GOP legislators: Detroit schools violating bailout law

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republican lawmakers on Thursday urged new Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti to create an A-F system to grade city schools and implement a merit pay system for teachers, arguing the district has failed to make changes required under a $617 million state bailout.

“The law says that you have to do it, so you are intentionally violating the law at this point in time,” Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, told Vitti during committee testimony at the Michigan Capitol.

Lawmaker frustrations appeared to be partially misplaced. The bailout law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder directs the state School Reform Office – not the district – to establish, implement and administer the A-F accountability system.

The law does require the district to create a method of compensating teachers based on performance rather than experience. Vitti said he’s implemented merit pay in other districts but has not yet attempted negotiations with the local teachers union.

Thursday’s hearing was Vitti’s first appearance before the Legislature since he took over Detroit schools in September and the first since Gov. Rick Snyder signed the district bailout in June of 2016.

More than a year later, legislators credited Vitti with his initial work in Detroit schools but grilled him over implementation of the bailout designed to force a higher level of accountability for schools and teachers.

Vitti said his first priority as superintendent was to address teacher vacancies in the district. There were 450 vacancies in July and are still roughly 170 right now, he said, telling legislators that he worked to recruit new teachers and shifted 80 central-office teachers back into classrooms.

“When you’re sitting at 450 vacancies, that’s the priority,” Vitti told legislators. “We have to get teachers in front of children.”

Vitti said he is not philosophically opposed to implementing an A-F system to grade schools for parental review, but he suggested the accountability system should be crafted at the state level and apply to all schools.

House Education Committee chairman Tim Kelly agreed that Michigan should create a statewide system to grade public schools, but the GOP-led Legislature has not yet agreed on any specific plan to do so.

“So the onus is on Detroit having one first,” said Kelly, R-Saginaw Township.

The $617 million state aid package Snyder signed last year created a new-debt free Detroit Community Schools District. It was designed to help pay off $467 million in operating debt for the old Detroit Public Schools and provide $150 million in start-up funding for the new district.

The law included several accountability figures designed to win over Republican lawmakers who were reluctant to provide state aid to a single district.

“I believe you have a huge job, and most of us would like to give you leeway to do that job, but we do still expect you to follow the law as it’s written,” said Rep. Ned Canfield, R-Sebewaing.

“We have millions of taxpayers who have put money on the line to have the Detroit public school system bolstered up… We need to you to follow through on the law so that we can go back and report to our citizens in our communities that are taking this hit that we’re making progress.”

Vitti said the district has worked to implement new academic goals and an evaluation system to hold himself, principals and teachers accountable for student performance.

Republican lawmakers have expressed frustration with implementation of the bailout law before. It anticipated forced closure of academically struggling schools in Detroit, but Michigan Superintendent Brian Whiston instead forged “partnership agreements” to improve schools and delay closure for three years.

“When schools are defined as failing our students, do you feel we have an obligation to close them?” Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, asked Vitti.

The superintendent said he thinks there is a time and a place for closing schools after they are evaluated in a fair and consistent manner.

“I just think we need to get out of the place of feeling that school improvement means closing schools,” Vitti said. “That is not in isolation how you improve student achievement.”