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.

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.”