DPSCD Superintendent Vitti’s contract extended until 2028

A man with no hair and wearing a dark suit poses for a portrait while standing in a row of chairs in a school auditorium.
Detroit Public School Community District Superintendent Nicolai Vitti, whose contract was extended Tuesday, poses for a portrait at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the first day of school on Aug. 28, 2023, in Detroit. (Elaine Cromie / Chalkbeat)

The Detroit school board voted Tuesday to extend Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s contract until 2028, cementing him as one of the longest serving superintendents in the district’s history.

Vitti was hired in 2017 for a five-year term, and his contract was set to expire in 2025 after the board extended it in 2020. Six of the seven board members approved the new extension. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo was the lone dissenting vote.

“I just think the timing is wrong,” Gay-Dagnogo said, noting that the district must address some culture and climate issues in the district. Gay-Dagnogo also pointed to November’s school board election, in which three seats are on the ballot. She said the board should wait until it is clear who will run for reelection and until new members are elected. The terms for Gay-Dagnogo, as well as Vice President Misha Stallworth and member Sonya Mays, expire at the end of the year.

“I have a problem voting on this. I understand stabilizing the district, keeping the district with the proper leadership. I just think timing is the issue,” she said.

Gay-Dagnogo told BridgeDetroit that since Vitti’s contract was set to expire next year, it should not be a priority at this time. She also said that board members were being inconsiderate of the audience, which had to wait two hours for the group to come out of closed session before they could give comment.

There are several climate and culture issues the district should be concerned about, Gay-Dagnogo said, such as the delays students with disabilities are experiencing with receiving Individualized Education Programs and widespread complaints aired at Tuesday’s meeting alleging that the principal of a district elementary school has created a toxic work environment.

“Who are we elected to serve? We’re elected to serve the people. Our priority should be the people and our staff,” she said. “So, to make that (the contract) a priority last night without even any discussion in any prior conversation … was very insensitive.”

There was no other discussion, aside from board chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry telling Gay-Dagnogo that her feedback was “duly noted.”

The vote followed a two-hour closed session that riled some in the audience who had to wait until after the session to speak during the public comment period.

Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the board’s decision to move the closed session ahead of public comment “discourages our participation and minimizes our voices.”

“You attempt to vote to adjust your agenda so you can get done early at our expense and then vote to extend the superintendent’s contract well before its expiration date,” said Wilson-Lumpkins, who added that it “is parallel to all the shenanigans we encounter at the negotiating table and in many of our schools. We do not have confidence in you.”

Vitti currently earns a base salary of $354,973. The contract amendment the board approved Tuesday calls for him to receive a salary increase based on the percentage of teacher union pay increases. The district is in negotiations with the union, which is in the final year of its contract.

When he took over, Vitti had the task of turning around one of the most troubled school districts in the nation, following a 2016 legislative initiative that addressed massive debt and restored local control after years of state oversight. The district had the worst test scores among big city districts in the nation on a rigorous national exam.

Under his leadership, the district adopted a new curriculum to replace one that Vitti called an “injustice to the children of Detroit” because it was outdated and inadequate. He set out to reform the district’s high schools in part by giving students opportunities to explore careers. And he has made increasing salaries, particularly for teachers, a priority. In 2022, Vitti was named Urban Educator of the Year.

Before the pandemic, the district had begun to see small gains in enrollment, test scores, and reduced absenteeism. Post-pandemic, though, enrollment is down by 2,000 students, and chronic absenteeism remains incredibly high — 66% of the district’s students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year. Test scores remain low, but a recent study found the district is showing strong signs of recovery from the pandemic.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

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