Halfway through Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s second year on the job, the leader of Michigan’s largest school district has a lot on his plate — from curriculum changes to crumbling campuses. As 2019 gets underway, Vitti won’t be facing those challenges alone: he’ll be relying on the 11 people who report to him directly.
That group — Vitti’s cabinet — has changed substantially since the summer of 2017, when we published a list of his top advisers. Several top officials have left, while others who held interim positions were replaced by permanent candidates. Today, Vitti’s inner circle includes one well-known district veteran, a former nonprofit director, an executive brought in from a Detroit charter network, and several transplants from the Jacksonville, Florida school system where Vitti was previously superintendent.
With the district facing a number of pressing issues, cabinet members will play a key role in the district’s turnaround effort this year.
Over the past month, Chalkbeat has used district payroll data to look at pay trends for teachers and principals. Now, we’re using the same information to get to know the district’s top administrators. Here’s a look at cabinet members’ backgrounds, their salaries, and the projects they’ve worked on so far.
Deputy Superintendent of Schools
Started in this role: 2017
Duties: Oversees the daily operations of schools; manages principal supervisors and, indirectly, principals; oversees counseling, discipline, school police, athletics, and the needs of homeless students and those who are learning English. She also oversees the district’s Office of Exceptional Student Education, which serves students with special needs.
Projects she led this year: A high-profile overhaul of the district’s special education services; a revised student code of conduct; and an improvement plan for schools whose struggles have drawn additional state scrutiny.
Education: Two education degrees from the University of North Florida.
Her story: Wright has become a face of the district, maintaining a lively presence on Twitter and appearing at public meetings about projects she oversees, including the new special education plan. The former classroom teacher and principal arrived in Detroit around the same time as Vitti, having worked previously for more than two decades in the Jacksonville school district, including as a top administrator who oversaw more than 30 schools.
Chief Operating Officer
Started in this role: 2017, though his responsibilities were expanded since then to include human resources.
Duties: Solano absorbed the duties of a top district human resources official who had been responsible for recruiting teachers and managing relationships with the district’s unions.
Projects: Solano led negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with teachers, which raised salaries and allowed schools to pay teachers for the experience they accrued working in other districts; oversaw pay increases for principals; a staffing plan designed to combat the district’s teacher shortage.
Education: A bachelor’s in special education from Florida International University, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University, and a candidate for a doctorate in education at the University of West Florida.
His story: In his previous job, he was Associate Superintendent, Curriculum & Instruction in Collier County, Florida. A bilingual Spanish speaker, he is an Army veteran, a former teacher, and a former principal.
Chief Financial Officer
Started in this role: Fall of 2017 when he was promoted from the position of Senior Executive Director of Finance.
Duties: Oversees the district’s budget, finance, payroll, contracting, and federal programs, as well as debt payments to the legacy district.
Projects: Provides regular financial updates to the school board and a state financial oversight body assigned to the district in the wake of its near-bankruptcy in 2016.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Missouri, master’s in business administration from the University of California, Davis.
His story: Vidito worked as a teacher in Oakland, California, then worked as an administrator for charter schools in New Orleans and Detroit. He served as Chief Administrative Officer at a state-run turnaround district, the Education Achievement Authority, which oversaw 15 struggling schools in Detroit. When the Authority closed in 2017, Vidito joined the city’s main district.
Deputy Superintendent of External Partnerships, Enrollment and Innovation
Started in this role: 2017
Duties: Meriweather works to increase enrollment, collaborates with outside groups on special projects, oversees career technical education programs, and oversees the district’s grant writing and partnerships. She also runs the district’s medical and mental services.
Projects: Worked with philanthropies on plans to open two new district schools this coming September; developed a plan to boost student enrollment; worked on plans for the GOAL Line, a bus route in northwest Detroit that carries students to both district and charter schools. Helped find philanthropic backers for a new water filtration system after the district’s water fountains were found to be contaminated.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, education degree from Wayne State University.
Her story: A lifelong Detroiter who attended school in the city, Meriweather has worked for the district for 23 years, more than any other cabinet member. After graduating from Renaissance High School, she returned to teach science in the district for 12 years. She would later head the Office of Curriculum, and she served as Interim Superintendent in 2016 and 2017 before the state handed control of the district back to a school board that selected Vitti as its first superintendent.
Chief Strategy Officer
Started in this role: 2018. That’s when when she took over information technology, assessment and data, and evaluation programs from another administrator. She previously served as the district’s Senior Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Project Management.
Salary: $170,000, an increase from the $145,000 she was making in 2017.
Projects: Oversaw audit of the district’s information technology systems; continued the district’s effort to purchase laptops for every student; is working to upgrade the district’s student information system and improve customer service.
Education: Cutrona has a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.
Her story: Cutrona jumped from a job teaching English in Miami to a job as an advocate at The New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization. Cutrona worked as an assistant superintendent for strategy for the Jacksonville school district when Vitti was superintendent there.
Special Assistant to the Superintendent
Started in this role: 2018 after serving in 2017 as the Executive Director of Compliance.
Duties: Howard serves as the main point of contact on matters related to the Office of the Superintendent; oversees compliance with state and federal laws related to equity and inclusion; manages board policy and builds agendas for board meetings; oversees employee relations.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Howard University, law degree from Georgetown University.
Her story: Howard clerked for a federal judge, then spent six years in private legal practice before serving as a top legal advisor for Educational Achievement Authority. She was named Executive Director of Compliance during the district’s transition to local control before Vitti hired her as a special assistant in 2017.
Assistant Superintendent of Facilities, Transportation, Food and Maintenance
Started in this role: September 2018
Duties: Leads district-wide management of facilities, transportation, food service, and maintenance.
Projects she’s worked on: Jackson is the newest cabinet member, but she got started right away — leading an effort to install new water filtration systems in district buildings after tests found heavy metals in some schools.
Education: Bachelor’s from the University of Detroit Mercy, master’s in education from Columbus State University.
Her story: Jackson spent the first 13 years of her career directing school operations at David Ellis Academy, a charter school in Detroit. After helping to open another charter school, Jackson became a Chief Operating Officer at New Paradigm for Education, one of Detroit’s top charter networks.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction
Started in this role: 2017
Duties: Oversees curriculum, instruction, professional development, master teachers, interventionists, computer science, Foreign Language, Montessori, and Pre-K.
Projects: Oversaw the implementation of new curriculums for K-8 English and math, as well as district-wide training on the new materials. Helped expand the robotics program and teacher professional development.
Education: Education degrees from the University of North Florida; completed doctoral work at the University of South Florida.
Her story: Gonzalez started her career working for the Jacksonville school district as a teacher, then as a coach, a district instructional specialist, a student data analyst, and a test designer. After nearly four years at the Florida Department of Education, she returned to the Jacksonville district in 2015 to work under Vitti as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, then followed him to Detroit in 2017.
Assistant Superintendent of Communications and Marketing
Started in this role: 2017 after serving as a press secretary for the district
Duties: Leads district-wide internal and external communications.
Projects: Oversaw a new marketing campaign, including a new logo and tagline; responded to national media attention over the district’s decision to shut off its drinking water after tests showed the water was contaminated with lead.
Education: Bachelor’s in journalism from Wayne State University.
Her story: A graduate of Osborn High School in Detroit, Wilson worked for private PR firms before becoming director of communications for the Education Achievement Authority. In 2015, she was named press secretary for the main city district, and she stayed on after Vitti took office.
Assistant Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement
Started in this role: 2017
Duties: Oversees parent and community outreach, PTA, the clergy council, school advisory committees, and the alumni association.
Projects: Oversees district programs including the parent academy, Kindergarten bootcamp, and the parent home visit program, all parts of the district’s efforts to help parents help their children succeed in school. Buckman is also heading efforts to develop student leadership.
Education: Master’s degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University.
Her story: Buckman was raised in Detroit, then raised two children in the city. She spent more than a decade as the director of the nonprofit parent organization Detroit Parent Network, helping that organization raise new funds and expand its membership 12-fold.
Jenice Mitchell Ford
Lead General Counsel
Started in this role: 2017
Duties: Provides counsel to and represents the Board of Education, administration, and staff.
Education: Bachelor’s from Georgetown University, law degree from Northwestern University.
Her story: After graduating from law school, Mitchell Ford spent 15 years defending corporations and municipalities for two large law firms.