Vitti maps priorities for Detroit schools' $1.2B COVID aid

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Federal COVID relief dollars going to Detroit public schools will be used to repair aged school buildings, fund programs to address learning loss from the pandemic and boost hazard pay for teachers working inside schools.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said Wednesday that three buckets of COVID-19 relief funds coming to the district from the federal government will total $1.2 billion.

Nikolai Vitti

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The district has struggled with expensive, growing capital needs across its 100 school buildings, which were largely neglected for nearly a decade under state-run emergency management.

In 2018, Livonia-based OHM Advisors estimated it would cost $500 million to address inoperable boilers, corroded plumbing fixtures, missing ceiling tiles in classrooms, exterior walls with cracks, roof leaks and a host of other problems was $500 million.

By 2023, the price tag would soar to $1.4 billion, according to a facilities assessment done by the firm.

On Wednesday, during a media availability to discuss a wide range of topics with the media, Vitti said the federal funds are one-time monies that will be used to help the district with capital costs and projects.

"I'm very excited to have the funding to finally address facilities issues and finally put a major dent into it, which will save Detroit taxpayers in the rebuilding of our facilities. It will address the vast majority of them, and we would not have been able to say that or do that without the funding," he said.

While the district finally received the authority to issue capital project bonds via a legal settlement of a literacy lawsuit brought by Detroit schoolchildren, Vitti said COVID relief funds allow building repairs as an expense.

DPSCD will focus on newer schools with needs rather than older buildings, Vitti said, because the district must determine whether to repair or replace older buildings. 

Many of the classroom buildings in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are decades old and need repair or replacement.

DPSCD has been offering in-person and remote learning during the pandemic, serving about 12,000 students on site daily.

However, the district has 19,000 students who want to learn in-person but cannot because not enough teachers have agreed to teach in schools. About 500 do currently, Vitti said, but the district needs 1,000 more.

Teachers working inside schools receive $750 per quarter for hazard pay during the pandemic. Vitti said federal funds will be used to pay for the bonuses, including payments to teachers who want to return.

"We are not meeting the demand of parents because of a lack of teachers," he said.

Funding also will be used to boost academics, improve service to students and encourage attendance, Vitti said.

"We are going to be able to go much deeper with individual children on an academic and attendance and engagement level," he said. "We can go deeper with transportation, vans circling back and picking up students who missed the initial bus or city bus. Or partner with Uber or Lyft to pick up students at homes." 

Vitti said his goal is to achieve solid outcomes in his district linked to the additional federal support in two to three years.

"So we can make the case to the state that this is why we we need equitable funding in a recurring way to keep those salaries higher. The work is harder here than any place in the country," he said.

COVID funds also will be used to expand summer school, after-school and break programs; fund small group one-on-one literacy intervention and math; expand mental health services for children at school and for families; deep clean schools; reduce class sizes and hire more teachers, Vitti said.