Vitti's team

Superintendent’s inner circle: These are the people Detroit’s new schools boss Nikolai Vitti has tapped to help rebuild the district

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Since arriving in Detroit two months ago, new schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been assembling a team of educators, lawyers — even investment bankers — to support his effort to improve the city’s struggling schools.

Among people he’s leaning on are some familiar figures in Detroit like former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and longtime district facilities chief Felicia Venable. But Vitti’s team includes many new arrivals he lured from his last job as Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. Also on the list are several people who served as top officials in the Education Achievement Authority, the defunct state recovery district that took over 15 Detroit schools in 2012. The EAA schools returned to the main Detroit district on July 1.

Here’s a look at who Vitti is turning to for advice, what they’ll be doing — and how much they’ll be paid.

Luis Solano
Chief Operating Officer

Salary: $195,000

Duties: Oversee the internal daily functions of district departments; serve as the bridge between the superintendent and district departments, initiatives and  programs.

Last job: Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Collier County Public Schools, Naples, Fla.

His story: An Army veteran and former teacher, principal and assistant principal, Solano, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked with Vitti in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district. He has degrees in special education from Florida International University, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and will soon complete a doctorate in education from the University of West Florida.


Iranetta Wright
Deputy Superintendent of Schools

Salary: $190,000

Duties: Oversee the daily operations of schools; manage and lead principal supervisors and indirectly principals; oversee leadership development, counseling, mental health services, discipline, school police, athletics, school improvement, and the needs of homeless students and those who are learning English.

Last job: Chief of Schools, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville, Fla.

Her story: Wright worked in Duval schools for 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal until Vitti tapped her for the district’s central office. Most recently she led the district’s high-profile “transformation” office which oversaw 36 high-need, low-performing schools. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.


Alycia Meriweather
Deputy Superintendent of External Partnerships and Innovation

Salary: $180,000

Duties: Lead district efforts with business, non-profit, and philanthropic communities; oversee career and technical programs, examination schools, and enrollment efforts.

Last job: Interim Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools grad has worked in the district for 22 years including 12 years as a science teacher. She worked in the district’s Office of Science and its curriculum office before becoming its top education official in 2016. She has education degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University and is currently pursuing a a doctorate at Wayne State.



Beth Gonzalez
Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of early learning, literacy, mathematics, social studies, and science; leads districtwide work for core professional development; manages curriculum adoption process.

Last job: Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Gonzalez has spent most of her 17-year career in the Duval County schools, working as a fifth-grade math teacher, a curriculum specialist, a data coordinator and a supervisor of test development. She worked for the Florida state education department before returning to the district to work for Vitti. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of South Florida.

David Donaldson
Senior Executive Director of Talent

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide human resources functions, including recruiting teachers, on-boarding, fingerprinting, and labor relations.

Last Job: Chief Operating Officer, Future Ready Columbus in Ohio.

His story: Donaldson was briefly the principal of the Detroit Institute of Technology, one of the small schools inside Cody High School from July 2013 to February 2014 before leaving the district to join the Education Achievement Authority as associate chancellor. He left Detroit briefly this year for the job in Ohio before returning to work for Vitti. He also taught school as a Teach For America fellow in Baltimore and worked in the New York City Department of Education. He has degrees from Eastern Michigan University, Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in education from Harvard University.

Felicia Venable
Senior Executive Director of Facilities, Transportation, Food Service and Maintenance.

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Lead districtwide management and implementation of facilities, transportation, food service, and maintenance.

Last job: Executive Director of Facilities, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Worked for the Detroit district in various roles since 2000 after a stint as a health inspector and analyst for the city of Detroit. She has degrees from Tennessee State University, Wayne State University and Walsh College.


Elizabeth Cutrona
Senior Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Project Management

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Oversee district strategic plan, goals, and targets; manage district project management system; develop evaluation tools and performance targets.

Last Job: Assistant Superintendent, Strategic Planning and Partnerships, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Cutrona worked as an English teacher for three years in Miami before going to work for The New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization. In 2015, she interviewed Vitti for the organization’s blog. She went to work for him in 2016. She has a degree from Hamilton College.


Sharlonda Buckman
Senior Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Lead districtwide community and family engagement efforts.

Last Job: Executive Director, Detroit Parent Network.

Her story: The Detroit native has been running the city’s largest parent network since 2005. The organization said it expanded its membership by 12 times during her time at the helm. She also worked as an administrator at the Michigan Metro Girl Scouts Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit and the Warren/Connor Development Coalition. She has a master’s degree from New Hampshire College.


Christine Burkett
Senior Executive Director of Information Technology

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide information technology systems; manage compliance and reporting functions for accountability and assessment (i.e. district and state testing).

Last Job: Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Data, Technology and Assessment at Old Redford Academy School District.

Her story: Burkett started her career as a science tech, chemistry and robotics teacher at Detroit’s Crockett Tech and Redford High Schools before going to work for charter schools. She has served as a curriculum and assessment coordinator for the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences High School and as a top official at the Old Redford Academy. She also worked for private sector firms including General Motors where she developed training for new employees and created online training courses. She has degrees from Delaware State University, Marygrove College, Capella University and a doctorate in educational psychology and technology from Michigan State University.


Jason Rose
Senior Executive Director of Research, Evaluation, and Analytics

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of internal and external research. Evaluates district programs; manages data analytics to anticipate districtwide challenges and opportunities; develops policy analysis to guide district strategy.

Last job: Vice-President, Data & Research, Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

His story: Rose worked as an elementary school teacher in Georgia for four years before going into research as he pursued a doctorate in early childhood intervention and literacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s worked for the Jacksonville education fund since 2011. He also has degrees from Ithaca College and Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia.

Rod Hardamon
Special Projects

Salary: being negotiated

Duties: Manages complex, high-level and visible special projects across departments to ensure execution.

Last job: Chairman, URGE Development Group and URGE Imprint.

His story: While Hardamon’s development group is pursuing a $77 million housing and retail development in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, his strategic consulting group helped lead the effort to re-integrate the EAA schools with the main Detroit district. Before moving to Detroit, Hardamon worked as a New York investment banker and hedge fund manager for Citigroup and related firms. He has a degree from Morehouse College.


Kristen Howard
Executive Director of Compliance and Special Assistant to the Superintendent

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Manages follow-up activities of federal and state audit findings; oversees development of board committee and board meeting agenda; coordinates and follows up on superintendent issues with the board.

Last Job: Executive Director of Compliance, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: As an attorney with the Clark Hill lawfirm, Howard represented the Detroit Retirement System in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. She came to work for Detroit schools last year as an unpaid consultant to Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes. She later spent six months as a senior legal advisor to the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in the compliance role in December. Howard graduated from from Georgetown law school and clerked for a federal judge in Maryland. She also has a degree from Howard University.


Bernadette Kakooza
Inspector General

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts to identify and investigate fraud, malfeasance, corruption; tentatively positioned to lead internal auditing to identify audit concerns before federal and state audits. This position reports to the school board but is led administratively by the superintendent.


Last job: Inspector General, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Kakooza has spent her entire 20-year career in the district, working as an auditor and accountant for Office of Internal Audit, the Office of the Inspector General and at Cass Technical High School. She is a certified fraud examiner with degrees from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Interim officials:

Tony Saunders
Interim chief financial officer

Salary: $25,000 a month per contract (includes additional support personnel, no health benefits).

Duties: Oversee districtwide functions for budget, finance, payroll, contracting, and federal programs.

Last job: Chief Restructuring and Financial Officer, Wayne County.

His story: Saunders has advised many school districts and government agencies in Michigan and around the country and worked for a firm that helped the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy. He has a degree from the University of Michigan.



Chrystal Wilson
Interim Senior Executive Director of Communications and Marketing

Salary: $120,000

Duties: Lead districtwide internal and external communications, including development and implementation of marketing plan.

Last job: Deputy Executive Director of Communications and Press Secretary, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Wilson served as communications director for the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in 2015.  She previously worked for a private PR firm. She has a degree from Wayne State University.


Phyllis Hurks-Hill
Chief Legal Counsel (This position is posted for interviews)

Salary: $155,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts in legal review and guidance; oversees board policy and development.

Last job: General Counsel, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit resident has worked for the district, first as a deputy general counsel then as general counsel, since 2005. Prior to that she was in private practice. She has degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan Law School.



buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”