DJC Partner, Chalkbeat | 'Possible, but daunting’: Inside Nikolai Vitti’s early effort to transform Detroit’s battered public schools
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Want more of the story? Chalkbeat Detroit's Erin Einhorn will appear on American Black Journal THIS SUNDAY at 9:30 am for an in-depth discussion of her article with Stephen Henderson. American Black Journal will also continue the conversation on education in its upcoming education roadshow from Brightmoor, airing SUNDAY, September 24th at 9:30 am. Guest panelists include Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Sharlonda Buckman from DPSCD, Rev. Larry Simmons from the Brightmoor Alliance, and more.
To RSVP for the 9/18 show taping, click here >
Three months after taking on one of the most daunting tasks in American education, Nikolai Vitti was having a fit over pizza — $340,000 worth of pizza.
Vitti, Detroit’s new school superintendent, had just discovered that the district had set aside that eye-popping sum of money last year to pay Domino’s Pizza for what he assumed were hundreds of thousands of slices for parties in schools.
He was asked if he wanted to do the same for next year.
“Do you really think for a minute I’m going to bring a contract to the board at $340,000 for Domino’s?!” he asked an aide. “That would be like — ‘Here — write a front page story about how inefficient this district is.’ Are you insane? Are you really insane!?”
In his first months on the job, Vitti had seen what he described as a shocking lack of basic financial and academic systems in the district. He’d seen contracts that were nonsensical, payments that had slipped through the cracks. He knew of principals who’d apparently given up on getting support from the district and had turned to a brand of survivalism to get what they needed for their schools.
“It is truly a district that has been mismanaged for over a decade,” he says.
But even by the standards of what he’d seen so far, the pizza contract seemed extreme.
“I love the explanation on why we need a Domino’s contract because it’s wholesale, right?” Vitti vented to an aide. “To reduce the price? And then everything else we do we have 700 vendors?! We decided to get it right for pizza but we didn’t get it right for toilet paper?”
But a day later, something surprising happened with that pizza contract.
As Vitti convened a meeting with top advisors, he learned that the Domino’s contract was not actually for parties. It was for a special pizza that Domino’s had created for schools called a “smart slice” that uses whole wheat flour and lower amounts of fat and salt to give kids a healthy alternative to less-popular lunch offerings.
That’s when a contract that Vitti had been lambasting for days became an inspiration.
“If we’re using Domino’s as a way to incentivize kids to eat … then why not do a bid for Chinese food?” he asked.
“Or Subway,” an aide suggested.
“We could get local businesses,” Vitti said. “A ton of local businesses! As long as they meet the nutritional value. … Think of all the things we could do with a Detroit small business connection to it!”
In fact, Vitti said, “if we really want to talk big, in every high school, you could have kids that are working to prep food and all that.”
“See,” he told his advisors gathered in a conference room adjoining his office in the district’s headquarters in Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building. “We went from Domino’s to a complete conversation about innovation. That’s why you have to have the conversation.”