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.”

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”

 

Dropped charters

Detroit board members decide not to renew charter, leaving 3 schools and 700 students in limbo

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Earl Phalen founded Phalen Leadership Academies, a fast-growing network of charter schools that could have to scramble following a Detroit school board decision.

Three Detroit charter schools face renewed uncertainty after two school board panels voiced opposition to renewing their contracts.

Murphy, Trix, and Stewart academies were removed from the city’s main district by the state in 2012 and placed into a state-run recovery district that converted them into charters. They remained charters when the recovery district dissolved last year and its schools returned to the district. 

Now the schools managers that run the three schools must find a new backer — and perhaps move into a new building, too.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s position has been clear for months: The main district competes with charter schools for teachers and students, he says. It shouldn’t spend its time overseeing them.

Dealing with district-authorized charter schools “is not a priority,” he told board members at a public meeting on Monday morning. “The lift is so heavy right now with our own schools, that one second not spent on our schools seems to be… a lost opportunity.”

But when Vitti brought the issue to the board in November, the board didn’t come to a decision.

Facing an uncertain future, some district-authorized charter schools chose to find other backers. But the organization that operates Murphy, Trix, and Stewart — an Indianapolis-based charter network called Phalen Leadership Academies — held out, hoping the school board would grant the schools more time.

On Monday, board members on two sub-committees decided not to do that. They agreed not to renew the schools’ charter, which is set to expire in June, meaning the issue will not go before the full board.

Sonya Mays, chair of the finance subcommittee, declined to support the renewal of the schools’ charter despite concerns that the transition could be turbulent for students there.

“My primary concern is not having the academic experience of those students disrupted,” she said.

Dozens of universities and school districts authorize charters in Michigan, and Vitti expressed confidence that Murphy, Trix, and Stewart, which together enroll more than 700 students, will be able to find an authorizer elsewhere. Phalen Leadership Academies contacted at least one other charter authorizer about a transfer, but did not submit the requisite paperwork. Creating a new charter can take much of a year, but officials at Central Michigan University, the authorizer contacted by Phalen, said a three-month turnaround is not impossible.

Earl Phalen, the organization’s president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For LaMar Lemmons, who joined Mays in opposing the charter, the issue was clear-cut.

“They were basically funneling our children into the charters,” he said of the state officials who spun off the former district schools into independent entities. “Those students walk to school to Trix. We would immediately absorb 90 percent of those students.”

But the district likely won’t be able to open a school on Trix’s building for a couple of years. Vitti wants to renegotiate the lease on the district-owned building with Phalen’s organization, saying it was “very generous.” If those talks fail, the district would regain control of the building, but Vitti says the buildings are in poor repair.

Starting a new school could pose a challenge for a district already racing to fill nearly 200 open teaching posts by next fall. The building already has many buildings that are far from fully occupied.

“I don’t want to start the school year with 25 vacancies at one school,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who also opposed renewing the contract.

It will be years before the district can get out of the charter business entirely. Three of its 10 remaining contracts don’t expire until 2022 (see below for a full list).

Without a means of exiting those agreements, the Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the district’s charters, won’t close its doors any time soon. Indeed, even as the finance subcommittee spoke out against renewing charters for Trix, Murphy, and Stewart, it approved $4,000 to send district employees to training for charter authorizers.