blame game

Former Detroit schools finance chief accused of bungling paperwork says he’s not to blame

</strong> Marios Demetriou, the former district CFO

A former top Detroit school finance official who’s been blamed for a mistake that cost the Detroit school district $6.5 million says he’s not at fault because his boss — Superintendent Nikolai Vitti — was aware of the issue.

The dispute could play a role at Tuesday’s school board meeting, where the former official plans to read from this letter to defend his reputation amid ongoing criticism from Vitti.

Vitti last month accused former district Chief Financial Officer Marios Demetriou and two other finance officials of failing to submit paperwork to collect $6.5 million owed to the district from the state.

Now, Demetriou says he has an email showing Vitti was aware of the issue and should have made sure it was addressed after Demetriou left the district on June 30. The deadline to submit the paperwork was Aug. 15.

Demetriou, who is now assistant superintendent of finance and operations in the Ann Arbor school district, said he plans to ask the board and Vitti to “retract and not to mention my name in [the reimbursement issue], because I have nothing to do with it.”

“It defies logic to blame someone who was not there,” Demetriou told Chalkbeat. “The people that were there, the people that were hired by Dr. Vitti, why aren’t they being looked at? Why isn’t it their responsibility?”

Vitti last month notified the Detroit school board about the costly paperwork snafu, saying the mistake was “unacceptable” and that he would take “disciplinary action” against two finance officials who were still on staff.

On the day that news broke about the error, Vitti announced that one official, Michael Bridges, a deputy executive director in finance, had resigned.

The mistake isn’t likely to affect the district’s 50,000 students because the money was owed to the old Detroit Public Schools, which was replaced in 2016 by the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. The old district has no schools or students and exists only to pay off debt.

Still the embarrassing mistake was a blow to Vitti, who arrived in Detroit last spring promising to clean up the district after years of what he’s described as mismanagement and neglect under a series of state-appointed emergency managers.

After news of the error broke, Vitti called the mistake a “vestige of the past that continues to haunt the district.”

But Demetriou said Vitti, who started his job with the district in May, could have done something to prevent the mistake.

He points to an email that Deputy Superintendent Alycia Meriweather sent to Vitti and Demetriou on June 9.

Meriweather, who had been the interim superintendent before Vitti was hired, forwarded the reimbursement paperwork from the state and wrote: “FYI, Does this require action?”

Three minutes later, Demetriou responded: “Please have this form filled for me [and] let me review it so we can send to Treasury.”

That exchange was more than two months before the deadline to file the paperwork.

Vitti said subsequent emails showed that the paperwork was completed, but not submitted, and that Demetriou did not instruct his successor to submit the paperwork. “Sadly, this type of response reflects the culture we must break in the district — one which lacks ownership and responsibility at the district level,” Vitti told Chalkbeat. “One that focuses on adults and not how their work impacts children.”

Vitti has been trying to rectify the situation with the state Treasury Department and reclaim the $6.5 million, but the Detroit News reported this week that they have yet to find a solution.

For his part, Demetriou said the paperwork had been submitted successfully every year he was on staff and that his record shows that he put in long days to launch the new district and “nothing blew up.”

Even on his last day, June 30, he said, he was working “to save Detroit taxpayers millions of dollars,” despite technically being on vacation.

“When I left,” he said, “everything that had to be done was done.”

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.”