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Vitti: Detroit teachers’ pay demands ‘have merit’

Holly Fournier

Detroit — The city’s new school superintendent said Tuesday that demands from teachers to rescind a 2011 pay cut and fully restore pay steps “have merit” but will have to be implemented over time.

Nikolai Vitti, who became the leader of the Detroit Public Schools Community District last month, made his comments the same day teachers and supporters rallied outside the district’s Fisher Building headquarters.

“There’s really nothing that’s being demanded that I am against. I think they all have merit,” Vitti said. “Some can be addressed in somewhat of a short-term basis, while others will be long term.”

The district is continuing contract talks with the Detroit Federation of Teachers after the union’s executive board voted down a tentative agreement last month. The current contract expires June 30.

The demonstrators, led by former DFT president Steve Conn, called for an immediate reversal of a 10 percent pay cut imposed six years ago by then-Emergency Manager Roy Roberts, and for reinstating pay steps for all employees.

“(The steps) were frozen in years ago. They did give a partial unfreezing recently but that’s not nearly enough,” said Conn, a teacher at Western International High School.

The demonstrators also called for limits on class sizes, clean schools, better benefits and school assignments for the fall.

“There’s money to invest in downtown, there’s money to build this (QLine) train,” said Nicole Conaway, a math teacher at East English Village High School. “There is money, we just have to demand it.”

Conaway said her current salary matches the amount she earned in 2010. She cited Vitti’s starting salary of $295,000 as evidence there’s room to increase teacher pay.

“I don’t believe there’s no money. We’re not accepting that line anymore,” she said. “(If they can pay Vitti), they can certainly restore that 10 percent to teachers and (give us) a three-year contract.”

Under the one-year contract negotiated last year with then-Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes, salaries start at $35,683 for teachers at step one who have a bachelor’s degree.

During a panel discussion last week at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Vitti said the district and the union are discussing a contract that will include a pay raise.

“I think we’re closer than farther away from having an agreement and it will provide teachers with a bump in salary,” he said Thursday. “It will not reflect the increases that I believe teachers deserve and that I’m committed to arriving at in the future.”

Conn argued that a reported surplus in the district could immediately be put toward the reversal of 10 percent pay cuts and the restoration of pay steps.

But that roughly $65 million surplus reflects one-time money left over after the fiscal year and would not support ongoing salary payments, Vitti said. In addition, most of the surplus will disappear as more teachers are hired to alleviate over-crowded classrooms.

“The majority of the surplus is being generated by teacher vacancies,” Vitti said.

Conaway said the district must offer competitive wages to attract talent needed to fill empty classrooms.

“What message does that send to students and parents if you don’t think they’re worth hiring teachers at a competitive salary,” she said.

The rally also targeted school assignments, often doled out well into the summer months.

Tracy Brown has taught in Detroit for nearly 30 years and each year waited on summertime confirmation of her job placement, she said.

“Usually it works out, sometimes it doesn’t,” said the fourth-grade teacher at McKenzie Elementary-Middle School. “It’s normal to me and that’s kind of scary when that becomes normal.”

Vitti has said the bulk of his reforms will come during the 2018-19 school year, after he’s had the opportunity to examine and overhaul the district’s budget.

“I’ll be able to see how the budget is being structured and implemented,” he said. “The budget right now is not tied to a strategic plan.”

Conaway said teacher wages trump Vitti’s planned reforms.

“Any talk of reform or improvement is meaningless if you’re not investing in our students and teachers,” she said. “Cutting the teachers’ salaries is cutting the students’ education.”

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