Enroll

How bad timing and poisonous politics killed a $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

A sophisticated new enrollment tool that was supposed to make signing up for school easier in Detroit won’t be of much use to the thousands of families whose children could be displaced by upcoming school closures.

Despite the more than $700,000 and countless hours of planning that went into creating a single application for Detroit’s competing district and charter schools, the effort has been put on hold indefinitely — a victim of bad timing, poor planning, and a toxic political environment.

“It’s a shame,” said Karey Reed-Henderson, a former charter school leader who served on the planning committee for what came to be called Enroll Detroit.

“We came together. We hashed things out,” Reed-Henderson said of a process that brought together charter school leaders with officials from the Detroit Public Schools, the state-run Education Achievement Authority and representatives of community groups.

“It wasn’t always roses and butterflies but the conversation was always around what’s best for the kids and best for families,” she said.

“Unfortunately it just got muddied.”

Now, as 25 Detroit schools face possible shut-down by the state, the handful of staffers still working at Enroll Detroit hope they can use their knowledge and technology to help at least some of the roughly 12,000 children who could be affected.

But the grand vision of creating a common enrollment system similar to those used in other cities is largely dead — at least for the near future.

In common enrollment cities like New Orleans, Denver, Newark and Washington DC, parents no longer need to navigate a mix of deadlines and requirements to apply to multiple schools. They don’t need to drive around, submitting one kind of application to their local district school, another kind to district magnet schools and a host of other applications to a host of charter schools.

Instead, parents use a single application that lets them rank the schools they want for their children. A computer then crunches admission criteria and applies a lottery to assign children to schools.

Proponents say common enrollments are more equitable because most applicants have the same shot at sought-after schools. The systems also remove some of the guesswork for administrators by preventing parents from enrolling in multiple schools, then waiting until September to make their final decisions.

The systems have been controversial around the country, running into opposition in cities like Boston and Oakland because they reduce the influence some parents have had in school admissions. They can also hurt traditional districts by making it easier for families to choose charter schools.

But few cities have the deeply poisonous relationships between district and charter schools that doomed the effort in Detroit.

Here, in a city where roughly equal numbers of students attend district and charter schools, and where thousands of students travel out of town to attend suburban schools, what happened to Detroit’s common enrollment shows how difficult it can be for competing factions to come together. The tensions exposed by the issue are the same ones that make it difficult to solve other serious challenges in Detroit, such as student transportation and teacher recruitment, that would be easier to address if competing schools worked together.

That kind of collaboration isn’t dead, said Reed-Henderson who is the founder of the Metro Detroit Charter Center and the Detroit Teacher Village. “But I think the right people need to get back in the room.”

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PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

 

Officials with the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit (which is a Chalkbeat supporter) first proposed creating a common enrollment for Detroit in 2013. Though competition for students is fierce in a city where school funding is based almost exclusively on student enrollment, the school leaders who came together around the enrollment effort hoped they could find solutions to shared problems.

“Schools were struggling to find parents and parents were struggling to find schools,” said Dan Quisenberry, who heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group that was involved in the early days of the effort.

There were risks for all parties, said Neil Dorosin, the consultant and school enrollment expert who was brought to Detroit to determine if common enrollment could work here.

“It was very threatening to the district because right now there are a lot of children who don’t make choices because they get rolled up into their district school,” Dorosin said. “It was threatening to the (Education Achievement Authority) for similar reasons. And it was threatening to charter schools who would have to play by a much more transparent set of rules.”

Individually, he said, “it’s not in anyone’s best interest, but it is in the best interest for the customer.”

As the planning group met in 2014 and 2015 to hammer out details, Excellent Schools Detroit raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from foundations and hired a tech company to build a massive database that could match students with schools.

Then, with the system ready to go last year, the group announced it would plow ahead with a pilot project to see how many students it could place for the 2016-2017 school year.

But just as the pilot was launching, a nasty fight was raging in Lansing over a package of bills aimed at keeping the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

One of the provisions in the bills would have created a city-wide Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor, that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools.

The Detroit Education Commission was strongly opposed by some charter school advocates including Betsy DeVos, an influential Michigan philanthropist who was confirmed this month as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Because Excellent Schools Detroit was among Detroit organizations backing the commission and because enrollment was one of the areas over which the commission would have had authority, the issue became politically charged. Though the commission was ultimately removed from the final legislation, the threat of it kept some charter schools away from the enrollment pilot.

“There was a big question of trust,” said Quisenberry, who said he grew concerned that common enrollment officials would steer families to district schools at the expense of charter schools.

To make things even more challenging, the Detroit Public Schools were in turmoil.

Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who was running the district at the start of 2016, resigned amid controversy in early February.

Earley was replaced by former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who agreed to serve as “transition manager” until the the city schools could be returned to a locally elected school board. Because Rhodes did not want to make any long-term commitments for the district, he announced that DPS would not participate in the common enrollment pilot.

That meant that the pilot went forward with less than a quarter of Detroit schools. Of more than 200 schools in the city, just 41 participated in the pilot, including some charter schools, a private school and the 15 schools in the Education Achievement Authority.

The application system placed just 78 children — a fraction of the almost 20,000 kids who were applying to kindergarten or ninth grade, the two grades that were the focus of the pilot.

School enrollment counselors also provided advice to a few hundred additional families, including some who were displaced by charter schools that closed last year.

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
A multi-year, $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit has been tabled indefinitely.

Whether common enrollment has a future in Detroit isn’t clear.

The new Detroit school board, which was sworn in last month, has not yet publicly discussed the issue. A district official who played an important role in the planning process and a district spokeswoman both declined to comment on whether the district might someday be open to joining a common enrollment system.

Meanwhile, at Excellent Schools Detroit, a new interim director is rethinking the organization’s mission. The group’s two top officials — its longtime CEO and vice president — both left at the end of 2016.

But some Enroll Detroit staffers are still on the payroll, and they say they’re looking to use the resources they’ve created to help families affected by state-mandated school closings this spring.

State officials “are saying, ‘We want to get the kids in a higher quality school’ but what kind of chance are they going to have?” asked Maria Montoya, Enroll Detroit’s executive director.

Families won’t know for sure which schools will close until March or even later since state decisions are likely to be challenged in court. By then, many of Detroit’s most sought-after schools, including charter schools and selective district schools, will already have completed their enrollments.

Many of the schools targeted for closure are in neighborhoods that don’t have many high-performing schools and where parents have few resources to figure out which schools are taking new students and which offer transportation.

A letter state officials sent to parents suggested they reach out to districts as far as an hour away from Detroit — including some that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Montoya said she’s hoping to adapt Enroll Detroit’s computer system to help track kids as they move to new schools, making sure their records transfer and that things like special education services are continued — details that sometimes fall through through the cracks when schools close.

She’s also hoping that over the summer, some schools will use Enroll Detroit to fill vacancies.

“Instead of using the full system, we could take the technology we have and have schools give us the seats they have available and we could do a real-time placement in June, July, and August when we know families are really applying and looking for seats,” Montoya said.

City leaders are no longer talking about a single city-wide application but there have been conversations around smaller steps such as a common application timeline that would make things easier for parents and schools.

If district and charter school leaders ever do decide to restart the full common enrollment, Montoya said the system remains available and could be fired back up.

“We have all this investment and not just in the technology,” Montoya said. “We have the folks who did our marketing. They created assets other cities have taken years to build. We have logos and tents and outreach things … We have staff and a team and knowledge. The question is: How do you move forward in this landscape?”

measuring progress

Fixing Detroit’s schools won’t happen overnight. Here’s what new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he can do by next year.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.

Against the odds

‘Possible, but daunting’: Inside Nikolai Vitti’s early effort to transform Detroit’s battered public schools

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti prepares for a TV interview on Detroit's RiverWalk in August 2017, before the start of his first school year at the helm of the district.

Three months after taking on one of the most daunting tasks in American education, Nikolai Vitti was having a fit over pizza — $340,000 worth of pizza.

Vitti, Detroit’s new school superintendent, had just discovered that the district had set aside that eye-popping sum of money last year to pay Domino’s Pizza for what he assumed were hundreds of thousands of slices for parties in schools.

He was asked if he wanted to do the same for next year.  

“Do you really think for a minute I’m going to bring a contract to the board at $340,000 for Domino’s?!” he asked an aide. “That would be like — ‘Here — write a front page story about how inefficient this district is.’ Are you insane? Are you really insane!?”

In his first months on the job, Vitti had seen what he described as a shocking lack of basic financial and academic systems in the district. He’d seen contracts that were nonsensical, payments that had slipped through the cracks. He knew of principals who’d apparently given up on getting support from the district and had turned to a brand of survivalism to get what they needed for their schools.

“It is truly a district that has been mismanaged for over a decade,” he says.

But even by the standards of what he’d seen so far, the pizza contract seemed extreme.

“I love the explanation on why we need a Domino’s contract because it’s wholesale, right?” Vitti vented to an aide. “To reduce the price? And then everything else we do we have 700 vendors?! We decided to get it right for pizza but we didn’t get it right for toilet paper?”

But a day later, something surprising happened with that pizza contract.

As Vitti convened a meeting with top advisors, he learned that the Domino’s contract was not actually for parties. It was for a special pizza that Domino’s had created for schools called a “smart slice” that uses whole wheat flour and lower amounts of fat and salt to give kids a healthy alternative to less-popular lunch offerings.

That’s when a contract that Vitti had been lambasting for days became an inspiration.

“If we’re using Domino’s as a way to incentivize kids to eat … then why not do a bid for Chinese food?” he asked.

“Or Subway,” an aide suggested.

“We could get local businesses,” Vitti said. “A ton of local businesses! As long as they meet the nutritional value. … Think of all the things we could do with a Detroit small business connection to it!”

In fact, Vitti said, “if we really want to talk big, in every high school, you could have kids that are working to prep food and all that.”

“See,” he told his advisors gathered in a conference room adjoining his office in the district’s headquarters in Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building. “We went from Domino’s to a complete conversation about innovation. That’s why you have to have the conversation.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti leads a meeting of advisers in a conference room adjacent to his office in Detroit’s Fisher Building in August 2017.

Improving on pizza contracts might not seem like the kind of thing that can fix a school district like Detroit’s.

The schools here, which have some of the lowest test scores in the country, have become a national symbol of educational crisis. They remain the largest roadblock to the city’s resurgence nearly three years after its emergence from bankruptcy. The heralded improvements in the city’s downtown have had virtually no effect on its schools.

But Vitti, the 40-year-old father of four who took over the Detroit district last spring, has promised not just to improve the district’s 106 schools. He says he can transform them.

“We’re going to make this the best urban school district in the country,” he says in speeches and interviews.

He knows the odds are stacked incalculably against him — he felt it on the first day of school, when the system had 250 teacher vacancies, despite his public commitment to fill every position.

But he’s determined to give Detroiters something they haven’t had for their schools in a generation. He’s promised to give them hope.

If he’s going to do that, he says — or if he’s at least going to make some progress in that direction — he has to look for ideas in places like pizza contracts, where other leaders might see little potential for change.

He has to move beyond what he calls “compliance thinking” where decisions are made only to conform with legal requirements, to try to imagine a different future for the district.

And he has to do that while simultaneously attempting to bring order to a system that he describes as in total disarray.

Much of that disarray is well known: buildings that are crumbling and dirty; a severe teacher shortage that has robbed children of quality instruction; conditions so dismal that a federal lawsuit last year alleged they violate Detroit children’s right to basic literacy.

The district’s reputation has been so ravaged among Detroit parents that tens of thousands of families have fled the district for charter or suburban schools in recent years — fueled in part by the liberal school choice laws in Michigan that were promoted by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary.

The exodus of families had left the district in such dire financial straits that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when the state put up $617 million to create a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

But those are just the problems you can see from the outside. Vitti understood them well before he left his job in May running the schools in Jacksonville, Florida, to take over the schools in his hometown. [He’s from nearby Dearborn Heights.]

On the inside, Vitti has discovered that the district he’s inherited is utterly broken.

“I mean we lack the systems for everything!” Vitti says. “Everything! For hiring teachers, onboarding teachers, paying teachers, ordering books, adopting books, cleaning buildings, seeing contracts, what contracts there are, how they’re executed, why they’re executed, what they’re used for, what they’re not used for.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti takes a call in his office on the 14th floor of Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building.

Since arriving in Detroit last spring, Vitti says he’s seen “pockets of excellence” in schools where devoted teachers have managed to weather years of turmoil and decline.

But when he talks about the the district’s central office, he becomes visibly angry.

What makes it all so infuriating, he says, is that the men from whom he inherited the district were supposed to be financial experts.

The state of Michigan had seized control of the district in 2009, citing a financial emergency, and installed a series of financial managers — five different men — who ran the district for eight years until the new school board took over in January.

The loss of local control had been painful for Detroiters.

A school board chosen by voters had been rendered largely impotent while the men running the district had slashed teacher pay and shuttered dozens of schools with minimal community discussion. The closings accelerated enrollment declines — fewer than half of Detroit children remain in the district  — and left some city neighborhoods without any schools at all.

As an educator who worked as a teacher in North Carolina and New York City before entering a PhD program at Harvard University that trained urban superintendents, Vitti says he’s not surprised that the emergency managers didn’t get the academics right.

But you’d think they’d have figured out the nuts and bolts, he says.

“At a minimum, you would think an emergency financial manager would know nothing about education but would focus on systems and processes because that’s what Detroit lacked,” Vitti says. “And what I actually see is, you know, walking into this district, there was no vision for how a district or a central office supports schools.”

Example: The district promised bonuses to teachers who took hard-to-staff positions last year but, somehow, the bonus checks didn’t arrive when they were supposed to.

“It was frustrating,” says teachers union leader Ivy Bailey. “They were calling us asking, what’s the problem? And we didn’t know.”

The problem, Vitti learned, was that “the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. This was negotiated by labor relations. It was somewhat understood by HR but then finance wouldn’t know about it.”

Another example: Here in a district where the teaching shortage has meant children have gone months without a certified math teacher, people who applied for jobs weren’t getting hired.

“We had teachers, let’s say at the job fair, that had committed to joining the district,” Vitti says. “That teacher leaves the job fair thinking that they’re going to Denby [High School]. The principal thinks the teacher is going to Denby and then no one’s followed up with the teacher.”

The teacher eventually gets an offer from another district and takes that job instead, he says.

The examples go on and on.

The central office took so long to approve expenses that principals had taken to buying things on their own. That led to corruption and to inefficiencies that Vitti’s team is uncovering, like the seven schools that all used the same online learning tool last year.

No one negotiated a multi-school discount so every school paid full price, Vitti said. And the schools weren’t in contact to determine if a different program might have been better.

“We shouldn’t be using anything at just seven schools unless it’s a pilot,” Vitti told members of his cabinet as they gathered for a meeting in his office. “And if we’re going to do pilots, then they should be free and there should be a whole lot of principal buy-in as to why they’re being used.”

The last emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, declined to comment on the substance of Vitti’s criticism, sending a statement saying only that he wishes “Dr. Vitti and the entire staff at DPSCD the very best in meeting the challenges of educating its students.” The governor’s office and State Treasury Department, which appointed and oversaw the emergency managers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Cleaning up systems is essential if Vitti wants to take the district in a different direction, says Robert Peterkin, the Harvard professor who, for 20 years, led the urban superintendents program where Vitti earned his PhD.

“What he’s got to do is establish these basic procedures while educating all the kids,” Peterkin says. “I know that sounds impossible but these systems don’t have to be invented. …Those things are not rocket science. Recruitment of teachers. We know how to do that. We know how to have a contract system. We really do. We just need to have somebody who’s going to go out and get it done.”

But Vitti says the mismanagement infuriates him “because it limits what you can do now.”

“That not only hurt the city, it hurt children and it hurt public education and now we have to make up for the sins of the past while still moving forward and creating results, which is daunting,” he says. “It’s possible, but daunting.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets students participating in a summer math program at Wayne State University.

If Vitti is daunted privately, he betrays little hint of concern as he travels around the city.

He gives confident speeches and interviews  — typically from the gut, without using talking points or prep materials — that are filled with promises for the kind of wholesale improvement that seems unlikely in a nation where the box scores for urban superintendents show far more losses than wins.

He’s hardly the first superintendent to arrive in a city making grand predictions for the future.

“The idea of the school superintendent as the person who can fix it all is at least as old as the 20th century,” says David Cohen, a professor of educational policy at Harvard University and the University of Michigan.

But superintendents are largely powerless to address things like residential segregation and fiscal inequality that helped destroy urban schools in the first place, Cohen says. “The problems in [urban schools] have been created by decades of government policies …There’s no way that the educational problems in these systems can be solved by any particular superintendent.”

In Detroit, he says, the challenge is even greater. “Detroit just faces huge problems and many of them are not of the district’s making and are not within the district’s control.”

Yet Vitti says he plans to put nearly every waking hour he has into the effort.

He sleeps just three hours most nights, sometimes cranking out emails until 3 a.m. before catching some winks until dawn, he says. Other nights, he’ll go to bed early, around midnight, and wake up at 3 a.m. to respond to emails.

“We have to manage [the district] and transform the district at the same time and that requires a different work ethic and energy level,” he says.

Vitti doesn’t expect his aides or advisors to put in those kinds of hours, but he has little patience for anyone who isn’t moving with as much urgency as he is. He stacked his team with people he trusts to keep up the pace, firing dozens of longtime school officials and technocrats and replacing many with people he knew from his days working in Florida.

“Tick, tick, tick,” he chided an aide when she reported that she hadn’t yet made an important hire.

“I’m working, working, working,” she responded. “I thought I found somebody but they’re not interested.”

Despite his sometimes abrasive tone, Vitti is not outwardly combative. Unlike some superintendents who’ve blazed into districts on a promise to push out bad teachers or to jump start performance by shutting down schools, the words he speaks in Detroit are largely the ones that parents and community leaders want to hear.

He talks of the “whole child,” and finding ways to meet children’s social and emotional needs instead of just drilling them on standardized tests. He talks of “parent engagement” and community partnerships. And he and his wife have enrolled their four children — including two who have special needs — in a district school.

Vitti spent his first months in Detroit on a listening tour, meeting with parents, teachers, students and community leaders to assess the needs of the district.

When teachers complained that students were spending too much time taking tests, he reduced mandatory student testing. He also promised to raise teacher pay.

And he’s paying attention to what students learn, something that he says has been neglected. He’s pushing a district-wide curriculum audit to make sure Detroit kids are getting an education that meets national standards. And he wants a teacher evaluation system, based on research, that supports teachers and helps them hone their craft.

If Vitti is successful, the tone he sets now will be why, said Peterkin, the Harvard professor who helped guide Vitti through his doctorate.

“I don’t think that any modern superintendent can see themselves as a do-it-all, know-it-all, great man theory kind of leader,” Peterkin says. “He needs a team. He certainly needs the school board. He needs community support. He needs to not have anti-public school voices tearing him down. He needs strong parental support and a business community that wakes up and realizes it needs its public schools but I think he can lead that effort.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti typically doesn’t take notes in meetings.

In the three days that this reporter followed Vitti, he zig-zagged around the city, giving speeches, meeting with potential partners, and directing staff on everything from the best way to measure the condition of school facilities to whether or not a PowerPoint presentation for a school board meeting should have photos or bullet points.

He doesn’t take notes in meetings and yet seems to keep countless details about contracts, personnel — even the calorie counts of his favorite snacks — in his head.

And while he’s listening to briefings, he’s also searching around for new ideas.

During a meeting about creating internships for students at a district vocational school, he spotted the school’s slogan — ”where great minds are developed” — and pointed it out to a school board member, Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who was sitting with him.

“What do you think about our logo for the district: Where Detroit Minds are Developed?” he asked her. “Or where Detroit Minds Matter? That’s a good one too. We’ve gotta figure that out.”

And as he met with the heads of a prominent local museum, he came up with an idea for an entirely new school.

The museum execs had largely wanted to discuss bringing more students to visit on field trips when they asked to meet with Vitti. He had immediately signed on, mentioning a “cultural passport” he hopes to create that would enable students to visit an opera, a symphony or great works of art in every school year. But he didn’t stop there.

Sitting in an office upstairs from the museum’s exhibit halls, a grander, more ambitious idea seemed to pop into his head.

“What about a deep partnership with a K-8 school?” Vitti asked. “Something similar to a magnet school?”

The museum and district could team up on “deep training for the principal and teachers,” he said.

The school could build on the museum’s exhibits to teach art, history and other subjects.

“Imagine everything our students could experience!” he said.

The museum execs seemed stunned — but delighted — by the proposal.

“We would love that!” one exclaimed.

There are countless logistical and practical details that would have to be worked out before a school like this could be created.

It’s too early to tell whether Vitti has the political skills and financial resources to take any of his ideas beyond the concept phase. The fragile nature of the discussion is why the museum officials asked not to be publicly identified with such a preliminary proposal.

And no matter what he does, Vitti is operating in a tenuous environment. The school board supports him now, but could eventually turn on him. The state has stepped out of Detroit’s school operations, but a new governor could step back in. Those things have happened repeatedly in this city before.

But, in that moment, this idea — and that different future — seemed entirely possible.

“Terrific!” the museum executive said. “This is exactly the kind of work we want to do!”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti consults with Luis Solano, the district’s new chief operating officer, on a new system to improve school building maintenance. Solano is among people Vitti knew from Florida who he’s recruited to work in Detroit.