Principals, district leaders will be trained on managing conflict in the Detroit school district

A teacher writes on the board with students at their desks in the foreground.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District plans to invest in coaching principals and district leaders on managing conflict, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Tuesday. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

The Detroit school district will invest money in next year’s budget to ensure school leaders and central office leaders are trained to manage conflict.

The district will also bring in third-party mediators to help resolve some conflicts.

Those were two new steps Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced Tuesday during a report he made to the school board on dealing with complaints. Part of that report included a flowchart on how complaints are handled.

Vitti’s call for more training for school and district leaders is based on recent complaints made during the public comment period of board meetings and “just what I have seen over eight years with employee manager relationships.”

As the district has pushed harder on student performance and focused on outcomes and ensuring students do better academically, “administrators are holding employees more accountable to what’s happening in classrooms,” and in some cases that is leading to more tension and conflict, he said.

“But that does not excuse abuse,” Vitti said. “It does not excuse mismanagement of people and employees.”

The budget for the 2024-25 school year would include money to cover training for school and district leaders that would coach them on “how you manage change, how you manage conflict, how you manage disagreement.” The district hasn’t presented a proposed budget yet, and Vitti didn’t say how much the training could cost. Michigan districts must pass a balanced budget by June 30.

Vitti, who often faces criticism himself from those attending school board meetings, said he’s tried to model the kind of reaction he believes district leaders should follow.

“I try to focus on what is the substance and root of the concern rather than taking it personally. And it’s not easy to do. But it’s something that all of our leaders must do better at,” Vitti said.

At the board’s March meeting, a group of staff members at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School used the public comment period to make allegations that their principal has created an abusive and retaliatory atmosphere at the school. Several returned Tuesday, but were also joined by supporters of Stephanie Gaines, the principal.

Gaines told Chalkbeat last month that when she arrived at the school in 2019, it was not focused on teaching and learning.

“Thirkell serves some of the most disadvantaged and challenged students and families in the country. I come to work each day to give them an opportunity to succeed in this hard world,” Gaines said.

One of the returnees to Tuesday’s meeting was Emma Howland-Bolton, a fourth grade teacher, who told board members Tuesday that most of the current and former staff whose testimonials about the alleged abuse were part of a letter sent to the district now want their names attached. The letter was signed by some staff members but not all who provided testimonials.

She said she is skeptical the district will address the concerns that have been raised.

“I now know there is nothing I or anyone else can do or say to get the people on this stage to care,” Howland-Bolton said.

“They don’t care that we have the highest teacher turnover rate in the district because of the culture of fear and intimidation that permeates our building. And they don’t care that our young people often have three or four different teachers in a year as a result,” she added.

Kelly Townsel, a math master teacher at Thirkell, told the board Tuesday that she supports Gaines.

“School leadership keeps the staff, students and families safe. Never at any time since I have arrived at Thirkell have I witnessed any hostile situations with school leadership. We are doing amazing things … I believe in our leadership,” Townsel said.

Last month, Vitti responded to the complaints by saying that the district would interview staff at the school. During an update at Tuesday’s meeting, he said that work has already begun. Willing staff have been interviewed, and an ongoing survey will help the district assess the climate at the school. The results will be shared with the school’s leadership team and staff, Vitti said.

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

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