Leaders of the Detroit school district want to find a way to boost pay for their most experienced teachers.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made that clear during a community meeting Wednesday night at Spain Elementary-Middle School. He told the audience that he couldn’t talk about ongoing contract talks with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, but said he and the school board are determined to increase pay for the veteran teachers at the top of the district’s pay scale.

“The board and myself are committed to raising salaries, primarily for those teachers who’ve been in the district the longest,” Vitti said.

Vitti said about 60 percent of the teachers in the district are already making the top salary allowed under the most recent teacher contract.  

Many of the same teachers are the ones who have been with the district the longest, and likely endured some of the cuts in salary and benefits that occurred when the district was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Prioritizing the experienced teachers, he said, would help move their salaries back to where they were prior to emergency management and help the district’s efforts to be competitive as it tries to address an ongoing teacher shortage.

The district is in the third year of a three-year contract with teachers that provided pay increases of about seven percent over the first two years. The contract called for re-opening the contract to determine salary for the third year.

Vitti’s commitment to prioritize those at the top of the pay scale may end up being divisive among the teacher ranks. Some of that was evident at the meeting, when two of the most vocal teachers in the district raised concerns.

“It’s got to be across the board,” said Steve Conn, a math teacher who once led the Detroit Federation of Teachers before he was ousted in 2015. “What teachers want is for all to be treated equally.”

He was joined by Nicole Conaway, another teacher in the district, who said prioritizing those at the top creates a “divide and conquer” atmosphere.

“What does that do to our ability to attract and retain new teachers?” Conaway said.

The district has been dealing with a shortage of teachers for years. A year and a half ago, there were 275 teacher vacancies. Currently, the vacancy number is 120, Vitti said.

Conn also objected to the idea of bonuses for teachers not at the top, saying what teachers want is “real pay.”

Vitti said he agreed with much of what Conn said, but he said the challenge with giving everyone the same pay boost is “it doesn’t increase salaries in a competitive way.”

“I think the opportunity for the bonus is to give more money in a shorter amount of time that’s not recurring,” Vitti said. “We’re trying to put as much money in teacher’s pockets in the shortest amount of time possible … so we can be more competitive when we’re trying to recruit.”

He urged Conn and Conaway, who were part of a small group that picketed prior to the meeting, to go to Lansing to protest.

“You don’t need to be here to protest. Go to Lansing. Go to people who are allocating dollars,” Vitti said. “I’ll picket with you.”

Why go to Lansing? Vitti said Detroit is challenged by inequities in school funding. The district receives $7,900 per pupil under the state’s primary school funding formula. Though the district also receives additional funds for serving high-needs students, it’s per student funding amount is several thousand dollars less than what some suburban school districts are receiving.

“The average district we compete with for students and teachers is receiving on average $1,200 more per student,” Vitti said. “If you give us equal funding, I guarantee you this team would put that money into teacher salaries.”

Vitti acknowledged that the district receives more in federal funding than most districts. But he said that money isn’t flexible and must be used in specific ways.

“We can never pay teachers what they’re worth,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the vice chair of the Detroit school board, said at the meeting. “They’re doing way more than just teaching. They have to eliminate some of the barriers that prevent learning from happening before learning can even happen.”