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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.