Superintendent search

Five reasons why Nikolai Vitti might be Detroit’s next superintendent — and three reasons he might not

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti appeared to be fading by the end of a grueling, 12-hour interview process on Wednesday in his bid to become Detroit’s next school superintendent.

After hours of answering similar questions, over and over, from teachers and students, then labor and business leaders, then parents and community members, then finally the school board that will make the crucial decision for Detroit schools, Vitti’s voice was starting to crack but he continued to express wild enthusiasm for the job in the city he called “home.”

“Since beginning in Jacksonville [in 2012], I’ve only applied to one job and that’s this job,” he told the Detroit school board Wednesday night at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. “I feel Detroit calling me.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights, has worked as a teacher and administrator in Winston-Salem, N.C., New York City, Miami and Jacksonville.

“I’ve been asking myself why am I doing this everywhere other than where I’m from,” he said. “I believe that Detroit needs me and I need Detroit.”

Vitti says he’s is so committed to Detroit and its schools, that if gets the job, he will “likely” enroll his four children in the district.

“It’s all a process,” he told reporters after his school board interview. “First I have to be offered the job but I would plan to live in city limits and would likely send my children to public schools.”

That’s a bold statement from someone who spent the day talking to people about the serious challenges facing the district. He said he was “enraged” to see the conditions of the Detroit schools he visited. What he saw “shook me,” he said. “To see that our children have to go to schools where there are holes in the walls, tiles that are not replaced.” But he still said he would try to find the right Detroit schools for his kids — including two who have dyslexia. Next fall, they will be in the eighth, seventh, fifth, and third grades.

“As I always say, it’s about finding the right match for your child and that would be something that we would have to investigate and look at,” he said. “If we find the right match for our children, then they would attend public schools. If it’s not the right match for many different reasons, then obviously that’s not the decision we would make.”

But will Vitti get the job?

That depends on a lot of things including how the only other finalist — River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — performs during a similar 12-hour trial that’s scheduled for Monday. The board has also been under heavy pressure to expand the pool to include more candidates and to consider current district superintendent Alycia Meriweather. But Vitti has several things going for him, as well as several things working against him. Here’s a breakdown:

Five reasons he might get the job:

    1. He has experience running large urban districts. The 130,000-student, 200-school Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville is more than three times the size of Detroit’s district. (It’s 65 times the size of the 2,000-student, five-school River Rouge district.) “I’ve been through the rodeo and this work is a rodeo,” he told labor and business leaders Wednesday. “I’m offering a resume of someone who has done this work and created positive change for children.” He also said he’s done this without some of the more controversial approaches that have been used across the country. “I’ve never closed a school. I’ve never converted a school to a charter. I believe the work has to be owned by traditional public education. I have turned around schools by doing the work within the district.”
    2. He appears to be politically savvy. He delivered what seemed like the right answers to politically sensitive questions. He responded to a question from a union leader by touting that he comes “from a union family.” When asked about special education, he discussed his personal struggle with dyslexia and how that led him to create a specialized school in Jacksonville for students with dyslexia as well as a special school for kids with autism. And when a parent asked him a question in Spanish, he cut off her interpreter and translated the question for the rest of the room. “I could answer in Spanish,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be perfect and I’d rather just do it in English.”
    3. He thinks Detroit can save itself — without painful disruption. Vitti vowed to bring money into the district by luring Detroit children back from charter and suburban schools. “In Jacksonville, we reduced private enrollment [in Florida’s private school voucher system] by 120% by being competitive,” he said. In Detroit, he said, “we are going to compete. I say this not to make a statement of bravado but we are going to put charter schools out of business … because we’re going to offer a better product. We’re going to begin to tell our story and begin to bring parents back to our school system.”
    4. His political experience could help Detroit maintain its independence. As a former Florida deputy chancellor for school improvement, he claimed he has the political skills to fend off intrusions from state education officials like the state’s recent threat to close two dozen schools in the city. “I can speak the language of the state … I feel like I can go to Lansing and have the credibility to talk about what’s working and what’s not.”
    5. He offered creative solutions to some of Detroit’s most intractable problems. Among them: partnering with the business and banking community to create incentives to attract Detroit teachers such as low-cost mortgages or student loan forgiveness. “We have to think out of the box,” he said.

    Three reasons he might not get the job:

    1. He’s an outsider. Despite claiming that Detroit is “home,” he has never lived in the city of Detroit (just the metro area) and has never worked in Detroit schools. That’s in contrast to Coleman, who is a Detroit Public Schools grad and a former district official and to Meriweather who has spent her life and career in the district. Detroiters have been burned in the past by outsiders who’ve come to town from elsewhere to try to make a name for themselves, only to leave the schools worse off than they were. Vitti claims he would be here to stay. He’s asked for a five-year contract and said he hopes to stay longer than that. “One of the tragedies as far as the history of public schools in Detroit has been the sustainability of leadership and constant changes. Every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work so I think if we’re going to get this right here, we have to have sustainability in leadership.”
    2. His big ideas could face serious hurdles in Detroit. Vitti spent Wednesday touting programs he implemented in Jacksonville that could be brought to Detroit that will sound great to parents and educators: Expanding technology so that more kids have access to computers; making sure every school has arts and music programs; ending the city’s severe teacher shortage by paying teachers more and creating a teacher “pipeline” that starts in high school; adding mental health programs to schools to help kids deal with trauma; creating a parent academy to train parents to be more involved in their children’s education; supporting principals with smaller ratios between the school leaders and their supervisors; and better marketing for Detroit schools to help them lure kids from charter schools and the suburbs. He even talked up a literacy program he started in Jacksonville that gives new moms books engraved with their child’s name and the year he or she will graduate from high school as way of making sure parents believe their child will graduate.

      But all of those things cost money, and Detroit’s financial problems are notorious. Vitti noted that the per pupil funding rate in Florida is lower than in Michigan and that he uses a “zero-based budgeting” approach that helps him align budgets with school priorities, but some people who met him Wednesday remained skeptical. “I’m leaving with a wait and see impression,” said Deanne Surles, whose children attend the Bates Academy and who was representing the Detroit parent group 482 Forward. “In light of the fact that we have no money in Detroit, very limited resources, how can the strategies or the plans or the methods implemented there be replicated here?” Vitti also didn’t acknowledge some other challenges. He vowed to avoid closing schools but didn’t fully explain what the district should do with the thousands of classroom seats sitting empty in school buildings that enroll just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

    3. He has ties to a national foundation.Vitti was asked at least three times on Wednesday about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the creation of the state-run Education Achievement Authority. Vitti is participating in a Broad school leader fellowship program that has been a training ground for a new breed of district leaders who prioritize holding educators and schools accountable for boosting student performance. It has produced some controversial Detroit figures like former emergency manager Robert Bobb. Vitti says he signed up for the Broad fellowship to expand his own skills as a school leader but that doesn’t mean he supports the foundation’s agenda including its strong support of charter schools and school choice. “I’m fiercely independent. No one tells me what to do,” he said, later adding that the Detroit emergency managers who participated in the Broad fellowship “were not educators. They were managers … I’m an educator. That’s all I’ve done and Broad does not define me.”

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.

 

Vitti's team

Superintendent’s inner circle: These are the people Detroit’s new schools boss Nikolai Vitti has tapped to help rebuild the district

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Since arriving in Detroit two months ago, new schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been assembling a team of educators, lawyers — even investment bakers — to support his effort to improve the city’s struggling schools.

Among people he’s leaning on are some familiar figures in Detroit like former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and longtime district facilities chief Felicia Venable. But Vitti’s team includes many new arrivals he lured from his last job as Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. Also on the list are several people who served as top officials in the Education Achievement Authority, the defunct state recovery district that took over 15 Detroit schools in 2012. The EAA schools returned to the main Detroit district on July 1.

Here’s a look at who Vitti is turning to for advice, what they’ll be doing — and how much they’ll be paid.

Luis Solano
Chief Operating Officer

Salary: $195,000

Duties: Oversee the internal daily functions of district departments; serve as the bridge between the superintendent and district departments, initiatives and  programs.

Last job: Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Collier County Public Schools, Naples, Fla.

His story: An Army veteran and former teacher, principal and assistant principal, Solano, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked with Vitti in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district. He has degrees in special education from Florida International University, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and will soon complete a doctorate in education from the University of West Florida.

 

Iranetta Wright
Deputy Superintendent of Schools

Salary: $190,000

Duties: Oversee the daily operations of schools; manage and lead principal supervisors and indirectly principals; oversee leadership development, counseling, mental health services, discipline, school police, athletics, school improvement, and the needs of homeless students and those who are learning English.

Last job: Chief of Schools, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville, Fla.

Her story: Wright worked in Duval schools for 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal until Vitti tapped her for the district’s central office. Most recently she led the district’s high-profile “transformation” office which oversaw 36 high-need, low-performing schools. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

 

Alycia Meriweather
Deputy Superintendent of External Partnerships and Innovation

Salary: $180,000

Duties: Lead district efforts with business, non-profit, and philanthropic communities; oversee career and technical programs, examination schools, and enrollment efforts.

Last job: Interim Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools grad has worked in the district for 22 years including 12 years as a science teacher. She worked in the district’s Office of Science and its curriculum office before becoming its top education official in 2016. She has education degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University and is currently pursuing a a doctorate at Wayne State.

 

 

Beth Gonzalez
Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of early learning, literacy, mathematics, social studies, and science; leads districtwide work for core professional development; manages curriculum adoption process.

Last job: Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Gonzalez has spent most of her 17-year career in the Duval County schools, working as a fifth-grade math teacher, a curriculum specialist, a data coordinator and a supervisor of test development. She worked for the Florida state education department before returning to the district to work for Vitti. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of South Florida.

David Donaldson
Senior Executive Director of Talent

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide human resources functions, including recruiting teachers, on-boarding, fingerprinting, and labor relations.

Last Job: Chief Operating Officer, Future Ready Columbus in Ohio.

His story: Donaldson was briefly the principal of the Detroit Institute of Technology, one of the small schools inside Cody High School from July 2013 to February 2014 before leaving the district to join the Education Achievement Authority as associate chancellor. He left Detroit briefly this year for the job in Ohio before returning to work for Vitti. He also taught school as a Teach For America fellow in Baltimore and worked in the New York City Department of Education. He has degrees from Eastern Michigan University, Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in education from Harvard University.

Felicia Venable
Senior Executive Director of Facilities, Transportation, Food Service and Maintenance.

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Lead districtwide management and implementation of facilities, transportation, food service, and maintenance.

Last job: Executive Director of Facilities, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Worked for the Detroit district in various roles since 2000 after a stint as a health inspector and analyst for the city of Detroit. She has degrees from Tennessee State University, Wayne State University and Walsh College.

 

Elizabeth Cutrona
Senior Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Project Management

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Oversee district strategic plan, goals, and targets; manage district project management system; develop evaluation tools and performance targets.

Last Job: Assistant Superintendent, Strategic Planning and Partnerships, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Cutrona worked as an English teacher for three years in Miami before going to work for The New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization. In 2015, she interviewed Vitti for the organization’s blog. She went to work for him in 2016. She has a degree from Hamilton College.

 

Sharlonda Buckman
Senior Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Lead districtwide community and family engagement efforts.

Last Job: Executive Director, Detroit Parent Network.

Her story: The Detroit native has been running the city’s largest parent network since 2005. The organization said it expanded its membership by 12 times during her time at the helm. She also worked as an administrator at the Michigan Metro Girl Scouts Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit and the Warren/Connor Development Coalition. She has a master’s degree from New Hampshire College.

 

Christine Burkett
Senior Executive Director of Information Technology

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide information technology systems; manage compliance and reporting functions for accountability and assessment (i.e. district and state testing).

Last Job: Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Data, Technology and Assessment at Old Redford Academy School District.

Her story: Burkett started her career as a science tech, chemistry and robotics teacher at Detroit’s Crockett Tech and Redford High Schools before going to work for charter schools. She has served as a curriculum and assessment coordinator for the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences High School and as a top official at the Old Redford Academy. She also worked for private sector firms including General Motors where she developed training for new employees and created online training courses. She has degrees from Delaware State University, Marygrove College, Capella University and a doctorate in educational psychology and technology from Michigan State University.

 

Jason Rose
Senior Executive Director of Research, Evaluation, and Analytics

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of internal and external research. Evaluates district programs; manages data analytics to anticipate districtwide challenges and opportunities; develops policy analysis to guide district strategy.

Last job: Vice-President, Data & Research, Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

His story: Rose worked as an elementary school teacher in Georgia for four years before going into research as he pursued a doctorate in early childhood intervention and literacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s worked for the Jacksonville education fund since 2011. He also has degrees from Ithaca College and Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia.

Rod Hardamon
Special Projects

Salary: being negotiated

Duties: Manages complex, high-level and visible special projects across departments to ensure execution.

Last job: Chairman, URGE Development Group and URGE Imprint.

His story: While Hardamon’s development group is pursuing a $77 million housing and retail development in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, his strategic consulting group helped lead the effort to re-integrate the EAA schools with the main Detroit district. Before moving to Detroit, Hardamon worked as a New York investment banker and hedge fund manager for Citigroup and related firms. He has a degree from Morehouse College.

 

Kristen Howard
Executive Director of Compliance and Special Assistant to the Superintendent

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Manages follow-up activities of federal and state audit findings; oversees development of board committee and board meeting agenda; coordinates and follows up on superintendent issues with the board.

Last Job: Executive Director of Compliance, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: As an attorney with the Clark Hill lawfirm, Howard represented the Detroit Retirement System in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. She came to work for Detroit schools last year as an unpaid consultant to Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes. She later spent six months as a senior legal advisor to the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in the compliance role in December. Howard graduated from from Georgetown law school and clerked for a federal judge in Maryland. She also has a degree from Howard University.

 

Bernadette Kakooza
Inspector General

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts to identify and investigate fraud, malfeasance, corruption; tentatively positioned to lead internal auditing to identify audit concerns before federal and state audits. This position reports to the school board but is led administratively by the superintendent.

 

Last job: Inspector General, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Kakooza has spent her entire 20-year career in the district, working as an auditor and accountant for Office of Internal Audit, the Office of the Inspector General and at Cass Technical High School. She is a certified fraud examiner with degrees from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Interim officials:

Tony Saunders
Interim chief financial officer

Salary: $25,000 a month per contract (includes additional support personnel, no health benefits).

Duties: Oversee districtwide functions for budget, finance, payroll, contracting, and federal programs.

Last job: Chief Restructuring and Financial Officer, Wayne County.

His story: Saunders has advised many school districts and government agencies in Michigan and around the country and worked for a firm that helped the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy. He has a degree from the University of Michigan.

 

 

Chrystal Wilson
Interim Senior Executive Director of Communications and Marketing

Salary: $120,000

Duties: Lead districtwide internal and external communications, including development and implementation of marketing plan.

Last job: Deputy Executive Director of Communications and Press Secretary, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Wilson served as communications director for the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in 2015.  She previously worked for a private PR firm. She has a degree from Wayne State University.

 

Phyllis Hurks-Hill
Chief Legal Counsel (This position is posted for interviews)

Salary: $155,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts in legal review and guidance; oversees board policy and development.

Last job: General Counsel, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit resident has worked for the district, first as a deputy general counsel then as general counsel, since 2005. Prior to that she was in private practice. She has degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan Law School.