On March 8, eight candidates vying for the one open seat on the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education dutifully answered the questions asked of them. But they also took advantage of the boilerplate board query at the close of each interview: “Do you have any questions for us?”
And questions from candidates led board members to hold forth on their personal motivations for serving the district, define what they see as the “new normal” in terms of school funding, and admit how challenging it can be for new board members to get up to speed.
The interview questions were written by the board’s executive committee, and approved by the board as a whole. Candidates discussed their backgrounds and motivations; their familiarity with AAPS; their commitment to diversity; cost and revenue options currently being considered in the draft budget; thoughts on the district’s greatest asset and how to leverage it; their ability to support board decisions with which they disagreed; balancing community input with public service; and the time commitments of being a board member.
After all interviews were concluded, the board reviewed its candidate selection process, and adopted a revision to their voting process. The new process is intended to increase the potential for consensus on candidate selection. This new voting process will be used to select the new board member at the next regular board meeting on Wednesday, March 10, after which the new member will be immediately sworn in and seated.
Board Voting Process for Candidate Selection
Last November, former board of education trustee Helen Gates-Bryant stepped down, and the board began the process of selecting her replacement. They posted application information on their website, interviewed candidates, asked candidates to give a presentation at a formal board meeting, and voted on which candidate to seat. After the candidate presentations, the trustees voted for their top pick. Simone Lightfoot received four votes, and two other candidates received one vote each. With majority support, Lightfoot was immediately sworn in and seated at the table as a voting board member.
Lightfoot’s selection process would have looked exactly the same under the new voting process adopted by board members Monday night. In the revised process, applications, interviews, presentations, and voting are exactly the same – unless no one receives a majority of votes right away. Under the old process, if no candidate received a majority in the first round of voting, candidates with the fewest votes (including zero votes) were eliminated, and the vote was repeated with a smaller candidate pool. This process was repeated as many rounds as necessary until a candidate received four or more votes.
At the conclusion of Monday’s candidate interviews, board president Deb Mexicotte reminded the trustees that at the time of Lightfoot’s appointment, there had been some discussion among board members about the voting process they should use during candidate selection. At the time, Mexicotte said, former trustee Adam Hollier was board parliamentarian, and was adamant about keeping the process the way it was, so the board made no changes.
However, Mexicotte continued, in light of the need to fill Hollier’s open seat, board secretary Glenn Nelson had asked that the board now revisit the question of the best way to vote to fill board vacancies, and she turned the floor over to him.
Nelson introduced his suggested changes to the voting process as a way to “increase the potential of a candidate with widespread ‘second choice’ status to be chosen,” and passed out a handout with a side-by-side comparison of the old plan and his suggested amendments.
The departure from the old plan begins at the point at which no one candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round of voting. Instead of eliminating all candidates with the smallest number of votes, Nelson proposed, no candidates would be eliminated. Instead, board members could entertain some discussion and would then vote again. If again there was no majority of opinion, all candidates would still remain an option, and the board would hold a third, non-binding vote in which they would each vote for two of the candidates. Nelson described this third round of voting as a way “to find out who everyone’s second choice is.” In the third round, the three candidates with the most total votes would continue, and all others would be eliminated. From the fourth round on, each trustee would vote for one candidate, and candidates with the fewest votes would be eliminated, until one candidate emerged with a four-or-more majority.
Nelson described his rationale for the proposed changes as follows: “The problem is that if there is a person in the pool who is the second choice of a whole lot of us, but only the first choice of one of us, they would be eliminated [in the first round]. For example, say two of us feel really intensely about one person, two feel intensely about another, two are split equally about someone else. We have a process that doesn’t lead itself to finding the compromise … This suggested process is the one we used back in 2002 … I am especially concerned about people who get one vote in the first round being gone forever.”
Trustee Randy Friedman asked when nominations would occur, and mentioned that he liked “the idea of not having to publicly nominate.” Mexicotte clarified that, in the new process, the first vote would serve as a nomination, and that all votes would still be public. Lightfoot added that the first round provides an opportunity to “hear where our colleagues are coming from.” Both Friedman and trustee Susan Baskett asked for additional clarification about the process. Friedman asked, “What is the purpose of the first two rounds?”
Nelson offered another example as an explanation, “If a first choice of mine gets no other support, I might try how my second choice does [in the next round of voting].” Mexicotte added that “there could be a few strong but polarizing candidates who we would never get to. The process is intended to get us to a consensus.”
Mexicotte also reiterated that “if someone gets four or more votes, it stops.” She also noted that she is responsible for breaking a deadlock if no majority is achieved, and that discussion is allowed between each round. She then asked if the board was amenable to this process.
The board members all signaled agreement, but Baskett and Lightfoot asserted that the board needed to clearly communicate the new voting process to the public. Mexicotte asked Nelson to write up the new process in more detail, and to include some examples. She also committed to explaining the process to the public ahead of the voting on Wednesday’s board meeting.
Interview Process and Introductions
The candidates were interviewed in the following order: Victoria Haviland, Jeff Sabatini, James Corey, Susan Collet, Andy Thomas, Jack Panitch, Christine Stead, and Margy Long.
Candidates were interviewed individually, one after the other, over the course of four hours. Each candidate was brought into the conference room from the waiting area by board president Deb Mexicotte, and invited to sit at the head of the table. All current board members were present and seated at the table, including the AAPS superintendent and non-voting member, Todd Roberts.
Robert Allen, deputy superintendent of operations of AAPS, and Martine Perreault, chair of the Parent-Teacher Organization Council (PTOC), watched nearly all of the proceedings, and a few community members came in and out, though none of them stayed for more than an hour.
Each interview began with Mexicotte inviting board members to introduce themselves. Though the interview times were assigned at random, the four first-time applicants to the board – Haviland, Sabatini, Corey, and Collet – all came before the four candidates who had applied last December for the position now held by Lightfoot – Thomas, Panitch, Stead, and Long. So introductions were more formal at the beginning of the evening – with board members going around the table and offering their names – than at the end of the evening, when the candidates already knew everyone.
After introductions, Mexicotte briefly reviewed the interview process, and invited candidates to ask questions about it, but no one had any. She explained that each interview was scheduled to take about a half hour, and that the board would be asking eight questions, “so you can gauge your response times.”
We group candidate responses by question.
Candidate Backgrounds and Interest in the Board
Mexicotte asked candidates: “Tell us a little about yourself, what inspired you to apply for the board, what experiences you have that you feel make you a good candidate?”
Haviland mentioned that she has been in the field of education as a teacher, a parent – of three kids, all currently at Dicken Elementary – and now a researcher at the University of Michigan School of Education. She mentioned how she was impressed that the board has taken the time to go through this interview process, even though they are required to do it, in the context of everything else they are concerned with right now. Haviland asserted that she “can speak from many perspectives … [and] will be able to hit the ground running and join in the conversation.”
Sabatini said he was inspired by having gone to four kindergarten round-ups, and realized he wanted to be involved in AAPS as his daughter starts kindergarten in the fall. He asked, “Why start out on the PTO when you can start at the top? I thought ‘I have time, I can do this.’” Sabatini mentioned that his mother and grandfather were educators, and that he had considered going into secondary education. Instead, he described himself as “a freelance writer with a lot of time on [his] hands,” and contended that his experience as a journalist would make him a effective “public watchdog.” Later, he added that it was odd to go into a job interview having seen the application materials of the other applicants, and said, “If I was on the board, I don’t know that I would hire myself … That said, I have a great concern that some of the other people are too close to the situation to be able to provide an outsider’s view … This is a great opportunity to be a part of doing things differently. How could the AAPS decide to be a truly great, visionary district that figures out solutions to these statewide funding problems? I don’t know if I’m that guy to figure that out, but I think I am that guy to paint that picture for the organization.”
Corey mentioned that he had attended Wines Elementary, Forsythe Middle School, and Pioneer High, and reviewed his career history as teacher and dean of student activities and athletics at two private schools. He explained that he moved back to Ann Arbor to be closer to family, and took a job with the Google Book Search project to make the world’s largest library. Corey described his interest in joining the school board as a way to give back to the community that gave so much to him. He mentioned that he currently helps coach the Pioneer lacrosse team, and that he’s happy to do anything he can to “be of service to [his] community to keep it great.” Baskett asked Corey if his work with the lacrosse team was paid, and when he confirmed that it was, Mexicotte explained that it would be a conflict of interest to be paid for his lacrosse work if the board selected him as a trustee. Corey said he would be happy to volunteer to help with lacrosse.
Collet began by describing herself professionally as an engineer. She explained that she has two children who went through AAPS and are now in college, and described the volunteer work she did while they were AAPS students, particularly as president of the Huron High booster club. She participated for a while on the PTO, mostly in an information-gathering role.
Thomas began by describing himself as an Ann Arbor resident since 1972. He said he has one son at Tappan Middle School, and has been involved in AAPS since his son was in kindergarten. Thomas also mentioned being very involved in the AAPS Educational Foundation. Through that nonprofit, he started the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund in honor of his wife, who died of breast cancer, to perpetuate her love of reading. He described his motivation to join the board as largely because of the financial crisis that all schools are facing, and his desire to be part of that solution. Thomas had worked in the healthcare industry, and said he is able to solve problems in a thoughtful, rational manner. He asserted that even though the decisions that need to be made are “so emotional,” he “would be able to bring dispassionate analysis.” He called himself a “numbers guy.”
Panitch described his interest in the schools as stemming from the recent countywide schools millage campaign. He mentioned that he has a background in financial matters, and had found that there were a lot of questions people had about the millage that were unanswered by the more common materials. In the process of educating himself and others regarding the millage, he said, he noted that the discussion “on the blogs” had some destructive and some informative elements. Panitch introduced himself as coming from “a town with one school and no choices,” and described AAPS as “an amazing asset.” Saying that he wants to preserve educational opportunities for his two children, both currently at Angell Elementary, he said, “When I see the strong opinions out there, I worry about that – that’s what got me involved.”
Stead also described herself initially in relationship to the millage campaign as a member of the steering committee. She said she has had great experiences working on school projects, and that working on the Strategic Plan Team 8 [also known as Funding Our Future] offered her a robust education on how schools are financed. At the time she was involved in these projects, she said, she identified things that still hold true, such as recognizing the mutual dependence between schools and local businesses. Stead closed by arguing that AAPS has to figure out how to be successful in the “new normal” school funding atmosphere.
Long described herself as holding a masters degree in social work, and having always been a community organizer, interested in public policy: “I wanted to make a difference in the community, to change things for the better … I worked for 25 years for women’s reproductive rights, which in my mind is really about making it possible for young women to make choices about their lives.” Long said that she is at the point in her career where she’s looking for new ways to use her experiences as a parent and as a professional, and that these parts of her could come together in her work on the board. She also mentioned that she has two daughters in AAPS who have gone through Eberwhite and Slauson, and are now at Pioneer.
Familiarity with AAPS
Nelson then asked the second question of each candidate: “This position will require immediate attention to critical issues affecting the education of AAPS students. Please describe your familiarity with the AAPS and how did you gain this knowledge?” For candidates whose first response had already answered this question in whole or in part, he asked them to elaborate.
Haviland mentioned that she currently has three children in AAPS, is a member of their PTO, is a weekly classroom volunteer, and has been on two School Improvement Teams under two different principals. She also helped with the millage campaign. Haviland described her current role as both working with beginning teachers and collaborating with English teachers on a book about culturally-responsive pedagogy – a book for teachers to help them deal with the achievement gap in their classrooms.
Sabatini said his exposure to AAPS was mostly from the media, particularly AnnArbor.com: “My familiarity with the schools is pretty much what I’ve read.” He asserted that if he was “hired,” he would look at it in the same way as if he were being hired to write about it, and would become an “instant expert.”
Corey stated that he is a product of AAPS, and feels blessed. He cited the great teachers, programs, and opportunities given to him by AAPS as the reasons why he’s stayed in touch, and why he began helping out with lacrosse right away as soon as he returned to Ann Arbor. In addition, Corey named art and music programs, as well as the alternative high school as benefits of being part of AAPS. Lastly, he noted that his family is still here.
Collet began by saying that she missed the Ann Arbor News as a great source of information about the schools, but that she has stayed in touch with what’s going on by reading the Ann Arbor Chronicle and other online news. She mentioned that she had received an e-mail once a week from the schools when her kids were students, but now that her kids have graduated, she doesn’t get those any more.
Thomas declared that he was very fortunate to get his start in one of the elementary schools with an active and progressive PTO, and that he served on the PTO Council for five years, which was a great opportunity to work with Dr. Roberts as well as local organizations. He considers it the responsibility of parents to take an active role in the schools, and gave the following example. A few years ago, Thomas said, there was a lot of controversy in the district regarding the Everyday Math program. Thomas said Roberts called him on his cell phone, which impressed him, and asked Thomas to make sure his opinions were data-driven. So Thomas did his own research and came up with a study that compared districts that use Everyday Math with districts that don’t, while controlling for socioeconomic status. Thomas said his results showed that the Everyday Math curriculum is really very effective, and he became an advocate for the program, which he contended, “illustrates that [he's] open-minded and willing to change [his] mind if [he's] wrong.”
Panitch described his familiarity with schools as “a work in progress,” and admitted that “through some of the questions asked of me during the last interview process, I know a lot more now than I did then.” He mentioned that before working on the millage campaign, he was wholly focused on deciding whether or not to come to Ann Arbor. He mentioned that he and his wife looked at test scores, and got a tour of Angell from Tom Yaeger – because Robin Jackson was out that day – who was very enthusiastic. Panitch said he has read everything he can on the district website, Education Week, and AnnArbor.com, including all comments.
Stead commended Roberts and Allen for “put[ting] good data together on the fly,” and Nelson for always helping the groups she’s worked with by giving them a great overview. She said AAPS needs to look at what it can expand on, and what it can control.
Long mentioned that she has been the president of PTO at Eberwhite, as well as on Eberwhite’s School Improvement Team. She said she would always carve out special projects at her daughters’ schools, and gave the example of how she helped with “first day” activities designed to bring parents into the school who would not traditionally get involved by coming out for the first day of school. Long said she has good friends who work in the district, and that she has heard about AAPS that way, as well as through her work on the millage campaign. Finally, she pointed out her ongoing familiarity with state officials’ work in Lansing, citing the fact that she is attending this week’s Save Our Schools event in Lansing as an example of her advocacy work.
Commitment to Diversity
Friedman asked the third question of each candidate: “Can you give us an example that demonstrates your personal commitment to diversity? You can draw this example from any area of your life and experience – work, home, volunteering, organizations, travel, childhood, etc.”
Haviland asserted that diversity has been “the focus of her career.” As an educator, she explained, she has focused on culturally-responsive pedagogy. After growing up in Mississippi with a “racially diverse childhood,” Haviland began, she started teaching in the Mississippi Delta at a high-needs school with all African-American students. When she moved from Mississippi to Washington D.C., she said, she also worked in an urban district. Lastly, as an example of her commitment to diversity, Haviland cited her work with the program called “Teachers for Tomorrow,” which gives teachers particular training to work in urban areas, but tries to overcome the idea of “white teacher as hero coming in to save the day.”
Sabatini described his experience with diversity as coming from attending a gifted and talented school one day a week. He said his home school was “suburban, lily white, non-diverse,” but that the gifted and talented school was urban, and much more diverse. Sabatini allowed, “I feel somewhat uncomfortable as a white man discussing diversity. Obviously, it’s one of those issues that we all know is important.” He said that though his parents’ parents were all born overseas, and at one point in time were all minorities, he recognized that does not fall into the same category of experience as people who are African-American.
Corey said it helped him to teach at an all-Jewish school as a non-Jewish teacher, and mentioned that in Los Angeles, private schools represent 25% of all students. Corey argued that AAPS students being able to interact with many different people was very valuable, and cited football players being in musicals, band, or art as examples of “the great value of AAPS.”
Collet said she was a “diversity champion” at Toyota, her workplace. She led executives in building a Habitat for Humanity house locally. Baskett mentioned that she lived near the house and that it had turned out very well. Later, Lightfoot asked Collet how she balanced her work with the public’s current image of Toyota. Collet answered that she works in the research arm of her company, and that she appreciates the extensive effort the company has made to keep employees informed. She also noted, “We have a strong leader,” and mentioned how heartfelt the thanks from him has been throughout this process.
Thomas said he would give the same example as in his last interview with the board. That was his decision to start the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund to address the problems many minority students have with reading, and help bring a real joy to their reading. He described how his fund has started a program to introduce classic literature to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Pittsfield Elementary, because over 50% of students there are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program. Thomas mentioned that there has been interest from other schools as well. Dicken Elementary wants to start the same project, and Mitchell Elementary’s principal is currently talking with Thomas about how to help K-1 students who are not exposed to a lot of reading in their homes. Lastly, he cited an after-school reading club staffed by volunteers, for which his fund will provide books for kids to take home.
Panitch said, “I think I answered this question poorly last time,” and said that he had never had any personal problems come up except for being a Jewish kid in a Christian neighborhood. He mentioned that he has always worked in very diverse workplaces, and argued that it’s easy to do because everyone has to pull their weight, saying “if you can’t, you don’t last very long.” Panitch said he’s always been able to get along with everyone, and that law school taught him the importance of listening in order to truly understand another person’s point of view.
Stead said she couldn’t remember which example she used before, but that in her professional life she has maintained an executive level of communication, and worked with people from many different cultures both in the U.S., and abroad.
Long also said she didn’t think she answered this question well the first time, though this question about diversity was a little different. She continued, citing her choice of career as proof of her commitment to diversity, and arguing that the women who really need help controlling their fertility are often lower income. Long also mentioned that the projects she has chosen to work on in schools have been focused on kids who were at risk or not achieving at levels they could have been.
Candidates’ Opinions on the Budget Options
Board vice-president Irene Patalan asked the fourth question of each candidate: “At this point you are familiar with the budget options being proposed for the district next year. On the cost side, are there areas that you would like to speak to this evening? What about on the revenue side?”
Haviland responded that it is important to maintain the excellence of the schools, and to provide teachers with everything they need. She suggested investigating the creation of niche foci within the high schools, while acknowledging that a magnet school could exacerbate the achievement gap. Haviland said she is not sure what’s the right thing to do about privatization, and that she is impressed with how well the employee groups are representing themselves. Haviland described the process she would usually use to make decisions as beginning with gathering all the information, and talking to all the stakeholders. In terms of revenue, she argued for the importance of attracting local business or universities to partner with AAPS to provide additional revenue, as well as trying to tap into grant money. In closing, Haviland gave the example of the Detroit Public Schools reading corps, which has brought 600,000 hours of volunteer readers’ time to DPS. She said that giving people in the community a clear message of what they can do could be helpful.
Sabatini suggested looking at using school facilities in the summer and evenings to pick up additional revenue, but acknowledged that he was “not sure how you could look at using those facilities without looking at the structure of public education.” He gave the example that kids could go to school year round and graduate in three years – “you could move more kids through fewer buildings.” In terms of costs, Sabatini argued that “you have to get beyond spreadsheets and get creative. There are a lot of alternative education ideas that are proven that could produce cost savings if implemented … I’m a huge believer in the notion that education needs to be more individualized.”
Corey acknowledged that the board has “a really difficult decision” ahead about how to proceed, and said it had done “a nice job looking at a lot of options,” including considering cutting teachers, or privatizing. He mentioned that he had had a chance to speak in Washington D.C. about ways to use technology to decrease education costs. For example, Corey said, many books AAPS currently buys are fully available online. He asserted that students have high expectations when it comes to schools using technology.
Collet said “I really don’t feel like I have enough information to have an informed opinion.” She expressed frustration at unfunded mandates from the state regarding retirement. She noted that additional fundraising had been proposed as an idea for generating additional revenue, and commented, “We did so much fundraising with my kids. We fundraised and fundraised and fundraised – how do you level this all out? I don’t know.”
Thomas began by thanking Roberts for doing a thoughtful and thorough job in preparing for and for running the recent community budget forums, and mentioned that he had the privilege of sitting at a table with Nelson at the forum he attended. Thomas said that the district’s cost reduction proposals were aligned with what he had proposed in the last round of interviews, which he acknowledged that Lightfoot – who was not on the board at the time – had not heard. He expressed two concerns with the School of Choice option – one philosophical and one pragmatic. His philosophical concern, he said, is that “the whole School of Choice option is a zero-sum game – if we pick up students from another district, it hurts that district. You’ve just shuffled around students without adding one cent.” Thomas did say he was not opposed to the School of Choice option for schools that are unique, such as Roberto Clemente. The pragmatic problem, according to Thomas, is that “if you’re counting on increasing enrollment by 150 students, you’re really not going to know if you’ve accomplished that until count day – it makes it much more problematic to calculate in advance what you are actually going to gain by doing that.” In summary, Thomas stated, he was not categorically opposed to the School of Choice option, but argued that the district needs a Plan B in place if it doesn’t capture the number of students it hopes.
In contrast to Thomas, Panitch asserted that, “Schools of Choice seems very promising,” but said he didn’t really want to prejudge anything. Panitch mentioned that Brit Satchwell, president of the local teachers’ union, had said in something Panitch had read that there were ideas out there about which the public was completely unaware. This, Panitch argued, made him realize he has to “see the whole picture” before he can speak to too many specifics. He closed by saying that there are some great ideas that need to be discussed, but that they need to be reviewed in the context of all of the data.
Stead stated, “I feel like you’re close to having a full picture view of what’s happening next year.” She said she’d like to speak more to the revenue side, and that she would like AAPS to have more independent revenue. Stead argued that AAPS needs to be clear about how it can create business propositions, and that she thinks local businesses have an opportunity to help the schools and engage with them. She supported doing “whatever we can do to lead to more independence and a more sustainable funding model,” and later added, “Value proposition – this is how we could engage our community. It’s a good time to look forward; we’ve got to start having some of these great success programs.”
Long began by saying that she did not anticipate this question. On the revenue side, she said, she “would hate to see those of us who worked on the community-wide millage think it would never be brought up again. Many people who run for office do not give up the first time they don’t win.” On the cost side, Long mentioned that when she heard about the possibility of privatizing employees at the budget forum, it concerned her a great deal, with her “progressive background and concern for labor.” However, she said that when she came to the budget meeting in February, she was very impressed that she heard AAPS administration pledging to keep employees at the same wages and benefits, even if they are outsourced, which made her much more comfortable with the possibility of privatization. Lastly, Long mentioned that she is also concerned with cuts that will affect student achievement, such as cutting 7th hour in favor of more online classes, which she would not support.
Greatest Asset of AAPS
Nelson asked the fifth question: “What is the greatest asset of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and how can we best leverage it for continued success?”
Haviland answered that AAPS teachers impress her, especially having a larger perspective of having worked with lots of teachers. She named Jeff Kass at Pioneer High as an example of the creativity shown by teachers in the district, and said that she “would be a voice that would harness creativity and capability of teachers.” She argued that AAPS “could easily develop niche foci at certain schools to attract additional students.”
Sabatini said, “As someone who chose to relocate to Ann Arbor from Chicago, the greatest asset is the reputation of the school district – not just academics, but sports, music, drama.” He argued that people from Ann Arbor might not be aware of how far that reputation stretches, and that the district’s reputation has potentially been damaged by this financial crisis. Sabatini clarified, “I’m not suggesting to spend money on advertising,” but suggested that AAPS needed to “protect [its] reputation by maintaining lots of options for students and parents.”
Corey, like Sabatini, argued that “not all education fits in one box. AAPS does a tremendous job of trying to find a way to educate each student.” Given that not every student will go to college, he said, the diversity of programs within AAPS is a huge strength.
Collet agreed with Haviland that the district’s greatest asset is high-quality teachers, and how much enthusiasm they have for teaching. She argued that in order to best leverage this asset, AAPS needed to “keep on encouraging teachers – bring in teacher appreciation days, bring in food. Have kids show up on time with a good attitude.”
Thomas said it was “difficult to narrow,” but, echoing the sentiments of Sabatini and Corey, settled on “the diversity and richness of the offerings, which would include the alternative schools – Clemente, Stone, Community, as well as Ann Arbor Open.” He argued that “the people in this community really want this idea of ‘one size fits all’ eliminated,” and lauded online classes as another way of reaching out to people. Thomas said he doesn’t want to see AAPS contract into basic education that tries to “shoehorn all students into one model” and argued that to leverage this asset, AAPS should employ the School of Choice option to bring students into Clemente and Stone.
Panitch named students as the most important resource, saying he was not happy with the answer he gave during his last interview, when he had cited teachers as the district’s greatest resource. Though teachers are important, Panitch said, “there is no question that students are the most important resource, which has to do with funding. We have to look at students as our most important asset.”
Stead agreed with Haviland and Collet, naming teachers as the most important asset of AAPS. She argued that AAPS has a great group of teachers, and that “their ability to impact our kids is what we have to offer the community.” Stead asserted that AAPS needs to help teachers to continue to be able to work in this ever-changing environment.
Long answered by saying that she is continually impressed by the people who dedicate their lives to the district – the board, administration, and teachers, and about how much they care about the students and about making this district the best it can be for all students. She said she has just begun to learn about the district’s commitment to equity, and is impressed by its taking on of an issue that has “confounded professionals.” Long argued that “when we are concerned about the achievement of all students, we will have a better district for everybody.”
Working Collaboratively and Supporting the Board’s Collective Vision
The sixth question was read by Baskett: “There may be times when you are not in the majority of a decision the board may make. Getting to that decision can also be a challenge. Speak to us about how you see yourself supporting a decision of the board with which you did not agree and how you see your role in the community speaking about that decision.”
Haviland noted that she has been on preschool and PTO boards, and worked collaboratively on book projects. She described her decision-making process as being about gathering perspectives, and analyzing data, and gave the example of how her current employer, the University of Michigan, was thinking about changing its teacher preparation program, and how that was contentious. Haviland argued, “It’s really important that the board present a united front, or at least that everyone understands that every decision made was well-vetted and there was time for public commentary.” She said she wants to be part of a vibrant discussion, but would want to support a united front, and stated that she’s “not coming in with a big reform agenda, or a lot of complaints that [she] want[s] to be made public through this forum.”
Similarly, Sabatini argued that “you have to look at someone’s motivations for doing something like this.” He acknowledged that if someone has his or her own personal agenda, or sees personal gain, it’s probably hard to go along with decisions: “If everyone is unified against your seeming brilliance, you might need to rethink that.” Sabatini asserted the importance of building a consensus, and suggested that, “If you can’t build consensus, then maybe your idea needs further refinement. You have to be open to that refinement.”
Corey echoed this same line of reasoning, and connected it to students, saying that as long as the intentions of his fellow board members were pure and in the best interest of helping students, he would not have a problem supporting any decision.
Collet referenced how she works in teams a lot, saying that “Once a decision has been made, we all speak with one voice,” and explaining that she reconciles any dissent by working to understand why the decision was made.
Thomas said this is something he used to do all the time, and that in his work, it was not uncommon for a decision to be made which was not particularly what he would have liked. The key, he argued, is having “full and open discussion up until a decision is made,” then once it’s made, supporting the board’s decision as his own. Thomas also referenced again the level of incivility that, in his opinion, seems to have entered into discussions around schools, concluding: “People of goodwill can have difference of opinions.”
Panitch cited a “humorous story” stemming from the community budget forums. He described how there was a man at his table who wanted AAPS to cede from the whole state funding system. Panitch told his group that this cannot be done, thinking that, legally, AAPS only has the authority the state gives it. But, Panitch had to stand up to speak for the group, and so he presented his group’s idea, even though he did not support it at all. He mentioned that out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nelson quickly working out a computation. When he returned to his seat, Nelson showed him the amount of money AAPS would have to come up with the support the idea. Panitch said, “If I could have done that, I would never have been in the position to have to float this idea to the whole community.” Baskett thanked Panitch for his story, saying it was “the best answer she’d heard.”
Stead responded with, “This is one that I get to do all the time.” She argued that one collectively owns the decisions of one’s team, and said that if she is not able to make a successful case for something, she tries to consider the points that resonate with other people in moving forward.
Long asserted that she has always been known as a team player, in the work that she did in her professional life in the largest nonprofit in Washtenaw County, saying, “There was never a decision that was made that I could not get behind once it was made.” She maintained that she could see the positives and negatives of many sides of a decision, and sees the value in decisions being presented as a team. If necessary, she said, she “would be able to sell [an idea] to the community.”
Balancing Public Input with Public Service
Lightfoot read the seventh question: “As a board member, you serve the district community, as well as every subset of people who make up that community. You may receive everything from a gentle suggestion to direct pressure to vote a certain way on any given issue, and this can come from the media, your school PTO, community organizations, staff, your family and friends – pretty much from anywhere. How do you see balancing this input in your new role as a public servant?”
Haviland said she had planned on asking the board that question at the end of her interview, as she would be new to the role of public representative. She asked, “How do you balance out all the perspectives that you’re hearing? Do you see yourselves as representing all constituencies?” In the classroom, she argued, it’s always important to try to tease out the perspectives of those people not speaking up – the marginalized students. Haviland described herself as the kind of person who seeks out alternative perspectives: “I would want to be sure we had the perspective of the kid in the back of the room with his head down, not just the kid in the front with her hand raised.”
Sabatini said he’s already received phone calls. He argued that, “You’ve always got to weigh all the different interests. You have to be open-minded, and be willing to listen to people.” Sabatini stated that while teachers, administration, and taxpayers are important, AAPS needs to serve kids first, all kids – not just those whose parents yell the loudest or have the most money. He noted that he has read many comments made online about how AAPS does not meet the needs of neediest kids, but that he does not know what to think about that from the outside.
Corey asserted, “That is probably my greatest strength.” By not being a teacher, and not having any students in the district, he argued, he is well-positioned to be objective in decision-making. His assertion that he was “not trying to join the board for fame or glory” was amusing to many board members, who agreed the job brings neither.
Collet said her approach would be to gather all the information, talk as a team with the board, and then decide. They had that a lot on the booster club, she said. She argued that, while working on compromises is important, “it comes down to what’s best for the kids,” and added that sometimes people cannot understand the whole story when they are asking for something specific.
Thomas said he would represent all stakeholders, including students, teachers, other employees of AAPS, local businesses, and taxpayers: “I would certainly listen to all points of view, and make a point of seeking out divergent opinions.” He assured the board that he does not feel he would come to this job with the idea that he was beholden to any particular interest group, and that his intent would be to help AAPS provide the best schools it can, given the constraints that it has. Thomas closed with, “I’m not going to say that I’m not going to listen to some people more than others, but it’s based on their ability to present a coherent, logical argument, not their membership in a particular group.”
Similarly, Panitch said he did not view himself as coming from any particular section of the community other than perhaps concerned parents. He mentioned his previous experience as a public servant working for the city of Philadelphia, as well as for the IRS. He said that he would do a good job of listening to everyone, and that he’s “in a good position to handle that type of pressure just because of [his] professional experiences.”
Stead argued as well that her job prepared her for a lot of that: “It’s interesting the different roles you play as a consultant.” She stated that she was able to separate her personal life and her business life, and in this case, it would be as a trustee. She closed with, “I think the unique opportunity in being a trustee is that you do have a broader view, and with that perspective comes trust and good judgment.”
Long stated that, in working for a controversial organization , she knew she always had to present a professional front, even if she was verbally attacked. [She was a longtime administrator at Planned Parenthood.] Long allowed that she would not know how she would deal with everyone’s opinions, and would ask fellow board members for advice, but assured the board that she could handle it professionally.
Time Commitment of Serving on the Board
Patalan asked the last official question of the interview: “As a board member, you will be expected to attend all regular meetings, study sessions, and your assigned committee meetings. Your attendance is crucial to completing board business in a timely fashion. We will also want you to attend some additional board member development sessions over the next few months. Do you have any questions or concerns about these expectations?”
Haviland mentioned that she did not apply last round because she had certain commitments, but that those are tapering off. She said the more she can be in schools and be part of these conversations, the better it is for the beginning teachers with whom she works. Haviland also argued that it’s important for teachers, administrators, and kids to know that the board is not making decisions in a vacuum.
Sabatini said he was aware of the meeting schedule and had no questions or comments. He then commented that it was obviously a huge time commitment. Citing the fact that two members have left the board recently, he argued that it was also a huge emotional and psychological commitment.
Corey said he has been watching a lot of board meetings on local television. [Meetings are broadcast on Community Television Network (CTN).] He said he worked early in the morning, and helped with lacrosse in the afternoon. He said he would be naive to think he knows everything already, and would look forward to learning more.
Collet mentioned that she works 8 to 5, and asked if all commitments are in the evenings. She also said she has some vacation time plotted out for the year, and asked about the committee meeting times. Board members confirmed that pre-planned vacations are allowed, and confirmed that main board meetings are in the evening, and that committee meeting times are flexible.
Thomas said he considered the time commitment very carefully, and had discussed it with his son. As a single parent, he said, he does have some issues with child care, and backup, but said that his son is old enough now to spend some time alone or at a friend’s house. The other side of the coin, he pointed out, is that he is now retired, so he has a lot of time during the day that he can spend on school board issues.
Panitch said he had been watching the board, and noting the time commitment of its members, and had no concerns. “I’m probably seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said, “but I’m coming in with my eyes open.” Panitch also mentioned that he would welcome the professional development aspect of a board position.
Stead allowed that her job requires her to be at client sites sometimes, so that is something she is constantly balancing. She said she can control and influence some of that, but not all: “I am at a level in my company that I have some control over scheduling.” If offered the position, she said that she would ask the board to consider allowing her to participate remotely in meetings if she could not attend, and noted that she balances many other things well already.
Long simply said, “I don’t know that I’m clear about how many hours it is, but I don’t have any concern.”
Questions of the Board by the Candidates
Candidates for the open board position had a number of questions for board members, which are grouped by theme.
Getting New Members Acclimated
Multiple candidates asked how the board would support a new member in getting up to speed. Deb Mexicotte responded by saying that the new trustee would be given “a million things to read,” would work with Irene Patalan in terms of board roles, and would meet with administration. In the longer term, Mexicotte said, the new trustee would be sent to receive training from the Michigan Association of School Boards. She also mentioned that all trustees have an open door policy, and that the new trustee could “ask them anything.”
Susan Baskett suggested it would be great for the new member to talk to Simone Lightfoot, as the newest trustee. She also mentioned, “Any one of us is available by phone, meeting in person, or e-mail.” Lightfoot responded, “For me, it was really important to immerse myself in the process. I really have a challenge being in the public spotlight; people don’t care that you just got elected, they want answers. It’s up to you how much information you want to take in, but I don’t want to be in the dark. It’s a lot of reading.”
Glenn Nelson mentioned something that board members warned him about when he joined the board, which he explained with an ice cream metaphor. Regarding your new role as public servant, he said, people will approach you at the grocery store and want to talk to you without regard to the fact that your ice cream is melting. “The equivalent of ice cream melting happens a lot,” Nelson said, and is “a reflection of how the community is intense about these issues.”
Patalan added, “We really do want to take care of and help a new person in any way we can. People in administration are extremely willing to meet with you … Amy Osinski [executive secretary to the board] does a fabulous job of being there for you. Todd’s door is open. The Michigan Association of School Boards has a bunch of great professional development opportunities.”
Sabatini asked about the reasoning behind having the candidates come to the full board meeting on Wednesday, saying, “I would imagine that after tonight’s board meeting, you will have an idea of who you want.”
Mexicotte answered by describing the selection process in more detail, and added that, “We all take this process very seriously … The public access is very important, but it is also a case that each of us as individuals need this whole process.”
Role of the Superintendent on the Board
Corey asked about the role of the superintendent on the board.
Mexicotte answered that Dr. Roberts is the only employee of the board of education. She described him as the “fulcrum.” Mexicotte stated that the relationship is ongoing, collaborative, and an employee/employer relationship, concluding: “The strong collaboration is what allows us to really make a difference to the students.”
Roberts added that the relationship is “all of the above.” It’s our job as administration, he said, to bring suggested actions to the board – nothing moves forward without four votes. On the other hand, “they also bring tasks to me. It’s a collaborative relationship – a two-way street.”
Motivation and Personal Experience of Board Members
Corey also asked the board, “What’s the reason you keep coming back? Why do you find it to be an honor or privilege to serve on the board?”
Nelson said he’s been at it since 2002, he could see funding problems coming, and was supportive of the countywide millage. He felt like it would be quitting to not keep going.
Patalan answered that she’s been on the board for four and a half years, and that you learn a little bit every day, in every situation. “With the funding looming from day one,” she said, “I can remember, I was on the board two weeks and went to a finance class. I was shaking when I left the room. It was four and a half years ago that I heard all of these things that were going to happen. When it is time to renew, you have this knowledge … It’s not about us.”
Baskett added, “For me, the work’s not done. That’s the bottom line … Our students of color are just not there yet … I’m still plugging away at it.” Lightfoot added that she has a passion for public policy. Mexicotte then stated that she’s raised three children in the district, one with special needs, and two others with very different educational needs. “Public education is the thing that raises all boats,” she said, “A strong public education should be a birthright. Anything that I can do to make that a reality for society – that’s why I’m here.”
Thomas asked Lightfoot directly, “How would you describe the actual experience compared to what you thought it was going to be like?”
Lightfoot answered, “You couldn’t be really told the amount of time to really do the diligence necessary. I’m just committed to visiting all the schools, sitting down with cabinet members, keeping up with the state. I am one that believes in hearing everybody. The time and the reading are substantial … And, being steeped in your conscience, so that when the winds come and the boughs break, you’ll be able to stand.”
Budget Process and The “New Normal”
A few candidates asked about how the budget process was evolving, especially as input from the state has changed since the last round of board interviews.
Roberts answered that the AAPS website has the information from the community meetings, and mentioned that AAPS administration will be coming to the board on March 24 with a budget plan. Patalan added that she was very pleased with the community feedback and input – “I do have faith in the community that we’ll figure it out, as painful as it may be.”
Nelson mentioned that the board is talking with employee groups about compensation. Due to the timing constraints, layoffs need to be announced by April if they are going to happen. The March 24 meeting and then the following April meeting will be really serious meetings, he said: “That’s the deep dive.”
Nelson also noted that the difference from three months ago is that the state-level proposals have had a huge impact at the local level. He cited the mandatory 3% employee contribution to retirement as an example of something that has made budget planning more complex at the local level. Lightfoot echoed this concern, and added that she was worried about how local districts would be able to meet the “unfunded state mandates.”
Stead asked, “When we met last time, the millage had just failed, the state had not set the budget for this year. What do you think the ‘new normal’ will be?”
Patalan answered first, “I did write down when you said ‘new normal.’ We all need to get that mindset; things are not going back to the way they were.” Patalan continued, saying she was challenged to have the ‘new normal’ preserve the diverse selections offered by AAPS.
Nelson said it’s an interesting question, and argued that Michigan is going to recognize that the current system doesn’t work. “I don’t think we’re indefinitely in trouble,” he said, “but in the short term, things look grim … I think it is the right mentality to think about how we continue to work for improvement at the state level, and Ann Arbor does have some influence there. But, to figure the next two or three years, we should have the mindset of figuring this out ourselves.”
Freidman acknowledged that the work the administration has done is a thoughtful and meaningful approach to recognizing the limitations of what AAPS can provide. He argued that the administration’s careful work will now put to rest the excessive criticism about the AAPS not controlling its expenditures. What is not over, Friedman said, is seeing whose interests will be served in public education. If teachers are truly the best asset, then they will be called upon to lead us out of this situation, he argued. At a local level, Friedman said, we have done a lot, but we will need these large public institutions to change. Friedman continued, “This community has not come to grips with its opportunity to privately support its schools … We need to tackle the public awareness of private funding.”
Baskett said she looks at it in three phases: crisis management, problem solving, and creating the “new normal.” Currently, she said, we have to deal with what’s real and what’s not real and then we can move on.
Friedman then offered an example that “was really gnawing at [him].” The example was of his kids’ part-time nanny, who is also a teacher. She works in the Troy system, he began, where she works an enormous number of hours, and is beloved by her students, but she will be furloughed two months from now, and is talking about leaving the state. “She is the best and brightest in Michigan,” Friedman said, “Here in Ann Arbor, are we allowing this type of structure to continue? Do we want to? … Is this acceptable?” Patalan added that her daughter-in-law was in a similar type of situation.
Friedman concluded that, if you’ve bottomed out, when you do better, you can decide if you’re going to make different choices the next time around. He argued that “we are on the cusp of dramatically improving education in this state,” but that AAPS needs to get better teacher accountability, better elected officials, and better private giving.
Board Member Selection Process: Next Steps
At the conclusion of each interview, Deb Mexicotte reviewed the next part of the selection process, and gave each candidate a handout reviewing the parameters for the presentation they will need to make to the board at Wednesday’s meeting. She mentioned that the presentations will each be five minutes long, and that candidates can use any type of media to make their points, including “hand puppets or interpretive dance,” or “just stand at the podium.”
The assigned presentation question is: “Although the board spends a great deal of time on financial, policy, and other business issues, the center of our work is focused on student achievement. Could you split your presentation evenly between speaking about what, in your opinion, we do well in the district from the standpoint of student achievement, and what areas we need to work toward improving.”
Mexicotte explained that after the presentations, the board members might take a short break to “gather their notes,” and would then vote on which candidate to seat as a new trustee. She mentioned that the voting process may go one or more rounds, until it reaches a consensus, and that then the new trustee will be immediately sworn in, seated, and have voting privileges. Mexicotte closed each interview by inviting the candidates to contact any board member or the board secretary, Amy Osinski, if they think of any other questions after they leave, about the presentation or anything else.
Term Lengths for Board Members
After the last interview, some board members had a casual discussion about term lengths. It was pointed out that the board will have four seats on the ballot this November – those of Baskett, Lightfoot, Mexicotte, and the trustee who is seated this week. Any time a trustee is appointed by the current board, that person serves only until the next regular election. Just recently, the board voted to move its regular elections from May to November, thereby extending the term lengths of current members by six months.
Present: Board president Deb Mexicotte, vice-president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Randy Friedman, trustee Susan Baskett, and trustee Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Dr. Todd Roberts, superintendent of AAPS.
The next regular meeting of the BOE will be held on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, at 7 p.m., at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library 4th floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.