News Story

Detroit Schools’ Big Spending Trend Rides COVID Money Spike, Likely Requires Enrollment Spike To Sustain

Superintendent’s bet on more and higher-paid staff in the balance

Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District Nikolai Vitti has campaigned to spend more on staff and teachers. Budget documents show he has succeeded, with operations spending up 32% over a three-year period.

Vitti has directed millions of dollars toward increasing the numbers and pay of the district’s teachers, staff and administrators, even though the number of students has been largely static since he assumed its leadership in 2017.

Detroit schools employed 2,680 teachers during fall 2017, according to official records. By fall 2021, there were 3,193 teachers on the payroll, a 19% increase. The total headcount of district staff increased from 6,988 in 2017-18 to 7,977 in 2020-21.

Expenditures classified as “instruction” increased from $324.1 million in June 2018 to $401.8 million in June 2021. Spending on activities labeled “support services” is up from $299.6 million in 2018 to $413.6 million in June 2021.

The district had 110 employees collecting $100,000 or more in 2017-18; by 2020-21, the number of employees with six-figure salaries had risen to 192.

Increased payroll expenses classified as "general fund" by the Detroit Public Schools Community District reached $838.5 million in 2021. This compares to $633.1 million in June 2018, with about the same number of students enrolled.

Enrollment trends in the district will determine whether this spending pattern is sustainable. The majority of funding received by individual Michigan school districts each year is based on how many students they enroll. But in the short run, the fiscal pressure is off, with the district getting an additional $1.28 billion in federal COVID relief.

To sustain the current level of spending, which is up 32% in three years, the district needs a growing enrollment.

Around the time Vitti took the helm in 2017, a one-time event caused its enrollment to increase. The number of students went from 45,720 in 2016-17 to 50,875 the following year. In 2011, a number of academically failing schools were removed from the district and placed in the Education Achievement Authority, a newly created district. When those schools were returned to the Detroit district after the EAA was dissolved, it caused a one-time enrollment increase of around 5,000 students.

But from 2018 through 2020, the district’s enrollment was static, which was an achievement for Vitti, given the trend it had previously experienced. The Detroit school district enrolled 82,876 students in 2010; by the time Vitti began as superintendent in 2017, enrollment had plummeted to 45,720.

Before the pandemic struck, the district enrolled 50,176 students in 2018-19 and 50,895 in 2019-20.

Enrollment has dropped since the pandemic began, falling to 49,001 in 2020-21, and 47,584 students in the current school year, according to preliminary, unaudited figures.

In February 2021, Vitti responded to an email from Michigan Capitol Confidential, which asked if he was concerned about what would happen to the district’s financial health if enrollment didn’t keep pace with the pandemic-driven surge in funding.

“DPSCD is not concerned about keeping its long-term budget balanced,” Vitti responded in an email. “Balancing budgets is a simple focus of priorities, strategy, transparency, and fiscal discipline and knowledge. All of which this elected board, superintendent, and CFO has demonstrated. Your self-fulfilling prophecy that DPSCD could not manage itself appropriately will not occur under this board and superintendent.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.