Detroit school district approves contract extension for superintendent

Charles E. Ramirez and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Detroit public school board voted Tuesday to give the superintendent  a three-year contract extension following a lengthy meeting that included criticism and praise of the district's leader from the community and teachers.

During a virtual meeting that began at 5:30 p.m. and stretched past 11 p.m., the Detroit Public Schools Community District board approved a contract extension and  allows for a pay hike for Superintendent Nikolai Vitti starting in 2022 but is tied to teacher raises and bonuses. 

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, talks to kindergartener Yovani Arreguin, 5, about his work on the first day of classes at Harms School in Detroit.

For more than two hours, dozens of people spoke during the meeting's public comment portion. Some staffers and community members argued against more pay for Vitti, criticizing his administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as other issues, including building conditions.

"It's time to rescind his contract, not renew it," said Benjamin Royal, a teacher in the district active with the group By Any Means Necessary.

Activist Julia Cuneo called for the district to review its policies and seek more input from students and teachers to improve conditions. "We need to see better because these students deserve better," she said.

Others praised Vitti, who has been the superintendent since 2017, as a strong leader who has transformed the district.

"He has a clear vision," one parent told the board. "...This isn't an ordinary time and we’ve seen what poor leadership looks like."

The proposal adds three years to Vitti's contract if the board gives the superintendent good marks on his performance in each of his annual evaluations.

"(The) superintendent's employment and the term of this first amendment to the May 17, 2017 agreement shall commence on the effective date, and unless earlier extended or earlier terminated in accordance with the provisions of this agreement, shall end at 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2025," according to meeting agenda documents.

The proposal also calls for increasing Vitti's annual base salary starting in July 2022 to "reflect the total highest combination of the percentage salary increase of the teacher group on a recurring basis and equal to the highest one-time bonus amount of that teacher group, as applicable, during that contract year."

That differs from a promised cash raise since the superintendent would "only receive money based on the performance of the teachers" and what's negotiated in their contracts, said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman.

In addition, effective July 2022, the district will contribute $12,500 to a tax-sheltered annuity for Vitti after each quarter of every year he's employed The board of education has to approve the savings plan.

Vitti can accrue 30 vacation days as of July 2022 in each year of the agreement. The vacation days also will accumulate with each pay period. If he chooses, he can cash in up to 20 unused vacation days every year.

“The most important thing that DPSCD can offer our parents, students and teachers today, in the midst of this pandemic, is stability,” board chair Iris Taylor said in a statement before the meeting.

“Prior to the pandemic, DPSCD was realizing student academic gains tied to the district’s strategic plan. Going into 2021, DPSCD needs to ensure equitable access to quality education while continuing to raise student achievement and address the learning gaps caused by the pandemic. We need to be ready to run harder than ever before to remain on track with the reform work.

"Detroit’s children and families deserve stable leadership and a plan to complete the transformation of the district. The amendment to Dr. Vitti’s contract aims to keep us aggressively engaged in the DPSCD reform work.”

Officials with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the district's teachers, balked at the proposed contract changes.

"It is ill-conceived to offer a contract extension two years before the end of Dr. Vitti's existing contract," said Terrence Martin, the union's president, on Tuesday in a statement.

"The message sent to the members, parents and community is that the frontline workers who have given extensively of themselves to provide quality education, support and food services are lowest on the totem pole and that they don't matter."

Martin said the board of education should concentrate on helping the school system's workers instead of giving Vitti a raise.

“The focus of the DPSCD board should be on securing the workforce," he said. "Our union sisters and brothers with the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals and the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees are working without new contracts. The board should be working to ensure all of the district's employees have quality and competitive working conditions and compensation before anything else."

The DFT's members approved their contract in October. The one-year pact gives Detroit public school teachers the highest starting salary in Michigan at $51,019.

MoreDetroit teachers to get highest starting salary in Michigan

Vitti had a five-year contract to 2022 that paid $295,000 to start and was set to rise over five years to $322,000. Vitti, a Metro Detroit native, replaced Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather.

Detroit's public school district has 106 schools that serve about 50,000 children.

Stephanie Carreker, who leads the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, questioned why Vitti's contract was treated differently than others.

"Why is this extension for three years when labor unions are only being offered one-year contracts?" she told the board. "Why are we rushing to sign an extension?"

A mother of a 10th grader in the district who addressed the board touted Vitti's efforts to ensure students had access to meals and electronic tablets for virtual learning.

"Thank you for your commitment of making sure the families' needs are met. Without your dedicated leadership, who knows if DPSCD will be able to move forward," she said. "It is my hope that we move full speed ahead under your fearless administration."