Saying some teachers and principals should be paid more than others, Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti used a prominent speech Wednesday night to call for a different way of increasing pay in the district.

Vitti called for additional compensation for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, as well as for teachers or principals in schools that have seen improvement in academic achievement. Currently, teachers are paid the same based on their experience level and years of experience. He wants pay increases across the board but said there should be additional increases in those two areas.

“We have to be OK with paying teachers, or certain principals, more if student achievement moves at a faster rate,” Vitti said during the speech.

The district held the State of the Schools event before about 350 invited attendees at Renaissance High School. They billed it as Vitti’s first such event, though he has participated in two community events that included charter school leaders. Vitti leads the state’s largest school district, but only about half of the students who live in the city attend district schools; the others attend charters, private schools or public schools outside the district.

It was a sleekly produced event in which Vitti showcased videos featuring students, teachers, and community and business leaders to illustrate the district’s work and accomplishments.

A key part of it: Vitti called on community members to partner with the district — to volunteer, to teach, to be a social media ambassador, to hire a student as an intern.

The speech was the first time Vitti has talked so publicly about the need for some type of performance-based system. The district is in the third year of a three-year contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The first two years called for salary increases that amounted to about a seven percent raise for all teachers over the two years. The contract called for re-opening the agreement between the district and the union in the third year to determine what the salary increase will be this year.

Vitti has previously said — and reiterated Wednesday night — that the priority is ensuring that veteran teachers at the top of the salary schedule receive increases that restore their pay to the levels they were at before the district came under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager in 2009. Emergency management ended in 2016.

“We believe we can go deeper with pay and broader, by focusing on performance pay,” Vitti told Chalkbeat Detroit after the speech. “This will just be another layer of increasing pay. It won’t be the singular way to do it,” Vitti said.

But he also said there needs to be a broader conversation about equitable funding from the state. He said inequities in how much school funding districts receive — inequities that exist based on zip code — need to be fixed. If not, he said, the district will never be able to pay teachers what they deserve.

“It is immoral, it’s reprehensible and it has to change,” Vitti said.

The district receives about $8,000 per student in state funding, and some additional state funding for specific students, such as those who are at risk. Federal dollars put the district’s funding even higher, but those monies are targeted and come with little flexibility.

Vitti said the district would begin strongly advocating for more equitable state funding so that students in Detroit have the same resources as students in wealthier, suburban schools. At a community meeting last month, he told several teachers who picketed outside the meeting, who were calling for equal pay raises for all teachers, that they should take their protest to Lansing. He said then that he would join them.

Much of the State of the Schools event was spent going over the district’s accomplishments.

Among the accomplishments Vitti touted:

  • Attendance is up and chronic absenteeism is down. Vitti said there’s been an increase of 3,275 students with excellent attendance in the last year, and an 3,800-student decrease in students who are chronically absent.
  • Suspensions are down by 27%.
  • Volunteers are signing up to help students with literacy ahead of rules that kick in during the next school year that require schools hold back third-graders who are a grade level or more behind in reading.
  • Schools that are subject to a partnership agreement with the state — which include some of the lowest-performing schools in the district — are seeing academic improvement. Vitti said 13 of 14 partnership schools (of those that have data) have improved academically.
  • Teacher vacancies are down — from 275 two years ago to 120 now.
  • The district has installed 388 water hydration stations (a response to elevated levels of lead in schools across the district), and still has another 152 yet to install before the beginning of the next school year.

Vitti, a Harvard-educated educator and a native of Dearborn Heights, was hired nearly two years ago after spending much of his career in Florida. On Wednesday night, he thanked the community for embracing him as the district’s leader.

“I wouldn’t want to be in any other city or school district than where I am now,” Vitti said.

He said that his goal for the district, once transformed, is to show “what Detroit children are capable of. Our children, everyone one of them, is gifted and talented. All they need is a shot.”

View the district’s State of the Schools presentation below: