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Detroit schools superintendent search enters final phase, but not without controversy

Mar 27, 2017

Finalists vying for the job of Detroit schools’ superintendent will start the public interview process this week, but some people think the best candidate isn’t in the running.

Choosing a new superintendent is the first major task for Detroit’s newly-elected school board, which just took power in January after years of state control. But the process has already become messy and controversial.

The school board hired an outside firm to do a nationwide superintendent search, then met in private to conduct video interviews and narrow it down to three final candidates.

The three did not include the district’s current interim superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, a career teacher and administrator in the Detroit Public Schools. She was appointed by the district’s final emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, and continued on an interim basis when it returned to mostly local control in January.

The board’s decision to bypass Meriweather sparked a backlash from many teachers, administrators and parents, who say she’s done a good job stabilizing the newly-restructured district after its near-collapse last year.

That was even before one of the three chosen finalists, Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Orlando Ramos, dropped out of the running last week.

But so far, board leadership seems intent on forging ahead with the two remaining finalists: River Rouge Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Coleman, and Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville) Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

That’s despite public pressure from a campaign launched by Meriweather supporters, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers, for the board to reconsider its decision.

“During her tenure, Interim Superintendent Meriweather has led the way in restoring trust, confidence and hope in our school district,” DFT leaders wrote in a message to the board. “She has earned an opportunity for further consideration.”

Patti McCoin, a Detroit middle school teacher, says that “people trust Alycia Meriweather” because they believe in her commitment to the district and its students.

“What is good for the students is always the first thing she thinks about. And so people trust her to make decisions,” McCoin said.

McCoin adds that after years of turmoil and rule by emergency managers, most people are looking for stability, and value Meriweather’s deep familiarity with Detroit schools.

“New people who are not familiar with the district, with the community…that’s a huge, huge learning curve,” McCoin said.

State Schools Superintendent Brian Whiston has also advocated keeping Meriweather on the job.

Her supporters have organized to pressure the board, making phone calls to board members and circulating an online petition urging them to “give Alycia a fair chance to continue to lead our schools.”

“It is our understanding that Alycia was not considered as a candidate because she has fewer than three years of previous experience as a Superintendent,” the petition reads. “However…she has focused on reducing chronic absenteeism, increasing student achievement, and leading Detroit schools to success.

“Alycia is a lifelong Detroiter who understands the needs of our community and wields the respect of students and teachers alike. We need her kind of leadership and open communication in order for our schools to continue to improve and to give our children the best possible education.”

The two remaining board-chosen candidates have busy schedules planned for the final round of interviews. They include school visits, meet-and-greets with district staff, community members and business leaders, and finally a public hearing before the board.

Vitti will be in Detroit for the day-long process this Wednesday; Coleman will follow on April 3rd.