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Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry will oversee a plan to spend $700 million in federal COVID aid to improve school infrastructure in the next five years. (Detroit Free Press and Chalkbeat photo by Di’Amond Moore)

The leader of the city’s public schools says he’s pained by district building conditions, a “normalized” and harsh representation of the inequity faced by Detroit children.

But Nickolai Vitti said an infusion of $700 million in federal COVID aid will help the Detroit Public Schools Community District overhaul its dismal infrastructure in the next five years. 

“It’s the haunting example of why, when our kids go to school, they can easily say ‘other kids matter more than I do,’ just because of the buildings they go to,” Vitti said in a Wednesday interview with BridgeDetroit during the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. “It pains me to be the superintendent of a system that I know that and I feel it as superintendent and I can’t immediately fix it.”

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The district earlier this year announced a master plan for its facilities that calls for investing hundreds of millions in federal dollars in building improvements. Emergency management of Detroit’s public school district ended in 2016. 

The funding directed to the district in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic allows for short and long-term upgrades to DPSCD buildings. Officials for the district have recommended investing the money by 2027 as it works to secure equitable state funding to address its long-term facility needs. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the city’s distressed buildings are an equity issue. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

“The positive is the COVID relief funding, without raising taxes, we can make a definitive difference,” Vitti said. “In five years, people will feel better about DPSCD.”

The district’s overall Facility Master Plan includes a 20-year vision and investment plan. The district has estimated that it needs $2 billion to bring all of its buildings to a “good” rating, according to a condition index used to determine how much investment is needed to restore a building to its best operational level.

Prior to the pandemic, the district had invested about $30 million in facilities using unspent money each year. 

Vitti noted Wednesday an August 2023 deadline to use the American Rescue Act funds, but the dollars have been passed over to the state to administer. That, in turn, gives it a longer lifespan, he said, five years beyond the 2023 deadline.

With other federal aid, the district has bolstered its teaching staff, putting DPSCD in a “surplus situation” and it has no intention for future layoffs. The hiring, Vitti said, will offset the retirement of more than half of its teachers and other resignations in about four years. 

The district’s enrollment of 51,000 students in the spring of 2020 has dropped to about 48,000 today, leaving DPSCD short several thousand students. 

The shortage in per pupil funding is being plugged for now with about $25 million in COVID aid. If the district doesn’t rebound, central office cuts and initiatives will face future reductions and models will change for the district’s smaller schools with 450 students or less. He said cuts won’t impact programming or staffing. 

But Vitti said the student shortfall is influenced by the pandemic and he’s hopeful that it will be reversed. Detroit’s public schools have remained relatively stable, he said, during the pandemic while charter enrollment has seen the most steep declines. The district’s in-person capacity limits for 2021 due to COVID-related social distancing rules also hurt enrollment. 

“We’re hoping by fall – without having social distancing requirements – that our class sizes will be the same as before the pandemic and we hope to rebound in critical schools,” he said. 

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