This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for free newsletters here.
By Eleanore Catolico
Despite some public pleas to delay the vote, the Detroit school board extended Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s contract for three more years.
The board voted 5-2, without public discussion, near the end of a six-hour meeting Tuesday night. Members Deborah Hunter-Harvill and Georgia Lemmons voted no.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, Sonya Mays, Misha Stallworth West, Corletta Vaughn and Iris Taylor approved the extension.
Vitti, now in the fourth year of his contract, will serve as superintendent until 2025, making him one of the longest-serving school chiefs in recent district history.
He currently earns $312,000 a year. For the 2021-22 school year – the fifth and final year of his contract – his salary will increase to $322,000. As part of the proposed contract amendment, on July 1, 2022, his salary will increase based on the percentage of union pay raises.
The extension underscores the board’s desire for leadership stability as the Covid-19 pandemic upends traditional schooling for nearly 50,000 district students.
“The most important thing that DPSCD can offer our parents, students and teachers today, in the midst of this pandemic, is stability,” board President Iris Taylor said in a statement prior to the vote. “Detroit’s children and families deserve stable leadership and a plan to complete the transformation of the district. The amendment to Dr. Vitti’s contract aims to keep us aggressively engaged in the DPSCD reform work.”
But during a contentious two-hour public comment period, dozens of parents, teachers, activists, and union officials pressured the board to reconsider the vote.
District teacher Casey Edgar urged school board members not to rush the decision.
“It is unacceptable to extend this contract,” she said. “Please wait.”
Yet some pledged their support for the superintendent’s actions.
District parent Lennard Combs praised Vitti for the district’s family engagement efforts. Over the summer, the district hosted virtual town halls, which provided information on school reopening plans.
“He’s been transparent. He allowed parents like myself” to have a voice, he said. “I applaud the board and the school system under his leadership.”
Superintendents of other large school districts have been awarded longer contracts in recent months, including two-year extensions in Tennessee, Georgia, and New York. Last year, the Newark school board granted its superintendent a two-year extension after holding the position for one year.
Vitti said Monday he is adamant about building on his work.
“The work has not been easy but I have taken pride in the accomplishments we have achieved thus far. More importantly, the work is not complete,” he said. “My commitment and goal is to completely stabilize the district before I leave and place it in the position to be the best urban school district in the country.”
District spokesperson Chrystal Wilson said the board began discussing the contract extension in early spring, but those discussions were tabled due to the pandemic.
Before the meeting, Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who was elected to the board and will take office in January, questioned the timing of the board’s decision.
“Why is there a rush, during COVID, when schools are virtual, when schools are out?” she said. “What message does it send to the teachers, parents, and otherwise?”
She added that decisions affecting the district’s future should be made by elected school board members in 2021 with community input. “It’s disappointing,” she added.
In 2017, a newly elected school board hired Vitti to run the Detroit Public Schools Community District. He was the first superintendent brought on after the district emerged from years of state control.
Several state-appointed emergency managers ran the district from 2009 to 2016. It was a tumultuous period marked by teacher pay cuts and school closures.
The new Detroit school district was created in 2016 as part of a legislative solution to the debt that had crushed Detroit Public Schools. The original district still exists, but solely to collect taxes and pay off millions in legacy debt. The new district exists solely to educate students.
In the last three years, Vitti and the school board have worked collaboratively. Mays and Stallworth West, who were re-elected in November, rated Vitti well in a Chalkbeat candidate survey. Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Taylor, who lost her re-election bid.
Vitti and the board have delivered on some promises to reform the district: improvements in academic performance, reduction of chronic student absenteeism, reduction of teacher vacancies, increased teacher pay, increased enrollment, and expanded arts programming. In October, the Detroit Financial Review Commission released the district from its oversight, the first time in nearly a decade the district could operate without the state’s financial monitoring.
Yet critics argue school officials haven’t done enough to improve academic achievement. Most recently, the district was scrutinized for reopening school buildings during the pandemic and a lack of preparedness for full-scale virtual learning.
Last month, Vitti and the board halted in-person learning until at least January due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases across the city.
Before the building closures, about 25% of students were learning in person. Vitti has been a strong proponent of in-person learning.
Challenges remain for Vitti and the school board during this unprecedented academic year. They must combat low student attendance and engagement, continued challenges with online learning, and pandemic-induced budget realities that could threaten jobs.
Vitti and school board members discussed plans to continue efforts to improve the district during a board study session last month. Those efforts include potentially offering a hybrid learning option in the 2021-22 school year, improving college and career readiness for high schoolers, and providing additional professional development opportunities for educators.