Editorial: Challenges ahead for Detroit schools

The Detroit News

Nikolai Vitti, the recently hired Detroit schools superintendent, is going to have to hit the ground running when he starts his job in July. It won’t be an easy task, as recent developments highlight.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District may have a clear balance sheet for now, thanks to a $617 million bailout by state taxpayers last summer.

But it’s going to take significant work to keep the finances in order.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers doesn’t appear to be helping. While the union, which represents more than 3,000 members, has suffered pay cuts and other cutbacks as the district neared insolvency in recent years, it must have realistic goals as the district advances.

The DFT’s executive board rejected a tentative deal on a new contract last week. Negotiations have taken place since March and the contract is up the end of June.

“We’ve continually stated what’s best for educators is best for students,” DFT president Ivy Bailey said in a statement.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

The district absolutely needs to attract the best teachers it can for its 48,000 students. But it must do so within its budget.

Vitti will also have to combat the academic stagnation that has plagued the district. He’s coming from a superintendent job in Duval County, Florida, home to one of the top performing urban districts, to the worst in the U.S.

Around the time he starts his job in Detroit, the 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority will also be transitioning back into DPSCD. Those schools, especially the three charter schools, had just started demonstrating academic gains, and Vitti should help ensure what worked in those schools is allowed to continue.

The school board last month approved a one-year extension for those charters, yet member LaMar Lemmons expressed his disagreement, saying he wanted the dollars attached to those students to stay fully in the district and not go to a charter management company. Lemmons was overruled but that kind of thinking is what has dominated former Detroit boards, and it shouldn’t now.

What is best for students should be the No. 1 priority.

Vitti’s Florida district boasts a robust portfolio of schools, including charters, magnet schools and other options. So we hope he brings that same strategy to Detroit.

He has said he wants to make DPSCD schools more competitive with the city’s many charter schools outside the district’s control.

That’s a great goal, but some of his comments regarding Detroit charters are discouraging, repeating blanket criticisms about lack of oversight and greedy for-profit management companies. It’s a more complicated landscape than that, which he likely knows.

Vitti would be wise to visit some of these charter schools, and see for himself why so many parents are choosing this option over traditional public schools.

The new superintendent also has gotten a taste of local shenanigans. So-called community activist Robert Davis had held up contract negotiations between the school board and Vitti, claiming the board had violated the Open Meetings Act in its talks with the Florida superintendent.

Davis, who went to prison for stealing $200,000 from the financially destitute Highland Park Schools when he was on the school board, luckily didn’t scare off Vitti. A judge last month refuted his claim and allowed the contract conversations to continue.

Vitti has accepted the task of running Detroit schools, and he appears ready for the challenges facing him. The teachers union, school board and community should be partners in this vital endeavor.