Finances and reform are at stake in the Detroit district school board race

A red sign reads "Vote Here" with a tan brick wall in the background.
There are 14 people running for the three, four-year seats. Besides the incumbents, the candidates include a state lawmaker, retired educators, community activists, and former school board members. The seven-member board oversees and sets policy for the school district, which enrolls about 50,000 students. (Grace Cary / Getty Images)

With three Detroit school board incumbents facing off against nearly a dozen challengers in the Nov. 3 election, political observers and community leaders say any change in the board’s makeup has the potential to thwart the school district’s reform efforts. 

In many ways, the election could come down to a referendum on the success of the board and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who was hired in 2017 to turn around one of the worst-performing school districts in the nation. The three board members whose seats are open were first elected in 2016, as the district emerged from years of state control.

“The bottom line comes down to, ‘Is the current superintendent … moving the district to the next level,’” said Mario Morrow, a political analyst with a background in education, including as a superintendent in Albion.

What’s at stake? In the last four years, since new leadership took over in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, students have shown modest academic gains, the financial picture is more stable, chronic absenteeism is down, and arts programs have flourished. But the district has faced criticism during this time from those who say academic improvement hasn’t improved enough. Most recently, the district has faced complaints about virtual learning and opening school buildings during the pandemic.

There are 14 people running for three, four-year seats. Besides the incumbents, the candidates include a state lawmaker, retired educators, community activists, and former school board members. The seven-member board oversees and sets policy for the school district, which enrolls about 50,000 students.

Morrow and other political observers said that anytime members change on an elected board, it can affect the dynamics of the group. And that dynamic is influenced by the members and how they see their role and relationship to each other.

Indeed, a change to the board’s makeup could lead to a reassignment of roles. The incumbents include the board President Iris Taylor and Treasurer Sonya Mays. New leadership on the board could usher in new priorities and potentially slow down decision-making, experts said.

The three board incumbents gave Vitti high marks in Chalkbeat’s candidate survey, with one calling him highly effective. Vitti has often publicly praised the board for its leadership and oversight. 

“The turnaround work has been exhausting and difficult but not impossible because the school board has owned the reform and remained focused,” Vitti said. “Improving the district would be impossible if the school board was focused on politics and personal glory and gain.”

Vitti also countered criticism that the current board “rubber stamps” his recommendations. The board generally has more robust discussions about district recommendations during committee meetings than it does during the regular monthly board meeting. 

“There has been plenty of disagreement about certain topics and reform issues,” Vitti said. “However, due to professionalism, trust, and respect, we have worked through those issues and compromised on both sides to move the reform forward.”

Arlyssa Heard, a district parent and community organizer with 482Forward, said the district will need a unified school board that works with the community to tackle the challenges created by the pandemic.

“The pandemic has magnified everything by 1,000%,” said Heard, whose group is an educational justice organization.

That unity is also crucial to maintaining the district’s financial status. DPSCD was created in 2016 as part of a legislative solution to the debt that had crushed Detroit Public Schools. DPS still exists, but solely to collect millage revenue and pay off millions in legacy debt. The new district exists solely to educate students.

Michigan still has a law on the books that allows for an appointed emergency manager to oversee school districts and municipalities that are near financial collapse. DPS had several emergency managers from 2009 through 2016. 

Craig Thiel, research director at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said the board will need to keep up with its financial responsibilities to prevent a repeat.

“If conditions are [not] met, a state manager could be one of the options for dealing with a fiscal crisis,” Thiel said. “But this, of course, would require the financial situation to deteriorate fairly quickly.”

Healthy debate is good for any policymaking body, Morrow said. But an overly divisive board could breed tension and instability, and affect the perception of the district, which is actively competing to recruit students and teachers. 

Vitti said there would be some short- and long-term challenges if the board membership changes, noting that the three incumbents hold leadership positions, although he welcomed the positive experiences and perspectives of several challengers. 

“The current school board and superintendent team has made tremendous improvements to the school district in several areas over the last three years, which includes an increase in student enrollment,” he said. “When a team is beginning to win, you do not upset its chemistry.” 

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