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.”