more money fewer problems

Detroit schools chief: District can now pay for counselors, arts classes, and gym in every school

After months spent talking about expensive new programs he’d like to see, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s found money in the Detroit district’s budget to hire a slew of educators who’ve been missing for years from city schools.

The budget framework he presented to a school board committee Friday calls for every city school to have a guidance counselor, an arts or music teacher, a gym teacher, and a “dean of school culture” who would be in charge of student discipline and creating in-school suspension programs.

Vitti’s proposals didn’t have specific dollar amounts attached, but provided a vision for how he wants to allocate the district’s money for next school year.

High schools would each have a graduation coach to make sure students are earning the credits they need to graduate in four years, are taking college entrance exams, or preparing for post-high school careers.

And every student in grades K-5 will get three field trips a year through a new “cultural passport program” as well as expanded sports programs in elementary and middle schools.

“Going to the Detroit Institute of Arts or to the Music Hall or to the zoo … all these activities will be part of the standard DPSCD experience that will be used to market our schools going forward,” Vitti said.

Vitti has said making the experience of attending district schools more appealing is one way he plans to draw more students and staff into the district.

He also told the school board’s finance committee that principals will work 12 months – up from 10 – after years of largely getting their summers off. That, Vitti said, will give them time to focus on recruiting students and teachers while their assistant principals run summer schools.

“I think principals need to start sharing the burden of recruiting,” Vitti said. “There was a culture of ‘Oh, that’s the district’s job.’”

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one. But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works to address the difficulties of recruiting new employees.

He told that committee that he hopes to make recruiting easier in the next few months by negotiating with the city teachers union the ability to pay higher salaries to experienced teachers who come from outside the district. Currently the contract won’t allow the district to pay new teachers any more than a beginner level salary, even if they’ve worked for a decade in another district or charter school.

Vitti also said he wants to make entering the district as a new hire easier. Some principals have complained that the hiring process is so laborious that candidates sometimes accept other offers while waiting for their contracts with the Detroit district to come through.

“You don’t have to go to this side of town to do the fingerprinting, then going to this side of town for the drug test,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the goal of his plan is “to make decisions and change some of our funding priorities while still being conservative to ensure sustainability,” and that “the budget is structured to prevent us from being in a place where we’re overspending.”

Vitti says the money would come from state funding from increased enrollment, federal grants, and money the district would save by combining the independent schools operating within three multi-school campuses: Mumford, Cody, and Crockett/Ben Carson campuses.

His plans to combine the schools on each campus to “reduce administrative costs and create singular leadership” would save the district roughly $2 million, he said.

The committee is expected to vote on the proposals later this month, and if approved, the plan could go before the full board in April, Vitti said.

Adding to school staff

  • School leadership: the district plans to have principals work year round, add an assistant principal to each school, and add a dean of culture to each school.
  • Instructional staff: the district wants to add two master teachers per school to coach teachers in English and math, better allocate teachers based on the most up-to-date count data, add at least one art or music teacher to each school, add gym teachers to each school, add education technicians to support reading and math interventions, and add personnel to support PreK to second grade.
  • Support staff: Adding at least one guidance counselor to each school, adding one graduation coach to each school, add a school culture facilitator to each school to facilitate in-school suspensions, add one attendance agent per school and add at least two clerical staff to each school.
Read the entire proposed budget framework below.

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.”