Detroit district attendance agents would keep their jobs next school year under new budget plan

A board of people seated at a table on a stage in front of a projection screen showing text from a slide show.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District school board meets to discuss the district’s 2023-24 school year budget on Wednesday. (Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat)

School attendance agents would be spared from layoffs under a proposed budget shared by Detroit school district officials at a special board meeting Wednesday.

As recently as March, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that as many as 20 attendance agent positions could be cut as the district aims to balance its budget and retool its strategy to address persistently high rates of chronic absenteeism, which threaten to undermine the district’s reform and pandemic recovery efforts.   

But as of now, Vitti said Wednesday, “all attendance agents are funded” in the budget outline for the coming school year. 

Last school year, 77% of DPSCD students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year, or 18 days. Attendance agents have been a key part of the district’s strategy to address that problem.  

The district currently employs about 90 attendance agents, assigned to individual schools across the city. But last fall, district officials began to reconsider their allocation of one agent per school. 

The new budget recommendations come as the district tries to rein in its spending on staff to deal with impact of pandemic-related enrollment declines, the end of federal COVID relief aid, and its commitments to raise teacher salaries and curtail employee health care premiums. In the past month, the district sent out letters notifying hundreds of support staff that their positions could be cut or consolidated heading into next year.

Roughly 150 district employees — school culture facilitators, kindergarten paraeducators, and college transition advisers — could be laid off or transferred to different positions. 

Wednesday’s special meeting was the first time board members have met formally to discuss budget proposals since a Feb. 18 public meeting at the DPSCD Public Safety Headquarters. But at that meeting, board members discussed the budget behind closed doors.

“We know that what we have in front of us is an attempt to address the priorities that were laid out by the board at the study session,” board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said Wednesday. “We talked about attendance. We talked about academic achievement. We talked about college graduation rates, and so I think what we see in front of us is an attempt to make sure those things are not compromised.”

In an over 50-page presentation to the board, the district described its current financial state as well as the details of its proposed $1.135 billion budget for 2023-24. Wednesday’s presentation also outlined options for school employees who face layoffs.

Some schools have decided to allocate a portion of their Title I funding to keep their school culture facilitators, paraeducators and college transition advisers, Vitti noted. At the other schools, it will be up to employees at schools to decide whether to take on a different role in the district. 

Under the district’s proposal, those employees could still apply for other positions within the district at equal or similar wages. School culture facilitators and paraeducators could sign on as cafeteria workers, day-to-day substitutes, or special ed paraprofessionals, for example, while college transition advisers could become counselors or academic interventionists. In some cases, employees might have to pursue further education to qualify for the new positions.

“There is no reason why any individual in those three groups would not be employed next year,” Vitti said. 

He said the district’s budget recommendations reflect positions that district officials believe will advance their long-term reform efforts. 

But some educators and parents weren’t happy with the recommendations, which outline cuts that would fall heavily on smaller schools. For example, most schools with fewer than 300 students would no longer have their own attendance agents next year.

Taura Brown, a DPSCD parent, said her son attends a school that could lose its school culture facilitator because its student population is under 300 — below the district’s threshold for schools that would keep some of their support staff and administrators.

The culture facilitators “save a lot of lives,” Brown said. “Sometimes those culture facilitators — those Black men — are the only Black men these children encounter all day. There’s no father in their home. They’re suffering through abject poverty and they are coming to school where they are being encouraged and … made sure to feel loved, challenged, and prepared.”

Daniel Butts, a school culture facilitator at Nichols Elementary-Middle School said many of the staff, parents, and students call him “the glue that helps keep our school together.”

“They need me there, not as a security guard, not as someone wiping tables, but someone that will sit in a circle with them and tell them in spite of their mistake to try again.”

Detroit high school teacher Gavin Buckley warned against laying off or reassigning critical support staff. 

“People that are going to get transferred into positions that are significantly worse will leave this district … will leave my students lacking in my school, and we’re already short-staffed.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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