Nikolai Vitti in Detroit makes case to be city's school superintendent

Duval County's superintendent 1 of 2 finalists to lead troubled district

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County School Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti ended a long day of interviews for the Detroit superintendent position by telling community members Wednesday night that he needs Detroit -- and Detroit needs him. 

Vitti, one of two finalists for superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, spent 12 hours touring schools, meeting principals and answering questions during public sessions. 

Early in the day, Vitti told the panel interviewing him that Detroit deserves a leader who can deal with the challenges of a teacher shortage, balancing its budget meeting and forming a solid relationship with the board.

Vitti, who worked in Miami before taking over the Duval County district -- the 20th largest school district in the country -- said he has experience in large urban districts. Vitti described himself as a hands-on superintendent, but listens and doesn't micromanage. 

"I will not lead from my office. I will lead in schools, with the staff and the community," Vitti said.

After an afternoon of meetings with community members and stakeholders, Vitti ended the day with a public interview with entire Board of Education.

The open Q&A session was filled with at least 100 people in the auditorium of a Detroit public high school. Everyone watched and listened as Vitti took questions on why he wants the position, his strengths and weaknesses, how he would make sure students feel safe and how he would immediately begin to fix the district's shortage of teachers. 

One of many questions that Vitti was asked during his public meeting with the board was whether there are any similarities with the school districts in Jacksonville and Detroit. 

He replied yes, saying parents in both cities think their child can't get a quality education at a public school, both cities have experienced an increase in violence that spills into schools, both districts aren't adequately funded and both deal with competition from private and charter schools. 

Vitti was also asked about his relationship with the Duval County School Board. He said that while there have been moments of conflict and disagreement, he feels the members respect his work and what they've accomplished together. 

The Detroit Community District, which was created last year by the Michigan Legislature, includes all of the students, staff and buildings from the failed Detroit Public School District, which was in financial crisis in 2009 when it was taken over by the state. Since then, more than 100 schools have closed and five emergency managers have run the school district.

Vitti told the community that he knows he can help Detroit's struggling district. 

"I think one of the tragedies, as far as the history of public schools in Detroit, has been an instability of leadership and constant changes so every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leaders work," Vitti said. 

Vitti will depart Detroit Thursday morning, and stressed he will continue to be committed to public education  in Jacksonville. 

"It was great. I really felt welcomed. I literally felt at home and I'm glad I applied," Vitti told News4Jax Wednesday night. "I'm leaving feeling as if I had no regrets."

Vitti and Derrick Coleman, a Detroit schools graduate and superintendent of a suburban Detroit school district, are the only two left in consideration, after the third finalist, Orlando Ramos of Milwaukee Public Schools, dropped out last week.

According to the Detroit district, the board will interview Coleman on Monday and expects to name its superintendent by April 10. 

News4Jax asked Vitti what the next few weeks will be like for him as he waits for the Detroit school board's decision. 

"I believe if I were to leave Jacksonville, I would leave it in a better place than I took it, when I became superintendent. I've always been a man of passion and conviction and I believe the decision to apply for this job was exactly that it was about my passion for public education," he said. 

Clay County Superintendent of Schools Addison Davis, who Vitti mentioned to the Duval County Board as a possible replacement if he were to get the Detroit job, told News4Jax on Wednesday morning that he's not necessarily interested the Duval County job.

"This is a special day for Dr. Vitti, to get a chance to go back to his home town, and give back to a school system that is greatly in need," Davis said. "He has the ability and skill set to go there and do great things and I wish him the best of luck. I'm also flattered that he would believe in me, that I have the ability and skill set to lead the 20th largest school district in the nation. But I am the superintendent in Clay County, and am excited about putting initiatives, projects and targets in place to help improve teaching and learning in Clay."