Bankole: Nikolai Vitti settles in, puts clout to test

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The battles that have been fought over the years in public education in Detroit have centered on many issues: unbearable classroom sizes, inadequate and uncertified teachers to unsanitary buildings and awry, unjust or misguided financial decisions.

Besides those reasons, the issue of top-heavy administrations at a cost of millions of tax dollars in salaries was always an issue for public school advocates.

The question was how could a cash-strapped district that claims to be fiscally responsible, continue to add layers to its bureaucracy with often costly appointments upon appointments at district headquarters?

Well, Nikolai Vitti, the new superintendent of the Detroit Public School Community District, has issued a declarative “no” to that way of doing business in the district in one of his first major decisions as head of the 45,000-student body.

Vitti, recently announced a cost-cutting measure — eliminating 70 jobs — that includes dozens of administrative positions at the central office that will save $5 million.

Funds from some of those positions, including instructional specialists and certified teachers who were working at the curriculum department, will be redirected to fill teacher vacancies in classrooms.

“There is an opportunity to review all departments and positions at the district level throughout the 2017-18 school year. I do believe more structural changes to the organization chart and personnel will occur at this time next year once I have a full fiscal and school year to evaluate departments and personnel’s work products,” Vitti said in an interview.

Vitti is hitting the ground running and taking on an issue that has been a central argument for those who have long opposed how the schools were operated under the imposition of emergency managers. Under that state-imposed governance, district leaders were quick to send notices of layoffs to members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers under the pretext of saving the budget, while refusing to cut the fat at the district offices.

Vitti is now unearthing that fat after taking over the district months ago.

“I found that there were one and two positions within departments that were duplicated or responsibilities shared that could be streamlined. I also found that the network structure between schools and the district led to communication and work product backlog. This is why this structure was eliminated,” Vitti said.

Helen Moore, longtime community organizer who fought the 1999 state takeover of the district, and has been a relentless critic of emergency management, welcomed the effort to reduce costs at the administrative level.

“We’ve been talking about decentralizing the district for a long time. We’ve talked about the fact that the administration is too heavy and our children are not getting the resources they need,” Moore said. “We are hoping that he will continue to look at the staff at the central office and return teachers back to the classrooms.”

After meeting with the new superintendent, Moore, who has been very critical of the actions of past district chiefs, said she thinks Vitti is up to the task of running the DPSCD. Moore, 80, who retired from the state as a legal liaison for guardianship adoption cases, said she is withholding any public criticism of the new sheriff in town until after 12 months. He needs to prove his mettle, she said.

“He has done enough study on what is happening in Detroit and decentralizing makes me happy because we have been talking about that for a long time,” she said. “I want to see what he is doing about making the school system better for the children and concentrating on the quality of teachers for the children.

“Even though the teachers are getting less money than other districts, we have to move forward for now until we get our system working correctly like when I was educated and my children were.”

Vitti’s decision to eliminate duplicate roles at the central office is a positive and it could be viewed as a harbinger for things to come in a district crying out for needed reforms.

But the troubled district faces many hurdles, which raise the question: How long will it take to see some real progress or concrete transformation?

“We are rebuilding a district. We need to keep that in mind. The district’s governance structure over the past decade, politics and personalities aside, was not successful or productive. Systems and structures to develop, support, and hold personnel accountable did not exist at scale,” Vitti said. “The district was run as if it was going through bankruptcy. Unfortunately, when this happened, employees and students were not at the center of those decisions. Asset liquidation was.”

Vitti said his goal is “to rebuild the core of the organization, the classroom, the relationship between teachers and students. This means creating a central office that understands how to support teachers and principals directly and indirectly.”

His timeline:

“I believe people will start to see a difference with how the system is operated within the first year,” he said.

“We will see academic improvement by the end of the second year and certainly by the end of the third year as long as the state (governmental entities) do not change the rules of the game regarding how you define improvement through state exams. Notable improvements in enrollment will be seen by the second and third year of the reform process.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.