On May 5, voters in Ann Arbor will choose three people to serve on the Ann Arbor Public Schools board. Actually, “choose” might not be the operative word: All three candidates are running unopposed.
Two incumbents – Glenn Nelson and Irene Patalan – are running for four-year terms. Ravi Nigam, a local attorney who has not previously held an elected position, was originally running against Adam Hollier for a two-year term. Hollier has dropped out of the race, though his name will still appear on the ballot.
So rather than the debates they typically hold before local elections, the League of Women Voters instead held a forum Monday evening for the three candidates, asking their opinions on the budget, technology, the achievement gap and a range of other topics. The hour-long event was broadcast live from the Community Television Network studios on South Industrial, and is available to view online.
The league had asked Chronicle readers to suggest questions for the forum, which moderator Judy Mich incorporated to some extent. Here’s a summary of candidates’ responses.
What’s the status of technology in the schools, and how is it being used? What options for online studies are currently available, and what does the future hold in that regard?
Nelson: A bond passed by voters in 2004 allowed the district to upgrade technology in the schools, Nelson said, but it will soon be time to make another update. The state House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would expand the ability of districts to use sinking fund millages for broader purposes, including technology. [Last year, voters approved an extension of the AAPS sinking fund millage, which is used for building remodeling projects.] Nelson urged residents to contact their state senators (in Ann Arbor, that’s Liz Brater) to push for passage of the bill in the Senate.
Patalan: All students are required by state law to have some kind of online experience, Patalan said, and AAPS is way ahead of the game in that regard. She said staff would be giving a presentation at the April 22 school board meeting about a program that allows students to take online courses. [Patalan did not describe the program in detail, but she was referring to the Ann Arbor Options Program offered by Community High, which allows students who live in the AAPS district to take certain courses online.] She thanked the community for approving the bond to fund technology purchases.
Nigam: Because two of his children graduated from Huron High, and another child is in elementary school, Nigam said he has a good sense of how technology is used in the schools. The district could do a better job of using all it has to offer, he said, which might mean more teacher training. He supports the use of online courses as an alternative approach to education.
Communication & New Media
Candidates were asked to comment on how they would communicate with the public in light of the closing of the Ann Arbor News this summer. How will they develop effective communication with new media?
Nigam: Web 2.0 technologies can help push out information to the public, Nigam said, but the changing media environment requires that the schools figure out different ways to disseminate information. The board will need to learn to use new technologies and interact with new media.
Nelson: Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, is putting together a group to strategize about communication issues, Nelson said. He gave out her phone number – 734.994.2236 – and urged people to contact her if they are interested in getting involved.
Patalan: There are many ways for the public to find out information about the schools, Patalan said, such as watching school board meetings on CTN, listening to local news reports on WEMU, or getting information from the AAPS website. She said communication was a “two-way street” between the schools and the public – it’s not just the schools’ responsibility.
Skyline High School
Now that Skyline is completing its first year in operation, Mich asked the candidates to assess how it was doing.
Patalan: Ten years ago, Patalan was part of a group of parents who pushed to build Skyline, and she says she’s proud of the school. Freshmen attending Skyline this year got a taste of its magnet programs, she said, which will continue to be developed. [Patalan didn't name the focus of the magnet programs, but they are in 1) health and medicine, 2) design technology and environmental planning, 3) communication, public policy and media, and 4) marketing, business and information technology.]
Nigam: Saying he didn’t know much specifically about Skyline, Nigam said in general he supports the idea of smaller-sized high schools, noting that the purpose for building Skyline was to reduce overcrowding at Pioneer and Huron. He also thinks that magnet programs are important and he’d like to do more of them – it’s one way to retain and attract students who might otherwise go to charter schools or private schools, he said.
Nelson: Skyline is a big success, Nelson said, and its existence improves conditions at all of the high schools by allowing teachers to do things that they couldn’t have done when class sizes were larger. He also noted that the bond that paid for Skyline has funded other projects, too – like the new AAPS Preschool and Family Center on Boardwalk.
Is AAPS getting its fair share of federal economic stimulus dollars? On a related note, President Obama’s education plan calls for merit increases. What’s your opinion of that?
Nigam: Nigam said he knew the AAPS administration was working on getting funding through the stimulus package, but that he didn’t know the details. Regarding merit raises, he said those would be difficult to institute, given the constraints of union contracts. However, coming from the private sector, he said he does believe in merit increases. If students get shortchanged in the education process, parents will move them out of the system, he said. Teachers who aren’t working up to the district’s standards should get training they need to improve.
Nelson: Merit pay is a topic that should be discussed at the board level, Nelson said. It should be a partnership between the administration and teachers, to find a way to recognize good teachers. Rather than looking at federal funding, he said it’s important to understand the lack of state funding and the challenges that presents. State appropriations in 2001 for K-12 education equaled 3.65% of state personal income. If the current budget is passed as proposed, that percentage would be 3.28. If the level had remained at 3.65%, they’d have $804 more for every pupil in public and charter schools statewide, he said. “I think it’s very disturbing and the answer to us in our community is we need to pick up the slack.”
Patalan: Gov. Granholm had originally proposed cutting $59 for each student in the state – “the stimulus package saved that,” Patalan said. But federal stimulus dollars are only a short-term aid – the district still has to balance the budget, she said, while costs are rising and revenues are flat. She said she’s grateful for the stimulus money, but the state needs to find a way to fund education appropriately. She did not address the merit pay issue.
What challenges does the district face financially? What business and financial skills do you bring to the table?
Nelson: Nelson is an economic consultant, and much of his work focuses on Social Security reform. He suggested that people could Google “Glenn Nelson” and “Social Security” to see examples of his work. (We did, and came up with a policy brief comparing rural and urban communities, among other reports.) As for the budget, “we’re challenged,” Nelson said. If spending is kept at the same levels, the district faces a $6 million deficit in 2010, which grows to $9 million in 2011 and $12 million by 2012. (See Chronicle coverage of an AAPS budget forum in March.) As state aid declines, the community needs to take more responsibility for funding schools, he said. That’s why he supports a countywide enhancement millage, which local districts are discussing.
Patalan: Her background as a small business owner gives her experience in dealing with financial issues, Patalan said. She said the budget is the district’s biggest challenge, and they need to consider asking voters to support an enhancement millage. Other groups, like the AAPS Education Foundation and the Michigan Parents for Schools, which is based in Ann Arbor, are working to find solutions, too. “It’s not just the board – it’s all of us,” she said.
Nigam: The district has to both live within its means and seek other funding sources, Nigam said – they can’t count on the state for increased funding. In addition to considering a countywide enhancement millage, he suggested holding regular fundraisers, similar to those held by National Public Radio. His experience working for a large computer manufacturer during a time of downsizing gave him perspective on working with dwindling resources. The important thing is to focus on the district’s core mission of education.
Is the achievement gap racial or economic? How can the district successfully address this problem?
Patalan: They’ve been talking about the achievement gap for at least 20 years, Patalan noted. The district’s strategic plan is achievement gap-oriented, she said, trying to address the problem early. She’s pleased with the focus that AAPS has placed on reading, for example, through its Read 180 program. They’ve been courageous in starting conversations about equity, Patalan said, but biases are still holding some students back.
Nigam: The achievement gap has both racial and socio-economic causes, Nigam said. Everyone has to be involved in addressing it, he said, but the onus is on parents and students to take advantage of the resources that are available to them.
Nelson: In the early 1990s, Nelson was on the district’s equity audit committee, and noted that it was his first volunteer experience with AAPS. Though the gap disproportionately affects low-income African American and Hispanic students, there are a lot of white students struggling too, he said, and even students from middle- and upper-income families. The district needs to identify and work with any students who are struggling academically, he said. They’ve made some progress, but are a long way from closing the gap.
Ten-Year Vision for AAPS
What’s your vision for the district in 10 years?
Nigam: The district is starting from a good foundation, but Nigam would like to see more progress in addressing graduation rates and the achievement gap. They’ll face challenges in the economy and changing technology, but need to keep providing a broad-based education so that students will be able to perform in the economy and in the country as citizens.
Nelson: The district should provide continued excellence in education, where students get the kind of experience that launches them into a fruitful life, Nelson said, no matter what their interests. Ann Arbor should be known as a place where every student has access to that excellence, and aren’t excluded because of their family’s income or background.
Patalan: Noting that she was part of a team that helped write the district’s strategic plan, Patalan said that plan was a good guide for the future. They need to continue partnering with the University of Michigan – an example was the world language program that launched last year, she said. The goal is to have healthy, happy, challenged children who can ask the right questions, she said, so that as a society, we can take care of each other.
One final note: An explanation
This election, two seats carry four-year terms, while the third seat is for a two-year term. Here’s why: In 2003, voters approved a plan to switch the board from a 9-member group elected to three-year terms, phasing it into a board with seven members serving four-year terms. Since 2003, the board has been making that transition, but this is the last election in which a member will be elected to a shorter term (Ravi Nigam is running for the two-year position). Starting with the May 2010 election, all terms will be for four years.