Vitti urges teacher raises, recruitment boost

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Raises for teachers, hiring more educators and pursuing a “student-first state and local policy agenda” are among the plans the new Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent will pursue in the next two school years.

During a board of education meeting Tuesday night, Nikolai Vitti, who started his job last month and has a five-year contract, unveiled more details about the immediate work to turn around Michigan’s largest district as well as strengthen it.

Vitti told the board the proposals were guided by meetings with district staff, supporters and other stakeholders during his first two weeks on the job.

Among the first priorities is a collective bargaining agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The current contract expires June 30; the union's executive board rejected a tentative agreement last month.

During a recent panel discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, Vitti has said the district and the union are discussing a contract that includes a pay raise. He reiterated that stance Tuesday at Renaissance High School.

“Our teachers deserve a raise,” Vitti said to applause.

Along with that, the superintendent called for boosting recruitment to fill all positions. The district has more than 200 openings, representatives said last month.

“We have to function with a greater sense of urgency,” he said. “There are no excuses.”

Vitti also outlined goals for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years. Those include a curriculum audit, reorganizing the central district office to eliminate duplicated positions, revising the code of conduct, monitoring spending more closely and defining an enrollment policy.

Another goal is reducing a reliance on contract services and instead “rebuild our district with actual employees,” the longtime educator said.

That encouraged supporters such as Verna Brocks, a grandparent in the district who attended the meeting. “That means there’s an opportunity for us to keep the cream of the crop in every aspect of employment in DPS,” she said.

Vitti also said he wants to bring arts programs and health/social services back to schools.

For the immediate future, he urged the board and district staff to secure a “smooth transition” as schools return from the disbanding Education Achievement Authority.

“Every time a book is not delivered, it sends a message that we’re not serving our children,” Vitti said. “And it gives parents another reason not to send children to our school system.”

Both board members and community supporters applauded Vitti’s pledges.

“He’s come and hit the ground running,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. “I just I think he’s moving in the right direction, the right track and we’re well pleased.”

Marva Fletcher, a DFT member, called Vitti “a breath of fresh air.”

But others warned Vitti about the potential for more problems.

“You better take hold of everything you got because a lot of people are trying to micromanage you, including this board.” said community activist Helen Moore.

The board also approved a proposed budget for the 2017-18 school year. That includes more than $710 million in revenue — a slight increase mostly attributed to additional state sources due to the return of the EAA schools— and expenditures close to $706 million, leaving a surplus around $4 million, according to district data.

The district also is on track to cover its obligations to vendors and others, Marios Demetriou, its deputy superintendent of finance, told the board