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.”

Battle to buy a school

Judge orders Detroit district leader to appear after issuing a stay in charter school property dispute

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

A Wayne County judge charged with settling a dispute between charter school Detroit Prep and the main Detroit district on Friday issued a stay and demanded that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti or one of his top deputies, along with a school board member, appear in court next month to discuss the case.

“Let’s get somebody, a board member, the superintendent – that would be my preference – or the deputy superintendent would be acceptable with the superintendent available by phone,” Judge David J. Allen said. “I’m sure he’s a busy man.”

Allen agreed on Friday to postpone making a decision over the disputed former Joyce Elementary School until next month. By then, Gov. Rick Snyder is likely to have signed legislation that could help the charter school, Detroit Prep, in its quest to buy the former Joyce school.

“I would bet my house that the governor will sign it,” said Detroit Public Schools Community District attorney, Jenice M. Mitchell Ford.

Detroit Prep has been trying to buy and renovate the former school building on Detroit’s east side but has been blocked by the district’s refusal to waive a deed restriction on the property. The building is owned by a private developer but a deed restriction requires the district to sign off on all uses of the buildings other than residential. Detroit Prep filed suit against the district in October.

The legislation, which was fast-tracked this week by state lawmakers — and supported exclusively by GOP members — clarifies language barring deed restrictions on buildings to be used for education purposes. Detroit Prep asked Allen to postpone his ruling until that law is signed.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.” Vitti said in an email to the state House Education Reform Committee chairman, Rep. Tim Kelly.

Detroit Prep’s lawyer, Jason R. Gourley, said that the bill could “be on the governor’s desk as early as next Tuesday.”

Battle to buy a school

Michigan House passes bill that will help local charter in its fight against the Detroit district

State Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the Education Reform Committee, speaks on Senate Bill 702

GOP State House representatives today fast tracked a bill that will help local charter Detroit Prep in its fight against the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The bill, which was passed without the support of a single Democrat, clarifies language on deed restrictions, making it illegal for government entities, including school districts, to use them to block educational institutions from acquiring former school buildings.

The district rejected the charter school’s use of the abandoned former Joyce Elementary school in September, despite it having already been sold to a private developer. The district invoked a stipulation in the property’s deed that required the district to sign off any non-residential use of the property. Detroit Prep, seeking more room for its growing student population, then filed suit in October against the district.

In December, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in an email to state Representative Tim Kelly, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee, that the proposed legislation would affect the district’s ability to fight Detroit Prep in court.

“If passed, the Amendment will favor the plaintiff [Detroit Prep] in this case and adversely impact the District’s position, legal argument, etc.,” Vitti wrote.

Representative Kelly has been a vocal critic of Vitti’s actions in the case, seeing the blockage as part of a larger pushback by the superintendent against charter schools. In a heated exchange at a hearing in Lansing last November, he aimed at Vitti, saying, “The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now. Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

The bill passed on Thursday clarifies a law that’s already in existence, Kelly said during the hearing, “but currently being flouted in certain areas of the state.”

The matter now shifts to the Wayne County Circuit Court on Friday, where the charter and district lawyers will meet at a hearing on Detroit Prep’s request for a delay in the case to give the bill enough time to be signed into law by the governor. Meanwhile, the district is arguing for the case to be thrown out altogether.

“I’m curious about the timing of this hearing when the judge is considering this case already,” said State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) during the hearing. “Is it appropriate for us to be pushing this legislation when there is a court hearing scheduled for tomorrow?”