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New Detroit superintendent calls hiring ‘humbling’

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Florida administrator and Dearborn Heights native selected to lead the city’s troubled public schools called it an “honor” to return home.

“When I learned of the board’s decision last night, it felt as if it were announced that I was drafted by my home team,” Nikolai Vitti said in a statement Wednesday.

“It was a proud moment for my entire family and I. To be selected as the first superintendent by the newly elected board and new district is humbling and an honor.”

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 Michigan’s largest district, which enrolls more than 47,400 students.

Vitti said he was eager to get to work.

“I look forward to working through the contract phase of the process as soon as possible in order to serve the children and families of Detroit,” he said.

Officials did not release a start date for Vitti and the incoming superintendent was not available for an interview Wednesday.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District school board on Tuesday voted on two motions in picking Vitti: one to begin contract negotiations with him for superintendent and a second, conditional of whether Vitti accepts the position, to start as a consultant and work on the transition team that includes the current interim superintendent before her contact expires June 30.

The exclusion of interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather as a finalist from the superintendent search frustrated some staff and community members. Meriweather did not meet the board’s requirements of having previously served as a superintendent or deputy superintendent for three to four years. Her contract expires June 30.

Board member LaMar Lemmons initially cast his vote for Coleman but switched in order to align himself with the his colleagues.

“It was important that when we move forward, the entire board is supportive of the superintendent and his leadership.” Lemmons said. “We didn’t want to send any incoming superintendent to a divided board. I think that would have sent the wrong message.”

He said he was “instrumental” in getting Vitti through to the last round of finalists.

“I thought Dr. Vitti to be very capable,” Lemmons said. “(We were looking for) the person we believed could lead the district forward and we had, I believe, two candidates who could do that.”

Lemmons sat on the board’s selection committee and traveled to Duval County, where he said he was impressed by “innovation, positive movement and a closing achievement gap.”

“I was impressed by the inclusion of African culture in history (classes) in the schools,” he said. “I was also impressed with a unique school for kids with ADHD and dyslexia. That’s the only one in the country.”

Lemmons’ tour stopped at a middle school, he said.

“He had turned around one of the middle schools that was once one of the most dangerous schools in the country,” Lemmons said. “The children were learning, they were proficient.”

During his interviews, Vitti shared with the board and public his struggles overcoming dyslexia on his way to a high school diploma and college degrees. That personal note stuck out for Lemmons.

“He has dyslexia and he’s a graduate of Harvard. He has a PhD from Harvard in education,” Lemmons said. “He knows the challenges that our children face.”

Addressing the issue of Vitti leading a district where the vast majority of students are African-American, Lemmons said: “Of course we had to think about having a leader who reflected the population, but that could not be the overwhelming reason to pick someone. We wanted to make sure we had the best quality person for our students.”

Vitti is that candidate, according to school board members, who on Tuesday cited the quality of schools in his district, his budgeting strategies and strong community ties forged in Florida.

“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 board noted that in Florida, Vitti has not closed schools during his tenure and earned praise from colleagues as well as students.

Duval County board members did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. But several spoke last month to the Florida Times-Union and expressed well wishes and speculated on Vitti’s motivations.

“This was an opportunity Dr. Vitti sought out,” Duval County board member Lori Hersey said, declining to reveal if she wanted Vitti to remain in Florida.

“This was his opportunity to go home.”

Hershey told the newspaper that Vitti succeeded in bringing arts back to the county’s schools and boosted school choice.

In Detroit during his interview, Vitti told community members he “philosophically” supports choice but rejects for-profit charters.

Warren Jones said he hoped Vitti would stay in the Florida district, according to the Florida Times-Union.

“I think he has been a change agent for the Duval County school system,” Jones said.

“He has brought some positive changes to so many of the challenges facing the district.”

Vitti last fall was embroiled in conflict with the board stemming from difficulties getting students to reach academic goals. Board President Ashley Smith Juarez told Vitti to seek employment outside the district if he could not deliver achievement, according to the Florida Times-Union.

The year before, three board members accused Vitti of engaging in disrespectful communications.

Tensions reportedly have calmed since the new year.

“I want him to be in a place where he feels like he can be the most successful,” said board member Rebecca Couch, who previously had been critical of Vitti.

“I want him to go where he feels he can use his talents the most.”

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

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.