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Detroit school board names Vitti to lead district

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

After a blitz of meetings, school visits and meet-and-greets with the public, a Florida administrator with ties to Metro Detroit was named by Detroit’s new school board to lead the district.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District board voted Tuesday to enter into contract negotiations for the superintendent position with Nikolai Vitti. He would replace Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, whose contract expires June 30.

Vitti, 40, has been superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, since November 2012. He beat out River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman after a nationwide search to fill the top spot in the state’s largest district, which has enrollment of more than 47,400 students.

Citing the quality of schools in his district as well as his budgeting strategies and strong community ties forged in Florida, the board voted unanimously to launch the contract dealings with Vitti, who said he was born and raised in Metro Detroit.

“It’s a matter of this is the better person for the needs we’ve identified at this time,” board President Iris Taylor said after the vote.

The panel also approved a motion to have the educator start as a consultant with the new district and work on a transition team that includes Meriweather, whose exclusion from the search frustrated some staff and community members. She did not meet the board’s requirements of having previously served as a superintendent or deputy superintendent for three to four years.

Though board members praised Vitti and Coleman as strong leaders who netted noticeable improvements in their districts, they said the decision rested on which had the best traits in pushing the district forward as it emerges from state oversight and tackles problems such as school performance and student departures from the district.

“We need to move thinking about our children and academics and finances,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill. “We’ve got so much work to do. The expertise that will be brought will bring us there.”

The decision was not without controversy, though.

Some community members who attended the meeting at the Douglass Academy for Young Men on Tuesday evening murmured their disapproval when Vitti was selected. Longtime activist Helen Moore shouted, “What the heck just happened?” and walked out.

Community activist Robert Davis, who last week filed an emergency motion claiming the board was violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, vowed another legal challenge. He alleged the board still had not followed the law in holding meetings about the superintendent search.

“This decision tonight was heavily flawed,” he said. Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, declined to comment on Davis’ claim.

Neither Vitti, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment late Tuesday, nor Coleman appeared to have attended the two-hour meeting that capped the lengthy search for a superintendent.

They each fit the criterion set by Ray and Associates, the Iowa-based search firm the school board hired, requiring candidates to have been a superintendent or deputy superintendent for three to four years, the board said. The educators were among 75 applicants who were narrowed to a field of 10 and then three before one candidate dropped out.

Some board members conducted on-site visits and interviews with Vitti and Coleman and considered questionnaire results and written responses.

Hunter-Harvill, who visited Vitti’s district, said she was impressed that a visual arts school there had the latest technology for students. “Money was garnered to make sure they got that,” she said. “That was achievement.”

Vitti, whose mother and extended family live in Metro Detroit, earned a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in education, administration, planning and social policy. He received his master’s degree of education from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a master’s degree from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Board members also noted that in Florida, he had not closed schools during his tenure and earned praise from colleagues as well as students for turning around struggling schools. “When push came to shove, they believed that Dr. Vitti had advanced” the district, LaMar Lemmons said.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers issued a statement Tuesday night saying “unfortunately,” the district chose not to continue with Meriweather as superintendent.

“It is our hope that Meriweather remain an important member of the new superintendent’s executive team,” DFT President Ivy Bailey said in the statement. “Dr. Vitti should work side by side with Meriweather as assistant superintendent.”

Beyond that, she said the union was looking forward to working with Vitti. “At the end of the day, all partners are charged with working together to provide our 45,000 students with the best opportunity to succeed,” the statement said.

Earlier Tuesday, the school board offered feedback on Coleman, who has overseen River Rouge since April 2012 and previously was Detroit’s superintendent/Region II superintendent, supervising 29 schools from 2008-11.

They acknowledged Coleman’s work to increase enrollment in River Rouge and attract pupils from other communities. Among the incentives, they said: a K-8 STEM Academy, which opened in the 2014-15 academic year.

Choosing between Coleman and Vitti was “not an easy decision,” board member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “The question is: Which one is the best for our district at this time to get to where we want to be?”

If Vitti formally accepts an offer, he would take over a district unsettled by instability and other financial woes.

As many as 24 of 119 of Detroit’s public schools could be shuttered for underperforming within the next two years; a lawsuit has been filed to stop the closures. School officials seek to partner with state universities to turn around those schools.

Vitti’s selection could enhance improvements in the district, said Rita Carpenter, a longtime teacher who attended the meeting.

“I’m for us moving forward. He brings professionalism. He brings ideas. He brings his expertise and he’s committed. I believe in him.”