DPSCD board approves $295K contract for Vitti

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Detroit Public Schools Community District board on Friday unanimously approved a five-year contract for its incoming superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, that pays $295,000 to start.

The board’s vote during a special meeting comes after members last month selected Vitti for the post and entered into contract negotiations following interviews, school visits and meet-and-greets. He has been superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, since 2012. He begins in Detroit on July 1.

The Metro Detroit native will replace Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, whose contract expires June 30, to lead the state’s largest district, which has enrollment of more than 47,400 students.

The contract must still be approved by the financial review commission overseeing the district’s finances.

“Dr. Vitti is a strong leader and change agent who is qualified to move this district forward,” Board President Iris Taylor said in a statement after the meeting. “We are focused on providing the best education possible for students in Detroit.”

Vitti said in a statement late Friday that he planned to start working May 22 and was “profoundly grateful” to the board “for granting me the privilege, honor, and responsibility to lead the city’s new school district.”

“I have stated from the beginning that there needed to be a match between the new school board and me. ... We have the same passion and vision for the children of Detroit and we both accept the responsibility to ensure their success,” he said. “I have no doubt that we will make the school district a leader in urban education once again by working as a team with children as our focus.”

The quality of schools in Vitti’s district as well as his budgeting strategies and strong community ties forged in Florida pushed the board to choose him over River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman after a nationwide search.

Before voting on the contract late Friday at the Douglass Academy for Young Men, the board reviewed details with attorney Floyd Allen of the Allen Law Group PC.

Among them: Vitti’s salary, which starts at $295,000, is slated to rise over the next five years, ending at $322,000.

“In order to arrive at these numbers, there was a fair amount of research done by my staff,” Allen told the board. “Frankly, as you look around the country and as you look around the state of Michigan, there are a host of districts — some bigger, some smaller — where the superintendent is in fact paid more than this particular salary.”

Vitti’s contract also calls for him to receive some $25,000 in moving expenses as well as work with the board to determine district goals before each academic year. For the contract to continue, he must be rated as “effective” in evaluations, Allen said.

Meriweather, who was appointed last year by the district’s then emergency manager, former bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, earned more than $200,000 during her tenure, district officials said Friday.

According to a 2016 survey by the School Superintendents Association, base salaries for school chiefs across the country ranged from $50,000 to $393,000. Former DPS Superintendent Connie Calloway, who was ousted in December 2008 after less than 18 months on the job, once made $280,000.

Before approving Vitti’s contract, board members said the overall goal was to compensate an administrator they believe can boost the district and enhance student achievement.

“We can’t lose sight that Detroit and this district has to compete not only at a national level but increasingly an international level,” member Sonya Mays said. “We really are making an investment in the future of our children here.”

But others at the sparsely attended meeting disagreed, urging the board to delay action.

Activist Helen Moore wanted the board to vote after hearing public comments, which she believed had not been heeded.

“You haven’t included the parents, students or community in this contract,” she said.

Jeanette Thomas, whose children have attended the district, hoped the board would table the decision and seek more input from those Vitti serves.

“He’s working for the parents and the community,” she said.

After the vote, Taylor said she and board members had evaluated comments from the community throughout the superintendent search. “There was opportunity during the selection process for multiple layers,” she said.

Vice President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry stressed that she and other board members “are the community.”

“I have children here. I chose to have my children stay in the district,” she said. “I’m very concerned about all of the decisions we make being in the best interest of all of our children.”

Vitti, a Harvard graduate, is slated to join a transition team that includes Meriweather, who had been excluded as a finalist for not meeting experience requirements adopted by the board.

On Friday, some Detroiters backed the school board and Vitti’s work.

“You have selected the right person for the job,” Garland Hardeman told the board. “I’ll be watching ... to see that there are significant improvements in this district.”