Our Editorial: Vitti best choice to run Detroit schools

The Detroit News

The new Detroit school board has completed its interviews with two finalists for one of the most important jobs in the city: superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Detroit’s schools must improve as the city revives, and a strong leader could help make that happen.

Yet the search process has left much to be desired. The board erred in overlooking interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has led the district since March 2016 and had earned a broad coalition of support from the teachers union to the business community.

Meriweather’s appointment by former emergency manager Steven Rhodes made her unappealing to some members of the board.

It’s a discouraging start to the board’s tenure, which should stay away from power struggles and making decisions that benefit adults in the district over kids.

The decision is now between two candidates: Nikolai Vitti of Duval County Schools in Florida and Derrick Coleman, superintendent of River Rouge schools. A special school board meeting is scheduled for today, and the board is expected to offer an update on the search. This could be the last chance for community members to have their say.

Judging from the candidate interviews, the board and other interested parties seem to be leaning toward Coleman, who had previously worked at Detroit Public Schools as an assistant superintendent.

But the board must consider who is in the best position to help students at the worst-performing urban district in the country.

It’s hard to see how Coleman’s experience at River Rouge, which enrolls about 2,000 students, would translate to a district the size of Detroit’s at more than 45,000. Plus, River Rouge students have similar academic struggles, and while Coleman points to academic gains, they aren’t sizable. Coleman has held his current job since 2012. During his prior role at DPS, he had 29 schools under his supervision.

Vitti, who is a Dearborn Heights native, seems the better choice. He’s eager to return to Metro Detroit and for the challenge of turning around Detroit schools. His Florida district is nearly three times the size of Detroit’s at 129,000. It’s the 20th largest school district in the nation, according to the district website. It is also one of the top performing large urban districts in the country, as shown by test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And the fact Vitti has run a large school district gives him experience with complicated budgets, which he’d be overseeing in Detroit.

Duval County schools do have somewhat different demographics: 44 percent are African-American, compared with 83 percent in Detroit. And the high rate of poverty among Detroit students poses unique challenges.

Yet the strong school choice options within the Florida district are encouraging and offer families an array of schools, including magnet, a high school acceleration program, a career academy and charter. This portfolio approach has long been floated for Detroit schools but never executed well.

Vitti could change that, and could help DPSCD compete in a city where more than half of students attend charter or suburban schools.