Week In Review

Week in review: Open Meetings Act violation postpones superintendent discussion

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Teams with Detroit Public Schools Community District students will be going for the first time to the Destination Imagination Global Competition next month. The problem-solving competition draws more than 17,000 participants from 20 countries. Among the winners is a team from Detroit’s Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy.

A crucial discussion about who should lead Detroit’s main school district won’t happen until at least next week after a superintendent search update was postponed last night due to problems with the way the meeting was advertised.

The Detroit school board now plans to discuss (and possibly vote on) the two finalists — Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti and River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night. Thursday’s meeting was cancelled after an activist who scrutinizes city practices filed an emergency court motion to prevent the board from violating the state Open Meetings Act.


“The irony was that there was going to be no action taken today. It was just going to be open deliberation.”

— LaMar Lemmons, Detroit school board member


The board had announced the meeting on social media and in a press release but the notice was not clearly visible on the district’s website yesterday. Read on for more about the superintendent search and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out our new series featuring parents, students and educators talking about Detroit schools. This week’s inaugural story featured a teacher explaining the tragic reason why her students sometimes don’t come to class. Do you have a story to tell or know someone who does? Please let us know.

The search

The Detroit school board this week defended its superintendent search process from an onslaught of criticism. “We ask and request that we are allowed to do this process that was agreed upon by this board back in January,” the head of the board’s search committee said.

Critics are steamed by what some call an “unfair” decision to exclude interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who applied for the position but was not named a finalist when the board decided only to consider candidates with three or more years of superintendent experience. Meriweather had gotten broad support from teachers, parents, and community leaders, including business titan Dan Gilbert and a parent advocate who blogged this week that “the majority of Detroiters agree that we don’t want to start over from scratch.”

The two remaining finalists revealed in video interviews and in their 90- and 100-day plans for what they’ll do if they get the job that they are men with a lot in common and big ambitions for the district.

The Detroit News says it believes Coleman is the board’s preferred candidate, but the paper urged the board to pick Vitti instead, arguing that “the fact that Vitti has run a large school district gives him experience with complicated budgets, which he’d be overseeing in Detroit.”

Vitti has expressed enthusiasm for the job but assured a Florida news station that he’ll be keeping his eye on his current job until he gets a new one. “Right now, my focus is on Duval County Public Schools,” Vitti told a reporter in Jacksonville. “We still have lots of work to do here and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”


In other Detroit schools news

    • This Detroit teacher reveals the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class.
    • Three charter schools that are currently part of the Education Achievement Authority now face an uncertain future.
    • Enrollment in Detroit’s main school district is at a historic low.
    • Hundreds of Detroit parents have turned in letters opting their children out of this year’s M-STEP exam to protest school closings and other high-stakes consequences for test scores. Schools could face sanctions if more than 5 percent of their students opt out. A Free Press columnist urges Lansing to pay attention to what protesting parents are saying.  
    • A partnership between Detroit’s main school district and the University of Detroit Mercy aims to attract more teachers, especially African-American men.
    • A new novel is inspired by a writer’s time teaching poetry to kids in Detroit schools.
    • Two Detroit high school orchestras that will compete against each other in a national competition at Carnegie Hall this month are led by a married couple — he teaches at Renaissance High School; she at Detroit School of Arts.
    • This Detroit private school makes a point of teaching cursive.


Across the state

    • Michigan is revising its rules to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, but doesn’t plan to publicly share its final plan before sending it to the federal government for approval. The state superintendent makes his case for why the state’s plan “is the proper course and the best direction for education in Michigan” but a schools advocate knocks the department for choosing “expediency over transparency” with its ESSA plan.
    • The state education department is looking for tools that schools and districts can use to identify children who are in danger of being held back under the state’s tougher new third grade reading requirements.
    • A Free Press columnist slams a House bill that would allow schools to replace foreign language instruction with computer coding classes. “It should not be either/or,” she writes. But a western Michigan lawmaker who helped craft the legislation says her bill “would give students better choices.”
    • The state’s top court heard arguments this week on whether courts have any say over private school admissions. The case centers around a girl whose parents say she was turned away a Catholic school because of a learning disability.
    • A Democratic candidate for governor says, if elected, she would crack down on charter school authorizers who fail to close poor-performing charter schools.
    • The parents of a middle-schooler with autism are suing their local district after their son told them he was sexually abused by a classmate.

Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit schools boss — and (another) panic over closing threats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Detroit school board discusses superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti before his selection on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

The biggest news in Detroit schools this week was the selection of a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti — at least until the city was swept by rumors of looming school closures.

Rumors began circulating Thursday after the state superintendent told reporters that the Detroit district planned to voluntarily shutter “some” of the 24 schools that had been targeted by the state earlier this year for forced closure. The news — broadcast by local papers including one that issued a news alert —  set off a panic and fury from parents and even school leaders. Two school board members expressed alarm when contacted by Chalkbeat, saying they’d heard nothing about closures. The matter didn’t die down until several hours later when the district issued a denial.

“You may have read recent news reports that indicated Detroit Public Schools Community District planned to close schools. Currently, the district is only relocating two programs, Durfee and Turning Point Academy, to other buildings for the 2017-18 school year.”

— Detroit Public Schools Community District statement

The episode illustrated just how on edge Detroit is when it comes to its schools — hardly an easy landscape for Vitti to enter. Read on for more about Vitti’s selection, the steep challenges he faces, and the rest of the week’s education news.

Also, we’re continuing to tell the individual stories of Detroit schools including this week’s story from a student who says her charter school promised art classes and college tours — then didn’t deliver. If you have a story to tell about Detroit schools or know someone who does, please let us know.


The new boss

  • The school board’s unanimous vote to select Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, came after one member changed his no to a yes to show Vitti that he has the full support of the board.
  • The vote drew jeers from a heckler who was angry that the board had chosen a white man to lead the primarily African American school district. “You all know we’re black, right?” she shouted.
  • The selection of a white man for the job is bound to concern some parents in a city where most kids are poor and nonwhite, a Bridge Magazine reporter said during a radio broadcast. “There are parents who very understandably want someone in the role who understands the achievement gap,” she said. But she noted that Vitti’s wife his black and so are his four children. “He is like a lot of the parents in Detroit Public Schools in that he has the achievement gap living in his home,” she said.
  • The board now plans to negotiate a contract with Vitti — though those talks are on hold until at least Tuesday due to a legal challenge from activist who says the search process violated the law.
  • If Vitti formally accept the job, he’ll have a lot of work to do. Among things that Detroiters and educators say should be at the top of his list is addressing the disappointment of the community members who wanted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to get the job.
  • Once the news broke of Vitti’s selection, school board members in Duval County praised his track record in the Florida district. “I believe he can be very successful in Detroit,” one board member said. “I frankly think success in Detroit will really put him on a national stage. I’m excited about this opportunity for him and his career.”
  • A Detroit News columnist called him a “game changer,” adding: “He needs to be. Because it’s now or never” for Detroit schools.
  • Vitti beat out River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman who called Vitti a “great hire,” adding that he felt “almost a sense of relief” that he didn’t get the job. “It would have been extremely difficult to leave my current position,” he said.


In other Detroit news

  • The state superintendent later clarified his panic-creating remarks about Detroit school closings saying the Detroit district may need to close schools in the future “based on their enrollment numbers.” The only changes planned this year, the district says, are at Durfee Elementary-Middle school, which will be moved into nearby Central High School. The Turning Point Academy will be moving to another nearby building.
  • A town hall meeting was held Thursday night to give parents a chance to air their concerns about school closures in Detroit.
  • A Free Press columnist urged city philanthropic leaders to “drop the mother of all philanthropic bombs on the city’s schools,” but the head of a major local foundation said fixing city schools will take more than cash. “If we knew that money was the solution, we would have done exactly that.”
  • The same columnist earlier in the week renewed the call for a citywide education commission that would oversee all Detroit schools. “Who’s minding the entire store, perusing the landscape, making sure that schools  — public, private and parochial — are open where families need them and work successfully for all children?” she asked.
  • One Detroit student —  who says she and her siblings have attended 22 Detroit schools — says her charter school broke promises when it failed to provide art classes and college tours.
  • A Detroit charter school is hoping new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing this week will help preserve the school’s diversity. (Read this to learn more about the challenges faced by Detroit charter schools seeking diversity).
  • A coalition of Detroit organizations looking to expand early childhood education is inviting Detroiters to find or host a “listening session” this month or next — especially on April 27, Detroit Day of the Young Child — as part of a yearlong planning process to make Detroit a “kid-friendly city” by 2027.
  • An Ann Arbor couple is helping to send Detroit high school students to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • A Detroit charter school is spending $6 million on a new addition including space for new classrooms as well as broadcast and performing art studios.
  • More than 150 Detroit high school students will gather with teachers next weekend to prepare for Advanced Placement exams.

Across the state

In other news

More from Chalkbeat

Week In Review

Week in review: The superintendent candidate who might (or might not) send his kids to Detroit public schools

PHOTO: Comerica Bank
Comerica Bank surprised 50 Detroit Central High School students with the news that they’ll be able to attend the 2017 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. The ninth- through 12th-grade students, who have an interest in robotics and technology, will meet with several racing professionals during a behind-the-scenes tour of race activities on Belle Isle on June 2.

Controversy and a lawsuit didn’t stop Detroit’s main school district from moving into the next phase of its superintendent search this week: interviews with the first of two remaining finalists. Nikolai Vitti, who is currently superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, made an impassioned case in a daylong interview this week for why he’s the man for the job. If selected, he said, he’s “likely” to enroll his four children in Detroit public schools — though he made no promises.

“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.”

— Nikolai Vitti, finalist for Detroit schools superintendent

Read on for the rest of the week’s education news and more on the superintendent search, including our take on five reasons Vitti might get the job (and three reasons he might not). Send us your thoughts on his pros and cons — or post them on our Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

The search

  • In his daylong interview in Detroit on Wednesday, Vitti cast himself as an experienced educator who wants to bring his school turnaround experience to a city he called his “home.”
  • Over the course of his 12-hour interview, Vitti addressed a host of issues and vowed, if selected, to take on charter schools and bring district enrollment back up to where it was. (Here’s a take on Vitti’s day in Detroit from his hometown newspaper.)
  • Vitti has been a popular leader in Jacksonville but has sparred with the NAACP and sometimes clashed with school board members. Those are among the 10 things we think you should know about Vitti.
  • Why should Vitti want to come here? “Football players want to play in the Super Bowl,” a researcher who has studied superintendents told a Jacksonville newspaper. “A track star wants be in the Olympics. Superintendents want to be where the biggest challenges are or where you can make the biggest impact.”
  • Detroit’s school board is still under pressure to extend the search, make it more transparent, and add more candidates, including interim chief Alycia Meriweather. (She said this week she’ll “continue to work for kids in Detroit” whatever happens.) For now, the other finalist for the job, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will face the same 12-hour interview process on Monday.
  • Coleman this week rebuffed criticism of his efforts to lure Detroit students to River Rouge by sending buses into the city, noting that the move had eliminated his district’s budget deficit. He also says his time as a regional superintendent in Detroit — and his status as a district alum — makes him the best fit for the job. “I understand the city and the needs of the people,” he said.


In other Detroit school news

  • The search of a state senator’s home is tied to the ongoing Detroit school corruption probe.
  • Detroit schools were just returned to a locally elected board for the first time in years. But a nonprofit consultant is already arguing that the city’s schools should be run by the mayor. “Mayoral control would ultimately change that conversation about who should be accountable for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and where the buck stops,” he writes.
  • Among programs that could be slashed under President Trump’s proposed budget is one that has placed scores of recent college grads in Detroit schools to help students. (Here’s a broader look at how the proposed AmeriCorps cuts could hurt schools.)
  • A group of Detroit high school students invited homeless people last weekend to a picnic and resource fair.
  • Cass Tech’s principal was named principal of the year by a state association.
  • A woman who pleaded guilty to stealing $1.3 million from Detroit schools was scheduled to be sentenced today.
  • A new Head Start Center is opening in a historic midtown church.

Across the state

  • Gov. Rick Snyder’s education budget differs in several ways from the House and Senate versions.