Looking to leave?

As two Detroit districts merge, uncertainty over leadership and pay stokes fear of teacher exodus in 11 schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

Stefanie Kovaleski loves teaching kindergarten at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

“I love this building. I love the kids in it,” she said as she doled out hugs and high-fives to her young students while they lined up to get their backpacks at dismissal. “I love that I have autonomy and that I’m treated with professionalism here.”

She hopes to stay in her classroom and remain a part of her students’ lives, she said, but she’s actively talking to banks and credit unions about working outside education.

“I can’t see myself out of teaching but I’ve definitely started looking in the private sector,” she said.

Kovaleski, 33, is one of many teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority who say they’re considering leaving their schools in what some fear could be a mass exodus — the kind of disruption that could drive down test scores, drive up behavioral issues and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives,” Kovaleski said of a school where 98.7 percent of students are identified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. “The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

The EAA teachers fear major pay cuts and changes to school leadership when their schools return this summer to the main Detroit school district after five years of state control. Their departures could undermine  a group of 11 schools that have weathered multiple changes and enrollment declines since they were taken out of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012 and put into the state’s recovery district.

As the two districts prepare to reunite July 1, officials in both districts say they’re taking steps to ensure as much stability as they can.

The main district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — extended offers to all EAA teachers who have not been rated ineffective so they can stay in their current jobs.

The Detroit school board this week lifted a hiring freeze that had been holding up decisions about principal and assistant principal jobs in the schools.

And leaders from both districts have been meeting regularly to discuss details of the transition, from summer school to building upgrades.

But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, EAA teachers still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who their principals will be and they’ve grown impatient with the lack of information.

“Many of us now feel that our backs are against the wall,” wrote Rubye Richard, an English teacher at the EAA’s Mumford Academy High School, in one of many letters EAA teachers have written to the Detroit school board in recent weeks.

“If decisions are not made and communicated to us, we are forced to continue searching for employment in other districts,” she wrote.

The delay in teachers knowing their salaries is related to the fact that the main district is negotiating a contract with its teachers union.

If negotiations don’t change salaries much from the current contract, EAA teachers could see major pay cuts. First-year EAA teachers, who are not in a union, now make $45,000 a year compared to less than $36,000 for their unionized DPSCD counterparts.

Some of the pay discrepancy is because EAA teachers worked summers while Detroit district teachers can make extra money teaching summer school. A DPSCD spokeswoman noted that the main Detroit district also pays more generous benefits than the EAA.

But the larger impact on EAA teachers will come from the decision about how much experience EAA teachers will be given credit for when they become DPSCD teachers.

When the EAA calculated teacher salaries, it gave new hires credit for all their years of experience. That means Kovaleski now makes $65,000 a year — a salary based on ten years of teaching including four years at Bethune, one year in the Dearborn school district and five years at a Detroit charter school.

But under Detroit’s current union contract, new teachers to the district typically get just two years of credit, regardless of how long they’ve worked in other districts.

Though the contract lets the district credit teachers with up to eight years of experience under special circumstances, such as critical vacancies, teachers like Kovaleski could essentially have to start from scratch.

The current Detroit teacher contract pays $40,643 to teachers with a master’s degree and two years of experience so Kovaleski could be looking at a nearly $15,000 pay cut.

Kovaleski’s mother lives with her, has congenital heart failure and $50,000 in debt from a recent hospital stay, she said. “The bills keep rolling in so when I stop and think, man, can I afford to take [a pay cut]? I just don’t know.”

Teachers union president Ivy Bailey said she regrets that some EAA teachers might take pay cuts. But she also notes that teachers in the main district have had stagnant wages for years.

“It would not be fair for someone from the EAA with only two years to come in here and make more than a teacher who has been here and … weathered the storm through all of this,” Bailey said.

Salary Comparison

The uncertainty has already driven some EAA teachers out the door.

District data show that 43 percent of EAA teachers did not come back for the current school year — twice the attrition rate from the year before. And principals say more teachers than usual have left mid-year.

At Bethune, principal Alisanda Woods said four of her 32 teachers have left since September.

Some left because they were worried about their salaries in DPSCD, Woods said. Others left because Bethune was one of 25 Detroit schools that were threatened with state closure this year. The closures were averted when the district this month signed a “partnership agreement” with the state, but some teachers were already gone.

Massive teacher turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s part of a deliberate improvement plan, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.

In Washington D.C., public schools saw improvement as a result of teacher turnover. “It was a very high functioning school district investing a lot of effort into screening new teacher applications and encouraging ineffective teachers to leave,” Goldhaber said.

But absent an effort like that, he said, studies show that too many new teachers will hurt kids. “Even if you were to replace a teacher with a second teacher of equal quality, just the disruptive effect of a teacher leaving will have” a negative impact, he said.

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, who is leaving Detroit to start a new job in July, said she’s been working closely with her DPSCD counterparts to keep the EAA schools as stable as possible after the transition, but unanswered questions about teachers and principals are making that difficult.

“I’m really worried about the fact the we haven’t finalized offers” for teachers, Conforme said. “It’s the middle of May … That’s deeply concerning.”

The EAA schools, which were put into the district originally because of years of poor results, are still some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but most of them have seen recent improvements. Conforme said she worries that progress could be disrupted if teachers leave.

The main Detroit district is already trying to fill more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

The EAA schools saw dramatic teacher turnover back in 2012 when the new district began.

“There was a big shakeup,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who wrote a paper on the early years of the EAA. But that big shakeup wasn’t well planned, he said. “The EAA was a spectacular train wreck right out of the gate.”

These years later, he said, he was hoping the process of returning the EAA schools to the main district would be smoother. (Of the original 15 EAA schools, three have been converted to charter schools and one has closed).

Conforme said she hopes most of her teachers  ultimately will decide to stay because if they leave, families will follow.

“What families and students care about is that there’s consistency with the teachers that have been teaching them, the support staff that have been supporting them and the leaders the families have gotten comfortable with,” Conforme said. “That part is critical.”

 

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.