Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was named one of three finalists vying for the superintendent’s job in Detroit Community Schools, officials of that 46,000-student district said Saturday.

 

The news prompted concern among some school and community leaders, who said board tensions may have played a role. But some on the school board withheld an opinion, even when asked about whether they wanted Vitti to stay.

Vitti, who was hired in 2012 to be a “change agent” for Duval’s 128,000-student district, said in a statement Satuday that he applied to Detroit, in part, because he was born and raised in the metropolitan area and still has family there, and because he is intrigued by the challenges that district faces.

“It was too difficult to walk away from this challenge and opportunity,” he said. “Detroit is and will always be in my DNA. I feel a sense of responsibility to explore the opportunity to determine if there is a match between the newly elected school board and me.”

Detroit’s school district has struggled financially and academically over the decades.

Enrollment plunged from a high of 224,000 in the 1970s to about 47,000 students and funding has followed suit. Charter schools there have enrolled more students than district schools.

For seven years, state-appointed emergency managers ran the district, though last year voters elected a new school board.

“Right now there are few, if any, challenges on a national level to traditional public education more than in Detroit,” Vitti wrote. He declined to answer questions.

He said in his statement that he has been”recruited” by districts and search firms over the past four years, but this was the first time he agreed to apply.

Several Jacksonville community leaders and School Board members said they were surprised, but not shocked, that Vitti looked for another job.

“Most of us would have assumed he had at least had one oar in the water, just because of the circumstances of last fall,” said John Delaney, president of the University of North Florida.

He was referring to last September, when then Board President Ashley Smith Juarez told Vitti he should seek opportunities elsewhere, if he could not increase academic goals he was setting for the district.

At the time, the board members were split about Vitti, with some openly criticizing him and others defending him. Community members and leaders packed a board meeting and sent messages, most of them calling for the board to keep and work with Vitti.

Those events culminated months of sometimes open strife on the Board, with some members complaining that academics hadn’t improved as expected when Vitti was hired and complaining that Vitti sometimes didn’t communicate his plans with the Board or the community.

The dissension followed similar patterns a year before, when three board members issued a letter reprimanding Vitti for what they said was disrespectful communications. A few months later, then Board member Constance Hall’s text messages containing insults about Vitti were publicized. Vitti threatened to sue over a hostile workplace but changed his mind.

Hall chose not to run for reelection.

The school board and Vitti have so far since worked on their relationship, and the board has gained two new members. So far, there have been no obvious signs of tension at Board meetings since January.

Nevertheless, said Gary Chartrand, a Vitti supporter and Jacksonville businessman, those conflicts probably played a role in Vitti’s decision.

If Vitti leaves, he said, “it’s a loss for our community. But it hasn’t been the smoothest ride.”

He said Duval Schools may lose some momentum “if we lose him.”

Rebecca Couch, one of the School Board members who had been critical of Vitti, said she doesn’t believe Vitti is leaving because of prior Board battles; she believes he wants to go to his home community and improve schools there. She said she sregrets nothing.

She wished him good luck, but wouldn’t say whether she wanted him to stay.

“I want him to be in a place where he feels like he can be the most successful,” she said. “I want him to go where he feels he can use his talents the most.”

Like Couch, Boardmember Lori Hershey declined to say if she wants Vitti to stay in Jacksonville. She said she is excited about this opportunity for him.

“This was an opportunity Dr. Vitti sought out,” she said. “This was his opportunity to go home.”

She said she credits Vitti with bringing arts back to schools and improving school choices for parents. She said she expects him to still be available for planned Superintendent Chats with the public later this month.

“Whether or not he accepts this position, things will keep going,” she said. “This is a bigger machine than just one person. People will continue to be engaged.”

Some Board members, such as Scott Shine and Warren Jones, made it clear that they hope Vitti will stay. Jones said he was disappointed when Vitti told him about Detroit.

“I think he has been a change agent for the Duval County school system,” Jones said. “He has brought some positive changes to so many of the challenges facing the district.”

For instance, Jones said, Vitti raised graduate rates and closed some achievement gaps and successfullly revamped schools, such as GRASP Academy for students with dyslexia and the Leadership Academies at Butler Middle school.

But recently mid-year data is showing too many students are still not close to approaching grade-level proficiency, Jones added. With testing season starting next week, Jones said he expects Vitti to not become distracted from efforts here.

“We’ve made progress, but I want to put that into perspective,” Jones said. “He is still acutely focused here on the work at hand. That is his job.”

Board members Smith Juarez and Cheryl Grymes did not return calls for comment Saturday.

Board Chair Paula Wright issued a statement, saying the Board “respects his interest for the position, the potential opportunities that await him, and his desire to return home.”

The two other contenders for the Detroit job are Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent of the 71,000-student Milwaukee Public Schools, and a Derrick R. Coleman, a former Detroit schools administrator who now is superintendent of the 1,700-student River Rouge school district in Michigan.

Detroit officials say their Board “in a few weeks” will interview the candidates and have them meet the public.

See Jacksonville.com and Sunday’s Times-Union for more on this developing story.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075

Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083