blame game

Former Detroit schools finance chief accused of bungling paperwork says he’s not to blame

</strong> Marios Demetriou, the former district CFO

A former top Detroit school finance official who’s been blamed for a mistake that cost the Detroit school district $6.5 million says he’s not at fault because his boss — Superintendent Nikolai Vitti — was aware of the issue.

The dispute could play a role at Tuesday’s school board meeting, where the former official plans to read from this letter to defend his reputation amid ongoing criticism from Vitti.

Vitti last month accused former district Chief Financial Officer Marios Demetriou and two other finance officials of failing to submit paperwork to collect $6.5 million owed to the district from the state.

Now, Demetriou says he has an email showing Vitti was aware of the issue and should have made sure it was addressed after Demetriou left the district on June 30. The deadline to submit the paperwork was Aug. 15.

Demetriou, who is now assistant superintendent of finance and operations in the Ann Arbor school district, said he plans to ask the board and Vitti to “retract and not to mention my name in [the reimbursement issue], because I have nothing to do with it.”

“It defies logic to blame someone who was not there,” Demetriou told Chalkbeat. “The people that were there, the people that were hired by Dr. Vitti, why aren’t they being looked at? Why isn’t it their responsibility?”

Vitti last month notified the Detroit school board about the costly paperwork snafu, saying the mistake was “unacceptable” and that he would take “disciplinary action” against two finance officials who were still on staff.

On the day that news broke about the error, Vitti announced that one official, Michael Bridges, a deputy executive director in finance, had resigned.

The mistake isn’t likely to affect the district’s 50,000 students because the money was owed to the old Detroit Public Schools, which was replaced in 2016 by the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. The old district has no schools or students and exists only to pay off debt.

Still the embarrassing mistake was a blow to Vitti, who arrived in Detroit last spring promising to clean up the district after years of what he’s described as mismanagement and neglect under a series of state-appointed emergency managers.

After news of the error broke, Vitti called the mistake a “vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district.”

But Demetriou said Vitti, who started his job with the district in May, could have done something to prevent the mistake.

He points to an email that Deputy Superintendent Alycia Meriweather sent to Vitti and Demetriou on June 9.

Meriweather, who had been the interim superintendent before Vitti was hired, forwarded the reimbursement paperwork from the state and wrote: “FYI, Does this require action?”

Three minutes later, Demetriou responded: “Please have this form filled for me [and] let me review it so we can send to Treasury.”

That exchange was more than two months before the deadline to file the paperwork.

Vitti said subsequent emails showed that the paperwork was completed, but not submitted, and that Demetriou did not instruct his successor to submit the paperwork. “Sadly, this type of response reflects the culture we must break in the district — one which lacks ownership and responsibility at the district level,” Vitti told Chalkbeat. “One that focuses on adults and not how their work impacts children.”

Vitti has been trying to rectify the situation with the state Treasury Department and reclaim the $6.5 million, but the Detroit News reported this week that they have yet to find a solution.

For his part, Demetriou said the paperwork had been submitted successfully every year he was on staff and that his record shows that he put in long days to launch the new district and “nothing blew up.”

Even on his last day, June 30, he said, he was working “to save Detroit taxpayers millions of dollars,” despite technically being on vacation.

“When I left,” he said, “everything that had to be done was done.”

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

 

What's in a name?

Detroit has schools named for a slaveholder, a convicted former politician, and a Trump cabinet member. Here’s how that might change.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

Despite the passion fueling the debate over renaming schools like the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine, members of the Detroit district school board proposed a deliberate, and slow, approach to changing any school names.

Just charting the path toward stripping names from district schools won’t begin until the second week of June at the earliest, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at a special meeting Tuesday.

Last year board member LaMar Lemmons recommended removing the names of living people from district schools.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” said Lemmons, a former Democratic state representative, of his proposal to rename the the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

Carson, a Republican and neurosurgeon, is secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The district has identified a multistep process for renaming schools. First, at least one of six criteria must be met: the building must be newly built, the school would have been recently consolidated, the name no longer reflects the student population, the community where the school is located wants the name to reflect their culture and history, new negative information about the school’s namesake becomes known, or there is a change in district leadership.

The Carson high school could be eligible for renaming next fall when it will likely be consolidated with another school that has been operating separately in the same building. Vitti has recommended merging Carson with the Crockett Career and Technical Center.

Next, a recommendation to change a school’s name will have to come from at least 50 percent of the student body, a group of community members, the superintendent or board members.

Then the school board would vote whether to conduct a community survey. The results would be presented to the board, which would vote on changing a school’s name.

One of the city’s most popular schools, Cass Technical High School, is another school named after someone who no longer represents the values of the district, said Lemmons.

“Lewis Cass was a slaveholder,” Lemmons said. “But I would never recommend changing the name of Cass.” Cass Tech, an elite school that has long drawn some of the best and brightest students in the city, is beloved by the community.

Instead, Lemmons would like a plaque to be placed on the school “disavowing historic white supremacy.”

Bates Academy, named after former Councilman Alonzo Bates, who was found guilty in 2006 of fraud and theft from the city of Detroit, is another school name that may be reviewed, said Lemmons.