Let’s face it. Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti has an extremely hard job — if not impossible. Turning around a school district that has failed so miserably both financially and academically for years will take a tough leader.
But Vitti is picking one fight he can’t possibly win. Or shouldn’t anyway. He’s blocking the bid of a new Detroit charter to purchase an abandoned DPSCD building near Pingree Park. The district no longer owns the building, but Vitti is claiming a deed restriction put on that sale blocks the school from going to a competing school. Unfortunately for Vitti, the Legislature passed a bill, which Gov. Rick Snyder signed in July, that blocks school districts from including such restrictions on school buildings. And the law is retroactive, meaning it applies in this case.
Detroit Prep, a sister school to Detroit Achievement Academy, was co-founded last year by Kyle Smitley. It serves 80 students in grades K-2, and the school currently meets in the basement of a church. Smitley wants a new home for her students as the school seeks to expand. She thinks the Anna Joyce Elementary School building (abandoned since 2009) would make for the perfect home. It’s near to where the school currently meets, and she can already imagine the building in its renovated form.
Smitley wanted to be a partner to Vitti when he first arrived in Detroit, and she was hopeful they could work together.
His efforts to block her from using the school, however, forced her to sue the district. She wants to put kids first, and she’s proven her schools do that with high performance.
“I find myself confused and frustrated,” says Smitley, who is a Detroit resident. “I live here, I pay taxes here.”
Lawmakers are also frustrated by Vitti’s actions, as he is using district funds to fight this in court. Last week, Vitti told a legislative panel that he found the law “problematic.”
Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the Education Reform Committee, says he’s spoken with the attorney general’s office about enforcing the law in this case. Other than that, there aren’t many options for retribution, and Kelly doesn’t want to hurt Detroit students by withholding state funding.
It’s not up to Vitti to decide which laws to follow. Rather than blocking charter competition — or blaming it as he often does — he should keep his focus on improving the schools under his control.
That’s the best way for DPSCD to compete.