Editorial: Find best teachers for Detroit students

The Detroit News

Nikolai Vitti knew he’d have his hands full when he took over the Detroit Public Schools Community District in May. And just getting teachers into every classroom is proving an unreachable task for the new superintendent — for now. Vitti should take his time and make sure the hires are the best possible fit for the district.

He acknowledges that when school starts next month, things won’t be perfect.

The district of more than 47,000 students has 425 teacher vacancies. As of this week, Vitti has 150 certified teachers lined up from a job fair as well as a smart decision he made to move some 50 instructional specialists back to the classroom.

But that leaves many classrooms without a full-time teacher. To combat the gap, the district plans to hold two more job fairs this month (Aug. 17 and 31).

That should help, and so should other measures to streamline the hiring process. The district is now part of Wayne RESA’s application system, so a teacher who applies to the county school system will now be considered for openings in Detroit.

Vitti has restructured the human resources department to focus on recruiting new talent. He’s also working to bring back some retired teachers.

The district has had longstanding issues with teacher vacancies. When Vitti arrived, there were 260 openings, many filled with long-term subs.

The number spiked this summer after the 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority — the state’s attempt to turn around failing schools in Detroit — returned to DPSCD.

About half of the EAA teachers chose to leave, creating 125 unfilled positions.

Vitti says he tried to recruit these teachers, but some attrition was expected since EAA teachers, who weren’t unionized, got paid more overall than their counterparts at the DPSCD. They weren’t keen on taking a pay cut.

Detroit has the lowest average teacher salaries of most other large districts in the state. For example, the average teacher salary in Utica is $80,000, compared with $58,000 in Detroit.

Although a new contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers allows for modest raises, the union also puts rigid constraints on how teachers get raises and how much a new teacher to the district can get paid.

Regardless of how experienced an out-of-district teacher is — or how good — that teacher couldn’t transfer to DPSCD at more than a step 3 on the pay scale (for a teacher with a bachelor’s that is about $40,000).

No wonder more teachers aren’t clamoring to work for the district, which already poses significant challenges in its student performance and building facilities.

Vitti recognizes those obstacles and wants teachers who are up to the task.

“Every teacher enters the profession to change the lives of children — that need is more profound in Detroit,” he says.

The superintendent is getting some help in his recruiting efforts. The Detroit Land Bank is offering Detroit teachers a 50 percent discount on homes bought through the housing auction program.

And the state Education Department recently approved a new alternative teacher certification program called Teachers of Tomorrow that can move professionals into classrooms more quickly, with a focus on hard-to-fill positions such as science, math and special education.

Vitti has plans to tackle other glaring district shortfalls, including a facilities audit and a deeper dive into enrollment trends. Too many buildings operate at less than half full, exacerbating the teacher shortage.

These are all important steps as DPSCD moves beyond survival mode and seeks to renew its reputation and rebuild community trust.