DPSCD support staff say impending layoffs are ‘a smack in the face’

On her first day as a college transition advisor at Henry Ford High School, Johnna Lapetz felt a mix of excitement and uncertainty.

She sat at her office desk trying to figure out what to do when her first student came in. 

“She’s standing there and she goes, ‘So you’re gonna be my college advisor? It’s about time you showed up,’” Lapetz said. 

In the three years since, Lapetz, 28, has helped that Henry Ford student and dozens of others embark on a career path once they graduate from the school on Detroit’s west side. She has sent seniors off to the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University as well as trade schools and branches of the military. 

But next school year, Lapetz’s job will be eliminated as federal COVID relief funding for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to support positions like hers runs out.

As many as 100 DPSCD staff members were told in March by the district that their positions, paid for in part with COVID aid, may be cut or consolidated by the end of the school year. Mostly affected are support staff like paraeducators, building substitutes, college transition advisors, school culture facilitators and deans of culture. School culture facilitators support the overall climate and learning environment and work to decrease the amount of time students spend out of school due to behavioral issues. Deans of culture create a welcoming and nurturing school environment for students. 

The job reductions come as the district finalizes its budget for the 2023-24 school year. Along with the end of COVID funding, DPSCD is dealing with the impact of enrollment declines and its commitments to raise teacher salaries and curtail rising health care costs. 

Eliminating positions like college transition advisors, school culture facilitators and kindergarten paraprofessionals is expected to save DPSCD $7.4 million. The school board will hold a June 13 public hearing and vote to finalize next year’s budget. 

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is giving employees whose jobs will be eliminated an option to stay in the district by transferring into a different role. School culture facilitators and paraeducators could become cafeteria workers, security guards, day-to-day substitutes, or preschool paraprofessionals and college transition advisers could become counselors or academic interventionists.

Lapetz, who received her layoff letter during the district’s spring break in March, doesn’t want to become a counselor or an academic interventionist. 

“We didn’t sign up to do that,” she said. “The point is that the work that we do is important and we want the district to see that it’s important. We want to be heard. We want to be acknowledged, and not, ‘Oh, well, here’s a different job at a different school.’ Quite frankly, I feel like that’s a smack in the face.” 

A path for students after high school 

Lapetz’s role as a college transition advisor encompasses many responsibilities. At the beginning of the year, she contacts college representatives, trade schools and the military to arrange school visits. Lapetz also meets with every senior to create a post secondary plan, including helping them fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), sending out their transcripts and applying for scholarships. Her salary is about $41,000 a year. 

“Most of our students are first generation (college students), so it’s not like in suburban schools where they have somebody at home that is able to provide that guidance for them,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many students this year I met in September who told me, ‘Oh, don’t bother talking to me. I’m not going to college,’ that I have sent to college, that is ready to go in the fall and completely load-free as well because there are so many scholarships out there.” 

Johnna Lapetz (center) embracing students at Henry Ford High School in Detroit where she’s worked for three years as a college transition advisor. Her job is being cut as Detroit’s public school district cuts costs as COVID aid runs out. (Courtesy photo)

The Detroit resident isn’t sure what her next steps will be, but said she isn’t leaving her job without a fight.

“I want, at the end of this, to feel like I did everything I could to save my position,” Lapetz said. “Not really for myself, honestly. But mainly because I think that this is a resource that our kids deserve.”

Henry Ford student Daren Mason talked about the critical work Lapetz does at a school board meeting last week, saying that he never thought about going to college until he met the college advisor. He will be going off to trade school after graduation to study mechanical engineering and culinary arts. 

“My CTA (college transition advisor) made me realize I could do more than working in a warehouse or an automotive plant,” Mason said. “CTAs also help first generation students like me who can’t get help from their parents for this kind of stuff. If we are the future, why are you firing the people that help the future?” 

DPSCD facing challenges in next school year 

Some of the challenges DPSCD is facing as it prepares for the next school year include declining enrollment. Vitti said the district lost 3,000 students during the pandemic and has only regained 1,000. The loss of those students equates to a $20 million revenue loss, which DPSCD was able to offset the past two years because of COVID funding. 

The rising cost of healthcare, utility costs, future salary increases and inflation also factor into what next year’s $1.135 billion budget will look like. The district is projecting $1.138 million in revenue, but $904.7 million in expenses, according to a district document outlining the budget proposals. 

“Although we are anticipating a $50 million increase in state and federal revenue, there’s still a gap of about $37 million that we need to fill going into next year,” Vitti noted at a May 3 meeting. 

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Lakia M. Wilson-Lumpkins leads a rally in support of paraprofessionals ahead of a Detroit Public Schools Community District meeting on May 16, 2023, at Western International High School. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Seventy-five paraeducators are expected to lose their jobs, along with 61 school culture facilitators and 19 college transition advisors. Sixteen kindergarten paraprofessionals will remain, as well as 34 facilitators and five advisors. 

“We decided to eliminate central office funding for the three positions, along with select school-based administrator and central office positions, because those positions did not directly impact our core metrics, which are: enrollment; raising student achievement, improving staffing, graduation rates, and student attendance; and improving climate and culture,” Vitti said in an email to BridgeDetroit. “We protected and expanded funding for positions and initiatives that directly impact these metrics.”

Vitti said a majority of support staff in those three job classifications have accepted alternative positions within DPSCD. The only ones who do not have an option to transfer into another position are central office employees and school administrators who are not willing or who are unable to teach.

Some community members at recent school board meetings have asked why the district can’t use a $62.1 million unrestricted general fund surplus to fund positions. But Vitti is against a one-time payment for recurring costs. 

“It could be used for that purpose but that is not my recommendation or a path that the majority of the school board is interested in at this time,” he said. “This would signal that our budget is unsustainable.” 

Donna Jackson, the president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals, doesn’t understand why all paraprofessionals can’t continue to be funded under Title I, a federal program that provides financial assistance to schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families. 

“We know that there have been increases in the pupil funding and school aid funding, so they should be able to continue the Title I funding,” she told BridgeDetroit. “That’s how we’ve always been paid.” 

A majority of teacher salaries come from the general fund, Vitti said, which is the area DPSCD is struggling with the most due to revenue loss from shrinking enrollment. Each year, the district has been moving allowable expenses from the state funding to federal funds to free up space in the general fund. 

Jackson said Vitti’s plan to offer alternative positions to those affected by the job cuts is a blanket statement and that the board isn’t looking at the riskiness of the situation. She cited employees who will lose their benefits if they become day-to-day subs and the effect that the loss of paraprofessionals will have on students. 

“You have social emotional learning…academic support; those are the support services that we’re providing in that classroom,” Jackson said. “So just imagine that teacher being in a classroom of 35 or more kindergarteners by him or herself and trying to achieve what they need to achieve on a day to day as far as the curriculum. That’s going to be tough.” 

She said it was frustrating when she heard Vitti say at the meeting earlier this month that job cuts for support staff are not directly impacting students’ educational process. 

“Yes we are,” Jackson said. “We are a part of this journey. Anybody who’s in that school is a part of the journey.” 

Members of DFP, along with the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, rallied last week ahead of a school board meeting to protest the job cuts. DFT President Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins said the unions have started negotiations with the district and that they’re meeting daily. 

Vitti said the district and DFP are negotiating the terms of a possible severance for employees who do not want to transition into another position as well as the terms of the counselor pathway process for college transition advisors.

“But we’re behind the eight ball and it’s not our fault,” Wilson-Lumpkins said. “So, if this is how the district wants to conduct business, then here we are.”

From paraprofessional to academic interventionist 

Off the art room tucked away on the second floor of Durfee Elementary-Middle School sits Turrean Coe’s classroom. 

Coe, 63, has been a DPSCD paraprofessional for 20 years. She’s a reading tutor for kindergarten through the third grade at Durfee, helping kids who are reading below grade level. Coe’s position will be eliminated in June when the school year ends. 

The Detroiter wants to become an academic interventionist, which works directly with teachers to help students with their reading and math skills. Those are roles she’s already doing, Coe said. The position would also give her a pay raise. A DPSCD paraprofessional makes between $15.30 to $15.87 an hour, which equates to about $30,600 to $31,740 a year. Academic interventionists have an annual salary of $40,456. 

But one of the requirements for the position is a bachelor’s degree, which the paraprofessional said she doesn’t have. Coe was taking classes at Wayne State University about five years ago, but had to stop going to school. 

Paraprofessional Turrean Coe holds up the book, “Rapunzel” inside her classroom at Durfee Elementary-Middle School May 15, 2023. Her position will no longer be available next year as Detroit Public Schools Community District eliminates jobs. (BridgeDetroit photo by Micah Walker)

“I was working towards that, but I was paying out of pocket so I got held back with that with my financial issues,” she said. “And then I didn’t want to do a loan because I’m too old to be paying the loan back.” 

Coe said at the beginning of the year, she started out tutoring 50 students, but is now down to 25 as children stopped coming to school. She said some kids don’t even know how to spell or write their name when they first begin tutoring, but by the end of the year,  they grow to love reading. 

“I love when they say, ‘I can read, Ms. Coe.’ I struggled with reading, so I know how they feel,” Coe said. “That’s why I try my best to teach them how to read. I don’t care what it takes.” 

Coe isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She planned to retire from DPSCD at the end of the next school year, but now is thinking of going to another district. 

“I hope they just let the educators that want to move up to the AI (academic interventionists), work as an AI. We’re already doing it. That’s the only thing I want.” 

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