Duval County School Board discusses future after Vitti

One board member suggests trying to keep superintendent

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The morning after the Detroit Public Schools Community District voted to offer Nikolai Vitti its superintendent job, the Duval County School Board met to consider its steps to replace Vitti and how to ensure a smooth transition.

The board said it wanted the community to know that they are focused and it is ready to begin the search for a new superintendent if Vitti formally accepts the Detroit position.

Vitti was not available for interviews Wednesday, but in a statement released, sounds committed to the new job:

When I learned of the board's decision last night, it felt as if it were announced that I was drafted by my home team. ‎It was a proud moment for my entire family and I. To be selected as the first superintendent by the newly elected board and new district is humbling and an honor. I look forward to working through the contract phase of the process as soon as possible in order to serve the children and families of Detroit."

The board Vitti will leave behind doesn't yet know how long he might stay. It depends on how quickly Detroit can negotiate a contract and set a start date.

"I think, as far as stability goes, the best thing is if we can go through the end of the (school) year with the superintendent," board member Cheryl Grymes said.

Vitti has said he would remain 100 percent committed to Duval County as long as he held the job, and the board believes that he will.

"I believe him when he says he's committed," member Becki Couch said.

One point of dispute during Wednesday's meeting came when board member Scott Shine asked if the board should approach Vitti to see if there is anything that would entice him to stay in Jacksonville. Other boards members, including Chairman Paula D. Wright and Vice-Chairman Ashley Smith Juarez, disagreed, saying that Vitti had not only applied for the job in Detroit, but had indicated his excitement to return to take on the challenges in his hometown.

Wright ended the meeting by saying she planned to meet with Vitti on Wednesday afternoon and the board is expected to discuss the matter again on Friday.

Board members stressed the importance of the board not getting ahead of themselves.

"In order to provide that stability, that consistent message to the public and opportunity for us to have due conversations in due time, I think we need to allow the chair to have her conversation with the superintendent and then come back together and discuss what the appropriate next steps are," Smith Juarez said.

Shine told News4Jax on Tuesday night that if and when Vitti gives notice, the Duval County board will have two options: To place someone internally in the superintendent position long term or appoint an interim superintendent while seeking a candidate outside of the system. Shine said he would expect an interim superintendent to come from within the organization since there is a strong leadership team in place currently.

Shine also assured Duval County teachers, students and parents they should feel secure, saying most people will not see anything different in the day-to-day operation of the school system.

How big a loss is Vitti to Duval County? 

Some community leaders said that not only will the schools feel the impact of Vitti's loss, it will be a blow to the whole city because having quality schools is vital in recruiting businesses and the quality of life.

In the five years that Vitti has overseen the schools, the Florida Department of Education's grade for Duval County has increased from a C to a B and two-third of the district's D and F schools have improved.

Trey Csar, of the nonprofit Jacksonville Public Education Fund, has been tracking the school system under Vitti.

"I think we've made tremendous progress," Csar said. "The worst thing we could do now is throw up our hands and say, 'We got that toss everything out and start all over.'"

Csar said the most marked improvement under Vitti's leadership is in Duval County's graduation rates, which have risen from 67.7 percent to 80.7 percent over the last four years. Duval County is still 4.9 percent behind the state average, but leads among urban school districts.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce also noted significant improvement in the school district, saying, "His departure would be a significant loss for our community."

Parents' reaction was mixed.

"Our loss is Detroit gain," Barbara Breaker said.

But Moses West, who used to help in after-school programs, said Vitti changed too many things.

"In his mind, that would create a better school system, and I think they lost a lot of good teachers as a result of it," West said.

Other groups, like the Cathedral Arts Project, praised Vitti on Wednesday, especially his work in restoring arts to public schools.

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