making their case

As pink slips go out to Detroit principals and school leaders, some are pleading their case to the school board

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

A handful of Detroit school administrators filed into a quiet conference room, ready to fight for their jobs. They had twenty minutes to make their case. Most carried a written version of the appeal they wanted to make to the school board.

The end of the school year is approaching and 16 district administrators just learned that they might not be coming back next year.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is about to enter his second year as the district’s leader, issued “non-renewal notices,” to four school principals and 12 central office administrators.

But at the district’s Fisher Building headquarters on Tuesday, the people on the chopping block were all given a chance to appeal. Seven of them took the superintendent up on his offer to defend their work, with several scheduled for hearings Tuesday and others set for Wednesday.

The process, though likely difficult for the 16 people on the chopping block, was more measured than the one used in the past.

Previously, when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers, “non-renewals” went out every year to every non-union employee in the district — hundreds of people — forcing them to reapply for their jobs.

Emergency managers “just said, non-renew everybody and we’ll figure out the budget,” said Deborah Louis-Ake, president of the Detroit Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, a union representing school administrators. She was in the conference room on Tuesday morning, advocating for a financial administrator who appealed his case to the school board. Nonetheless, she said the process was more predictable this year. “I think these are planned non-renewals,” she said.

Last year, as the district was transitioning to Vitti from an interim superintendent, non-renewals went out to central office staff. Vitti ended up cutting dozens of jobs, and moving certified educators back into classrooms to help alleviate the district’s teacher shortage. (Here’s how the district payroll changed between June and October).

Changes to this year’s process are part of a broader effort to reestablish stability in the district after more than seven years of five different emergency managers, Vitti said.

Even for high-performing employees, it was “demoralizing to get a non-renewal letter,” Vitti told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “It created instability.”

Touch-and-go job security, heaped on top of relatively low pay, made it hard for the district to attract strong administrators, according to Louis-Ake.

Once the seven administrators have had a chance to plead their case, the board will make final personnel decisions at a meeting on May 21, Vitti said.

Among those facing ousters are four principals who were singled out for failings such as poor communication with parents or bungled finances. Not all will lose their place in the district entirely.

Allan Cosma, principal of Ludington Magnet Middle and Honors School, could be demoted to assistant principal, a position that Vitti says would better suit his skills. Vitti first proposed firing Cosma in April after an audit turned up a financial issue. After a large group of supporters fought for him at a school board meeting, the board voted to place him on a 30-day unpaid leave.

The other 15 administrators were not identified by the district. Their appeal hearings were closed to the public, standard procedure for discussions of individual employees’ job performance. Board member LaMar Lemmons confirmed that Cosma was again appealing to the board, noting that the situation had been previously reported.

No principals are being fired this year because of low test scores, but Vitti says that’s likely to change next year. By then, school leaders will be expected to improve on this year’s academic performance, Vitti said. He is using tools such as “data chats” where principals analyze test scores and attendance rates to help spread leadership skills throughout the district.

By next year, principals whose performance is found lacking will know what to expect, said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman.

“There’s no emergency manager that’s going to come in here in April and hand out non-renewals based on something that no one understands,” she said. “It’s a sign of stability.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.