Note: This commentary ran in the May 31, 2017, edition of the Detroit Free Press, opinion section.
School may be out for summer soon, but for Detroit’s new superintendent the school year starts now.
Nikolai Vitti just began his tenure as superintendent of the state’s largest school district. He takes the helm of the “new” 45,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District, which took over education responsibilities from the “old” Detroit Public Schools in July 2016.
Unlike his predecessors, Vitti takes control of a district with a balanced budget, projected year-end surplus, and free from mountains of legacy debts. He owes nearly all of the district’s near-term improvement to better financial management, strict oversight by the Detroit Financial Review Commission, and the “fresh start” provided through last year’s state rescue package.
The district also has benefited from the new supplemental millage levied by Wayne RESA and distributed to the school districts. To ensure the district’s long-term financial success, Vitti will have to focus his attention on three key challenges going forward
Poor academics: First, with new board and superintendent leadership in place, the district has to address undoubtedly its most pressing challenge: the chronic student achievement failures that have caused students to flee to alternative schools, taking valuable resources with them. Detroit Public Schools has been the worst-performing urban school district in the nation for many years. Improvement will require targeting resources to interventions that build long-term, sustainable student achievement. At the same time, to begin to build confidence with parents, academic reforms must show short-term success. Detroit parents are going to need proof that the “new” district has broken with the “old” one and is serious about preparing students to be successful.
Declining enrollment: The district must stabilize its student enrollment to build off its solid financial foundation. While the Detroit education market remains fluid with the continued opening and closing of alternative education providers inside and outside of Detroit and the movement of Detroit resident students to these alternatives, it appears that the massive annual enrollment declines common during the mid- to late-2000s have subsided. Recent annual student enrollment losses have been in the 2% range. Enrollment stability will aid long-term financial planning necessary to improve student achievement.
Empty buildings: Finally, there are way too many half-empty schools operated by the district. An upcoming analysis from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan showed that about half of the classrooms in 2015-16 were empty; a quarter of the high schools (seven schools) had a utilization rate of 25% or less. With so many empty seats, valuable resources are being siphoned away from classroom instruction, support services and other academic programs. This inefficiency threatens the district’s long-term financial health.
The district recently earned from the state School Reform Office a reprieve from the threat of forced closures for poor academics. The new “partnership agreement” with the state will allow the new board, superintendent and district officials time to move the academic needle in its worst-performing schools. As it works through the agreement, however, the district is going to have to comprehensively address the use of its facilities and increase efficient. School closures and consolidations must remain an option. The challenge will be to balance the demands for improved efficiency with access to a nearby school for the city residents.
From a financial standpoint, Detroit’s “new” school district is off to a good start: balanced budget, cash surplus and debt-free. However, a number of key obstacles stand to threaten its long-term health if the new board and Vitti fail to address them head-on.
Craig Thiel is senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which published a report last week on the DPSCD’s finances