Detroit schools, activist spar over superintendent pact

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Community activist Robert Davis claims Detroit’s school board violated the Open Meetings Act this week by appointing a subcommittee that he believes has begun privately negotiating contract terms with its new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

But the district denied the alleged committee exists during a hearing Thursday before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan.

“There’s been no factual support whatsoever for this motion,” said Floyd Allen, an attorney for the Detroit Public Schools Community District board. “There’s no affidavit, other than this allegation, that the school board on Tuesday appointed a subcommittee with some direction to do something. The board did not appoint, direct, recommend, suggest ... any subcommittee that is to negotiate a contract with the new superintendent.”

Sullivan ordered both parties to review an audio recording of the meeting to determine whether the subcommittee was created. Officials are due back in court Tuesday to discuss their findings.

The district agreed to refrain from contract negotiations until after Tuesday’s hearing.

Davis accused unnamed board members of entering into early, private talks with Vitti after the candidate was selected during a board meeting Tuesday evening.

“It’s quite evident that they talked to him yesterday,” Davis said Thursday morning outside Sullivan’s courtroom.

Pressed for evidence of the private negotiations, Davis said: “That’s just my assumption based on (the board’s) past actions. Some things are obvious.”

Board member LaMar Lemmons said his colleagues had not yet formed a subcommittee or conducted contract negotiations as of Thursday afternoon. Instead, the board agreed on Tuesday to establish a subcommittee in the near future.

“One will be established but to my knowledge, the president (of the board, Iris Taylor), hasn’t identified those individuals,” Lemmons said.

Any subcommittee created by the board would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, according to Davis’ attorney, Andrew Paterson.

“I’m claiming that under the (Open Meetings Act) and case law ... if a public body establishes any form of subcommittee and empowers that subcommittee, then that subcommittee is also a public body,” he said.

Lemmons said the law allows for an exception for matters of private employee matters, such as contract negotiations and terminations.

“Negotiations have to be done in private because that is confidential employee information,” he said. He added that only the finalized, approved contract would become public record.

The dueling versions of one Detroit school board meeting played out Thursday as part of Davis’ ongoing litigation against the district. Davis, who is known for filing numerous lawsuits against government agencies over issues of public transparency, claims the board has repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act in its search for a new superintendent.

The activist previously targeted a meeting he said was improperly advertised and has asked a judge to halt and restart the entire search process in the public eye.

His lawsuits target the district's search for a candidate to replace interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who was appointed last year by the district’s then-emergency manager, Steven Rhodes.

The district retained Ray and Associates for the superintendent search in late January after community input through surveys and focus groups. Seventy-five applicants from around the country sought the job.

The search firm narrowed the field to 10 candidates and the board reviewed their application packages, including videos, in closed session. Officials assigned each candidate a number and brought the process to open session, during which applicants were discussed without revealing names.

The members further narrowed the selection to three finalists: Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida; Derrick R. Coleman, superintendent of the River Rouge district; and Orlando Ramos, regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools. Ramos later withdrew from consideration.

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