blame game

Paperwork snafu cost Detroit school district $6.5 million in state funds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

A member of Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s finance team resigned suddenly on Thursday after officials discovered that $6.5 million worth of state reimbursements were likely never submitted in a paperwork snafu over the summer.

District officials said that Michael Bridges, a deputy executive director in finance for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, quit after Vitti accused him, and two others, of failing to submit an application for state funds that were owed to the district. Vitti had threatened to discipline the officials.

The error won’t affect current students because the problem relates to the old Detroit Public Schools, which exists only to pay down legacy debt and no longer runs schools.

The old district was replaced last year by the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which should not be affected by the error. 

The error, however, could affect how quickly old district can pay off its debts and it represents a black eye for a district that was just returned to a local school board after years under the control of state-appointed emergency managers.

At least one school board member was furious to learn what happened.

This is a major faux pas and impactful error!” the school board member, LaMar Lemmons, wrote in an angry email to Vitti and other board members that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Lemmons’ email came in response to a note from Vitti on Monday to the board that explained the situation. In that note, which was part of the email chain, Vitti wrote:

“The state of Michigan reimburses districts for lost debt millage funds, as part of Public Act 86. In order to qualify for these funds, school districts must submit required documentation to the state by August 15th.

I learned today that the required documentation for Detroit Public Schools was not received by the state. Apparently, the forms were provided to the former CFO in the spring but not completed.

At this point, Detroit Public Schools is not eligible for the $6.5 million-dollar reimbursement from the state. After speaking with state officials, the available funds have already been disbursed to other qualifying entities. However, we will continue to petition the state to receive the reimbursement.”

Lemmons, according to the email chain, demanded an explanation, which Vitti provided Thursday, putting the blame on the district’s former chief financial officer:

“As a follow up to this issue and to address your request of a breakdown of what occurred, please note that, ultimately, the responsibility to submit the paperwork fell on then-CFO Marios Demetriou and two Executive Directors in Finance, Delores Brown and specifically Michael Bridges.

In the transition between [former interim Superintendent Alycia] Meriweather and I in early June, Mrs. Meriweather was informed through the Michigan superintendent listserve that the reimbursement form was due. Then CFO Demetriou informed us that he would handle and submit the paperwork. Then CFO was reminded that it was due through a Michigan chief officer list serve. He requested that Ms. Brown and Mr. Bridges have our outside financial advisors (PFM) complete the paperwork and return it to him. Mr. Bridges had the form completed by PFM and stated that he provided it to the then-CFO. However, there is no record of Mr. Bridges providing the information to then-CFO Demetriou for signature nor does the outgoing CFO recall the final stages of this process.

In the transition between Mr. Demetriou/Senior Staff and Mr. Saunders/Mr. Vidito, there was no mention or records regarding the need to submit the reimbursement paperwork. We will be taking disciplinary action with those in Finance who are still employed by the district.

In addition, please note that this reimbursement does not have a direct impact on DPSCD’s finances or day to day operations. It impacts the repayment of long-term DPS legacy debt. With that said, this is unacceptable. Disciplinary action will be taken and we will continue to proactively work with the Treasury to obtain the reimbursement.”

 

Vitti did not specify what disciplinary actions would be taken.

Before Thursday, both Bridges and Brown were employed by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. According to the district website, Bridges’ portfolio included General Ledger, Financial Reporting & Purchase Card.

Demetriou, who is now an Assistant Superintendent in the Ann Arbor school district, did not respond to a request for comment, but earlier in the day on Thursday, Bridges questioned Vitti’s version of events.

“I wouldn’t say I’m responsible,” Bridges said, when Chalkbeat reached him in his office on Thursday.

When told Vitti specifically stated he has no record of Bridges ever submitting the paperwork back to Demetriou, Bridges said, “I can’t concur with that.”

Bridges said a possible reason there is no record is because he would typically print out any forms Demetriou was meant to sign and send them to him via the internal mailing system.

“I would have likely walked it down to his inbox, and if he had any questions he would have followed up with me,” he said.

A short while later, Bridges quit, Vitti said.

A spokesman for the state education department declined to comment.

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.