, who develops arts and cultural programs for the elderly, will be secretary. And Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization, will be the board’s treasurer.

The board will hire two search firms

Taylor, the new board president, said the board selected the search firms by inviting talent search companies to apply for the job. Four firms applied, Taylor said. The board met with three of them and is moving forward with Ray & Associates Inc., which specializes in educational executive leadership searches, to help choose a superintendent candidate. A second firm, T.J. Adams & Associates, will be brought on to recruit teachers. The board did not put a price tag on the contracts but, after the meeting, Taylor said the fee for Ray & Associates would be roughly the “midpoint” of the superintendent’s salary. “We are seeking partners in the community to help fund that so that it doesn’t have to come out of operations,” she said.

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather says she wants the permanent gig

“I definitely am putting my hand up,” she told reporters during a break in the meeting. “I have truly loved this city and this district my whole life and I’ve truly enjoyed what I’ve been able to do since [being named interim superintendent in] March so absolutely.”

The teacher shortage is a serious problem.

Meriweather told the board that 163 substitute teachers are currently filling the district’s 264 teacher vacancies but that 97 teaching jobs are completely empty. “That means … the staff in that building is being stretched out immensely by their preps being taken and other challenges which makes a very challenging cycle because my prep gets taken, I get tired, I take off. Now my colleague has to cover my class and students are not having regular instruction so this has to be addressed. This has to be a priority.”

Another serious problem is chronic absenteeism

A stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — 23,468 of them — miss two or more days of school a month, Meriweather said. At one school, she said, 95 percent of students are chronically absent. Meriweather did not name the school and a district spokeswoman declined to identify that school saying the district was working with the school to improve attendance. “The scary thing about that is when you miss two or more days a month, research shows you are less likely to graduate,” she said.

The district is in the black

Finance officials say they expect the district to end the year with a $48 million surplus.

The board was not given a heads up that the district plans to close a school

Taylor told reporters after the meeting that Transition Manager Steven Rhodes, who ran the district until December 31, made a deal in December to close Durfee elementary school  and lease the building to a small business incubator but that the board didn’t learn about it until January. “We’re in the process of vetting that,” Taylor said. Asked how she felt about Rhodes’ decision, she said: “Let’s just say that there are all kinds of challenges that you’ve got to respond to.”

 

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”