Detroit schools will soon have a new leader: Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
Vitti was selected Tuesday night by a united school board that voted unanimously to hire the Dearborn Heights native in hopes that his experience running the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, will help him end Detroit’s enrollment decline and rock-bottom test scores and lead the district toward a better future.
The vote to begin contract negotiations with Vitti — the first major decision by the city’s newly elected school board — was almost not unanimous. Member LaMar Lemmons initially voted against Vitti before switching his choice in the interest of allowing the new superintendent to know he has the full support of the board.
“I believe that both candidates are highly qualified. They both could lead our district,” Lemmons said of Vitti and the other finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman.
But he noted that Vitti sometimes struggled in his current job in Duval County because some school board members did not support him — and Lemmons said he didn’t want that to happen in Detroit.
“Whoever my initial pick is, if it’s not the will of the majority, I want it known that I’m changing my vote to be with the majority,” Lemmons said. “I think we need to move with consensus so the new superintendent has the entire support of this body.”
In the vote Tuesday night in the auditorium of the Douglass Academy for Young Men, Vitti beat out Coleman, a Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools graduate. He’ll take over the district officially on July 1, but the board discussed asking him to start sooner to ensure a smooth transition.
Vitti will be taking the reins from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather.
Meriweather had applied for the permanent position and enjoyed strong community and educator support but was eliminated from consideration last month by board members who decided they wanted a superintendent with at least three years of experience leading a school district.
The city teachers union issued a statement Tuesday night urging Vitti to keep Meriweather involved.
“It is our hope that Meriweather remain an important member of the new superintendent’s executive team,” the union said in a statement.
The search process has been controversial from the start and the vote won’t end the controversy. Activist Robert Davis, whose court motion last week forced the board to cancel an earlier meeting to discuss the candidates due to a violation of the state Open Meetings Act, said he planned to file a motion as early as Wednesday to challenge the legitimacy of Vitti’s selection. He said there were numerous violations of the Open Meeting Act and other rules during the search process.
Member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who led the board’s search committee, said the process has been difficult.
“It has been very, very strenuous, very time-consuming,” she said of a process that involved daylong interviews with two finalists, visits to their districts, and heightened emotions in a politically charged environment. “It is not an easy decision. We have two good candidates and I think the consensus is not that one is better than the other. The question is: Which one is the best for our district at this time to get to where we said we want to be?”
Vitti, who said he is “likely” to enroll his four children in public schools in Detroit, currently runs a district much larger than the 97-school, 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He’s also worked in Miami, New York City, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Board members who visited his district said they were impressed with several of the schools they visited in Duval County including a school that had dramatically improved student performance after years of receiving F grades from the state of Florida. They also noted a school that specialized in visual arts, one that served children with dyslexia, and a school for overaged students.
The board praised Vitti’s track record as someone who has turned around schools without shutting them down. Members highlighted his work engaging parents and heralded his personal story of overcoming a learning disability to eventually earn graduate degrees from Harvard University.
Vitti will be introducing himself to Detroiters over the next few months. To get to know him, check out our list of 10 things to know about him as well as the pros and cons that were working for and against him as he applied for the job.