Going to court

Detroit school board readies for legal fight to stop school closings

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Detroit's new school board is gearing up to fight state-mandated school closings

Detroit’s new school board isn’t planning on letting state officials shut down city schools without a fight.

Even as the state School Reform Office is still conducting the 30-45 day review that will determine which of the 38 struggling Michigan schools identified for closure will ultimately be forced to close their doors, the Detroit school board is holding a special meeting tonight to consider legal action.

An agenda for the meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Fisher Building, shows the board plans to “vote around litigation.”

Of the 38 schools on the closure list, 25 are in the city of Detroit, including 16 that are part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Also on the list are eight schools that are part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which will revert back to the main Detroit district this summer. All of the schools were put on the list because they have been in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three or more years.

The board took over the district last month after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

Board members say Detroit schools should get a fresh start — and not face penalties for decisions made when the state ran the district.

“The schools in question absolutely have to improve their performance and achievement level. There’s no debate about that,” said Sonya Mays, who is the new board’s treasurer. “This is all centered around the process and this question of ‘Does the district actually have a clean financial and operational start to control its own destiny?’”

State officials last summer created the Detroit Public Schools Community District as a new district that would not have the massive debts that hobbled the predecessor district, the Detroit Public Schools. The new district absorbed all of the old district’s schools and staff but is officially a new legal entity.

That’s expected to be one of the arguments the board will make when it files suit to stop closures. While the state is required by law to close all schools in the city of Detroit that have been in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three years, a legal opinion obtained by the district last summer asserted that creating the new district restarted the clock.

Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a different finding in September. He asserted that the law does require the state to close the low-performing Detroit schools regardless of their status in a new district.

As a state agency, the School Reform Office was required to follow Schuette’s opinion, said Steven Rhodes, the former federal bankruptcy judge who was leading the Detroit district last year when it first sought legal guidance on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean Schuette’s opinion will win in court, Rhodes said: “In a court of law, the attorney general’s opinion is entitled to no particular weight or deference. The judge is going to determine what the law is.”

At a meeting last month, Mays said she made a motion to ask the district’s general counsel to write a legal opinion mapping out the board’s options.

She said she expected the board to review that opinion tonight. The board could vote tonight to formally take legal action.

Rhodes predicted that if the board does file suit, it will prevail.

“I think that a court looking at this will rule in the same way that Miller Canfield gave its opinion and so I think the result of the litigation will be that the (School Reform Office) cannot close any Detroit schools for three years.”

The legal memorandum from the Miller Canfield law firm that could be the basis of a lawsuit can be read here:

Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., speaks in a district video.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

change at the top

Warning of ‘inconsistency at the top,’ Detroit school administrators, teachers urge board to reconsider Meriweather

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather is not among finalists in the running to be Detroit's permanent district superintendent.

Even as the Detroit Public Schools Community District moves forward with planning day-long interviews for the three finalists in the running to be Detroit’s next superintendent, supporters of the woman currently in the top job have continued to push her case.

After the Detroit school board announced over the weekend that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather was not among finalists for the permanent position, ten top district administrators signed a letter urging the board to keep their current boss in the running.

“Our district has endured an enormous amount of change in leadership over the past 10 years,” the administrators wrote, adding that the district has “succumbed to the dictates of 5 emergency managers and have finally returned to local control.”

The letter calls on the board to give Meriweather a formal interview noting that district leadership has “seen up close and personal the detriment of inconsistency at the top.”

The administrators are part of an effort that was joined Wednesday by the city teachers union, which released a statement urging the board to consider Meriweather. Hundreds of her supporters have also signed a petition.

The board has three finalists scheduled for 12-hour interviews that will include school visits, parent meetings and public questioning by the board.

Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools is scheduled for an interview on March 29th. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., is scheduled for April 3. And Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district, is scheduled for April 5.

Board President Iris Taylor said the board has no plans to add a fourth candidate to the mix.

“We have a process that we’ve established and that we’ve agreed upon and we’re going to continue to follow that process,” she said.

Meriweather’s interim contract continues until June 30. She says she intends to stay focused on the job until then but wouldn’t comment this week on whether she’ll plan to stay with the district under a new superintendent.

Here’s the letter from district leaders that was signed by top district administrators including the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Marios Demetriou, its Executive Director of Enrollment Steve Wasko and several district network leaders: