Vitti talks budget, enrollment, and high school reform at Mackinac conference

A man in a gray suit bends down to talk to a boy in a blue shirt as another boy in a blue shirt and a woman in gray and black look on.
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students at Detroit’s Durfee Elementary-Middle School in 2017. Vitti, whose contract was recently renewed, spoke at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday about the budget, enrollment, literacy lawsuit funding, and other issues. (Erin Einhorn / Chalkbeat)

The chief of Detroit’s public schools said that “hard decisions” last year have kept the district on solid financial footing amid the loss of federal COVID relief funds, and that pre-K retention is a key strategy for enrollment growth.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sat down with BridgeDetroit during the Mackinac Policy Conference to discuss the district’s budget stability and planned uses of literacy lawsuit settlement dollars — such as reducing K-4 class sizes, adding more academic interventionists, and building out programs for migrant students.

Vitti also talked about the district’s short-term efforts to assist students with federal student aid forms and longer-term plans for a “significant” redesign of high school classes and programs, as well as the concept of a special DPSCD diploma focused on honors, arts, and careers contingent on the completion of FAFSA.

He also filled us in on the response to his recent plea for a crackdown on marijuana edibles and his renewed contract and succession planning.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Last year, the district made a number of budget cuts that reflected the loss of the COVID relief money. What will the budget picture look like this year? Do you anticipate more cuts?

Fortunately, no. We obviously made those hard decisions last year. Because we were proactive, we’re in a better position than other districts that waited until the last minute to balance budgets based on not having that one-time money.

Last year, we not only had to deal with not having the COVID money, but we had to deal with pandemic enrollment loss, inflation, and a commitment to not only increase teacher salary but everyone’s salary going into this school year, which we did.

A lot of the challenges that other districts are facing, we’re not. As we go into next year’s budget season, to answer your question directly, no, we don’t have to make any budget reductions.

Tell us more about how funding from the $94 million literacy lawsuit settlement will be used next year.

Our principals will have an opportunity to lower class size in K-4, hire more academic interventionists in K-4 … things like buying books to take home, expanding parent academy classes focused on literacy, more training on literacy. Also, better supporting English language learners with more academic interventionists, trying to build out newcomer programs where … newly arrived students would be in a more sheltered learning environment to learn the language and just be more familiar with the country and the culture shock and change.

That’s what I would describe as new things happening, mainly through literacy lawsuit funding.

The other big opportunity that we’re working hard on, and there’s momentum on, is to get more categorical funding at the state level.

We’re appreciative of the increases in per-pupil funding and more restricted state grants that the state is providing — but those are restricted, and we can only use them for certain things. We can use that money to attack some of the issues we can’t with limited general funding. So, continuing to increase teacher salaries, facility funding, and that’s what we could be doing more of if we received more funding.

Enrollment continues to be an issue in Detroit and other parts of the state. What new strategies are being considered to address the pandemic declines?

We came in as expected (on enrollment): 48,200 students. That is what was budgeted for last school year, and that is roughly where we were with the fall and spring count. And that’s what we are predicting next year as well. If we’re going to see an increase in enrollment, it’s going to come through pre-K. We’re continuing to increase the number of pre-K classrooms now that they are fully funded. So, we’ll have about 18 more pre-K classrooms next year, and what we’re working on is trying to keep those pre-K students in DPS as they go into kindergarten. About 70% to 80% of those students have stayed with us, and that’s our long-term goal to increase enrollment.

I think we’re stable from an enrollment perspective, and now it’s about looking inward and improving the quality of what we’re offering.

You have been vocal about the need for equitable funding. What more does the state need to do to ensure students in districts like Detroit receive funding that is equitable?

Vitti: The more practical solution is to create more flexibility with current categorical funding, whether 31A (funding for at-risk students) or state grants, even at the federal level. More flexibility would allow us to attack the issues that we have in the district where general funds can only be used, and that’s where the dollars are short. The rising cost of transportation, the rising cost of utilities, the rising cost of salaries and wages — that can only be addressed through the general fund. We’ve seen increases of state grants and increases of at-risk money, but those dollars are restricted.

We’ve heard from staff that special education shortages are leading to delays in evaluating students for services. One board member said at a recent meeting that these delays are “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” What is the district doing to ensure students receive evaluations in a timely manner?

Short term, we’ve had to rely more on virtual engagement through our employees and contractors to be clear to evaluate students who may be identified for services.

Recently, we announced the expansion of $15,000 for special needs social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists. We’ve had an increase of people applying for those positions and being hired. That’s a step in the right direction. By the summer, we will reevaluate our progress.

With the rollout of the new FAFSA getting off to a rocky start, how did DPSCD staff help high schoolers in filling out the form? What is the plan for next year?

We’ve hired additional guidance counselors to work evenings, weekends to engage high school students and their families on completing the FAFSA, and that’s helped. That’s our main strategy to try to catch up from the gaps that have been created with the changes at the federal level.

Long term, not this year but the following year, we’re going to do a significant high school redesign in the classes we’re offering students and the programs across the board. We will talk more about that later in the summer, but one aspect of that change is to offer a ninth grade class focused on college and career planning and advisory classes going into 10th, 11th, and 12 grade, to be more intentional about planning for college and planning for a career, and the FAFSA would be a part of that. Probably moving forward on requiring students to complete the FAFSA to gain a degree beyond a minimum state high school diploma. We’re talking about a special DPSCD diploma focused on honors, arts, and career, which would have that FAFSA component connected.

What has the response been like to your call for state lawmakers to crack down on marijuana edibles and marijuana vape pens?

I’ve received a lot of thanks for naming it as a problem and bringing greater awareness to parents about it. But largely, the people that have been questioning the legalization and accessibility, I think I was just echoing what they’ve been saying.

The governor’s office did reach out and did say that it might be time to revisit the parameters and the law related to legalization, which is positive. Some lawmakers reached out and wanted to understand what they could do differently with the law moving forward.

The next step is greater awareness, parent responsibility, and I would say accountability with securing the edibles. Most of the students are getting the edibles from their own homes or family members. There’s definitely a need to secure it if you have it and talk to children about not taking candy that they didn’t buy themselves or that they didn’t get from a family member, and also, the other aspect of a possible change in the law is prohibiting the manufacturing of candy-like edibles. Colorado did that.

You previously talked about succession planning. Where does that stand, and what are your future plans?

I just renewed my contract.

For me, the upcoming board election is going to be important. There are three seats open. Obviously who is on the board is critical. For the last eight years, it’s been a true partnership between myself and the board. You can’t be focused on reform and implement reform without a board that supports reform but also actively communicates and problem solves with the superintendent.

This board largely has been a problem solving, governance, policy-minded board that thinks about their role in partnership with the superintendent, not in opposition to the superintendent. That’s going to be important for me to still be supported and do what I do. It doesn’t mean current or future board members have to agree always with me, because they don’t, but it’s how you manage those disagreements.

I’m certainly willing to continue to do this work. The renewal of the contract for me spoke to the board’s desire for me to continue to do this. I’m here to stay throughout the extended contract.

Am I thoughtful about continuing to develop people to take my place? Absolutely. I would say four years is good enough time to continue to build the district and create sustainability. I wouldn’t rule out more years beyond the four, but that’s going to be dependent on the people that I develop. Are they ready, are they willing, and where’s the board? Those are all going to be questions for me in the future, but the work itself, I don’t see being deterred by the work and the challenges of the work.

Christine Ferretti is the managing editor for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at cferretti@bridgedetroit.com.

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