money matters

New safeguards to be implemented following Detroit district’s $6.5 million snafu

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti's staff is working on safeguards to prevent another error.

A $6.5 million mistake made during schools chief Nikolai Vitti’s transition last summer has prompted a new system for setting deadlines for the Detroit district.

Vitti plans to use the new strategy to prevent missed deadlines like the one the finance department mishandled in August when district staff failed to submit paperwork on time to receive a reimbursement from the state.     

Vitti told Detroit school board members at a public meeting Tuesday night that his staff is working on a plan to put safeguards in place to prevent another costly error.

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.

“One thing we are planning to do is create an outline of deadlines … and the board would be made aware of those deadlines,” Vitti said. “That’s one kind of enhancement that would allow the board to monitor the submission of those kinds of documentation.”

The district submitted a request to the state Treasury Department that included legal arguments on why the state reimbursement should still be awarded. The request was made Sunday evening, and the district is now waiting for a response.

Board member LaMar Lemmons asked what response the district would give to former chief financial officer Marios Demetriou, who has vocally denied any blame.

“The former CFO has made allegations that this body has somehow harmed his reputation and I want to know what our posture and response is going to be to that,” Lemmons said.

In an email to the school board on Dec. 18, Vitti blamed the former CFO and his team, Michael Bridges and Delores Brown, for the error.

“The responsibility to submit the paperwork fell on then-CFO Marios Demetriou and two Executive Directors in Finance, Delores Brown and specifically Michael Bridges,” Vitti wrote.

However, Demetriou fired back this week, rejecting any blame for the mistake. He said the deadline was weeks after he had officially resigned, and that the paperwork was never given to him to sign and submit.  

Demetriou, who is now assistant superintendent of finance and operations in the Ann Arbor school district, spoke to the board during the public comment, reading aloud from the letter by Chalkbeat had posted in earlier in the day.

“I hope that they are successful in getting the $6.5 million. It’ll be a shame if they can’t get it,” Demetriou said, after the meeting. “I hope they put all the safeguards that they need to put in place, and I hope they have highly qualified people who know all the deadlines and they abide by them.”

The board also approved a policy that allows the body to change the names of buildings that previously were named after living people, and the district plans to launch its master teacher initiative this week, interviewing and selecting teachers for the 52 open positions.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.