Ann Arbor Board of Education study session (May 6, 2010): The six trustees of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education met briefly Thursday evening to interview Noah Hurwitz, the final candidate vying for the board seat vacated by Randy Friedman in April.
Five people have applied for the position: Victoria Haviland, James Corey, Andy Thomas, Jack Panitch, and Noah Hurwitz. The four candidates other than Hurwitz were interviewed by the board in March when they were filling the position ultimately won by Christine Stead. [Chronicle coverage: "AAPS Board Interviews Go Back and Forth"]
Of those four, Panitch and Thomas had also interviewed for an open board position last December. Given that the previous two selection processes occurred recently, the board decided not to require the first four candidates to interview again. However, all five candidates have been asked to make presentations at the regular board meeting on May 12 before the new trustee is selected.
On Thursday, board president Deb Mexicotte asked the board members to introduce themselves to Hurwitz. During those introductions, vice president Irene Patalan pointed out the half a dozen high school students who were in attendance as a requirement of their government class. Two members of the AAPS Parent-Teacher-Organization Council, Martine Perreault and Amy Pachera, also attended. No members of the AAPS administration were present.
This article is organized around the eight interview questions asked of each candidate by the board. The Chronicle has compiled candidates’ answers from each of the previous two interview dates, to facilitate evaluation of the candidates. For each question, we first provide a summary of answers to that question given by the candidates interviewed in March, followed by a summary of the responses given by Hurwitz on Thursday.
Candidate Backgrounds and Interest in the Board
Question 1: “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.”
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.” Trustee Susan 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.
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 campaign for the countywide schools millage, which was on the November 2009 ballot. 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.”
Hurwitz stated that education is an important thing, and that he values the difference it can make in a child’s life. Hurwitz pointed out that he had run for an open board seat in 2003 just after finishing college, and that at that time, he had been mentoring a student at Slauson Middle School named Cameron. What he saw Cameron go through, Hurwitz said, made him “concerned about the achievement gap.” Soon after that, Hurwitz noted, he became Cameron’s legal guardian, and “did everything [he] could to help [Cameron] go through the district.” After Cameron graduated, Hurwitz followed him to Chicago, beginning law school at Loyola while Cameron started classes at Northwestern. Hurwitz highlighted his interest in school law, and his work with a law firm that handled large desegregation cases. Finally, Hurwitz said that he had planned to run for the board in November, but “why not start now?”
Familiarity with AAPS
Question 2: “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?” Candidates whose first response had already answered this question in whole or in part were asked 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 countywide 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.
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.
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 AAPS superintendent Todd 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, a fifth-grade teacher there who was very enthusiastic. Panitch said he has read everything he can on the district website, Education Week, and AnnArbor.com, including all comments.
Hurwitz argued that “it has to start with being a student, and coming up though AAPS.” He also mentioned the usefulness of having worked with Cameron, and of substitute teaching in the district for two-and-a-half years. As a sub, Hurwitz said, “I think I must have taught every subject.” The best thing about subbing, according to Hurwitz, was seeing how different all of the AAPS schools are and “fall[ing] in love with a little bit of what each one has to offer.” The schools, he said, really all are different, and reflect Ann Arbor society: “They all have different issues to deal with.” Hurwitz noted that when applying for the board, he called teachers, and found that “everyone has their own concerns. Everybody needs something. I feel like I have good grasp on those different needs that exist.”
Commitment to Diversity
Question 3: “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.”
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.”
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 had been 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.
Hurwitz began, “I think it would have to be my experiences with Cameron.” He described coaching various teams on which Cameron played, and the passion with which Cameron and his teammates brought to the games: “We lost four years in a row, and every time they would all go up to the top of Crisler and cry – not because they lost, but because it was over.” Unfortunately, Hurwitz said, Cameron was the only one of the group to go to college. Hurwitz also noted that, while in law school, he developed the belief that diversity was really important in schools. He pointed out that research shows that all kids benefit from learning in a diverse environment, and that people may take advantage of this in Ann Arbor. Hurwitz said, “You have to be able to relate to absolutely everybody.”
Candidates’ Opinions on the Budget Options
Question 4: “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.
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.
Thomas began by thanking Roberts for doing a thoughtful and thorough job in preparing for and for running the community budget forums, and mentioned that he had the privilege of sitting at a table with trustee Glenn 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 trustee Simone Lightfoot – who was not on the board at the time – had not heard. He expressed two concerns with the Schools 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 Schools 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 Schools 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. [Editor's note: When these earlier candidate interviews took place, the AAPS board had not yet approved the Schools of Choice option. That approval occurred at their March 29 meeting.]
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.
Hurwitz was reluctant to be too specific, saying that he realized the perspective changed when you sit on the board. He did name privatization and teacher lay-offs as “really contentious issues,” and noted that teacher lay-offs were a concern of every teacher he spoke with. Hurwitz noted that teacher lay-offs are something he would “absolutely dread,” saying he knew that beginning teachers apply with 1,000 to 1,500 other applicants. As a board member, Hurwitz said, he would hope to explore every possible alternative for creating revenue “until we cannot do anything else.” He added, “With the pink slips, there is a danger of moral getting low.” Hurwitz contended that with his legal training, he “could get out and help people understand why decisions are being made.”
Greatest Asset of AAPS
Question 5: “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.”
Corey 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.
Thomas said it was “difficult to narrow,” but he 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 Schools 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.”
Hurwitz put forth “the children” as the district’s greatest asset, saying the district has wonderful teachers and administrators, but that he was “blown away” by the features of the children he met while subbing in the district. Hurwitz pointed out the language diversity of students at Angell, and called subbing there, as well as in a special needs class, “awakening experiences.” As a special education assistant substitute in particular, Hurwitz asserted, it was amazing to see how important even a sub assistant is to a child getting through every day.
Working Collaboratively and Supporting the Board’s Collective Vision
Question 6: “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.”
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.
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 trustee Glenn 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.”
Hurwitz said that being on the board would give him the perspective to have an opinion, but that board members cannot completely discount the opinions of others. He pointed out that as an attorney, sometimes you are asked to fight for things that at first you did not believe in. Also, in dealing with Cameron as an athlete, Hurwitz mentioned learning the importance of how to handle “volatile” situations, such as coaching decisions: “It’s hard to have a future relationship with a person if you don’t handle it well.”
Balancing Public Input with Public Service
Question 7: “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.”
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.
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.”
Hurwitz asserted, “That’s exactly what you have to do – you have to balance it.”He mentioned that he has tried to figure out what everybody’s issues are in the district, and that everyone with whom he’s spoken was really emotional. Also, noting that parents are always passionate about getting their kids’ needs met, Hurwitz acknowledged that being on the board would cause people to ask him for help. But, he conceded, “if everyone’s asking you to do … things, you have to be able to do what you feel the district needs you to do.” Hurwitz again noted that he was exposed to many different perspectives while working as a sub for the district, and said that would be helpful in making decisions.
Time Commitment of Serving on the Board
Question 8: “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 earlier 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.
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.
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.
Hurwitz noted that he has no concerns about the expectations on his time, but “that’s probably very foolish of me to think that.” He mentioned that when he began parenting Cameron, he met a lot of criticism, and that parenting Cameron and being in law school was a concern. Hurwitz noted that the most difficult part of his first year of law school was getting Cameron through his first year of college, and how he had hoped there would be more academic support for transitioning freshmen. Having felt like he succeeded at something difficult, Hurwitz said, he hoped that being on the board would be like that. He noted he has every reason to be afraid of it, but is not.
Questions for the Board
At the conclusion of each interview, each candidate was asked if he or she had any questions for the board. For an in-depth look at the questions posed to the board trustees during the candidate interviews in March, see previous Chronicle coverage of those interviews: “AAPS Board Interiews Go Back and Forth.”
During Thursday’s study session, Hurwitz asked how the transition to serving on the board has been for the recently appointed members. Christine Stead answered that it was better than she expected. She noted that each board member has been very available, and that she believed the board has gelled into a good team in a short time. Simone Lightfoot agreed, saying, “It’s better than you can imagine … if you’re willing to immerse yourself in the learning.” She suggested reading up on best practices in education, and “loving the kids.”
Deb Mexicotte reminded Hurwitz that “we are public servants,” and that he was welcome to contact them if he thought of other questions after leaving.
At the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Mexicotte thanked Hurwitz for coming, and reminded him of the candidate presentations scheduled for Wednesday, May 12 as part of the next regular board meeting. She then said that the presentations would occur as early as possible in the meeting, but noted that “public obligations come first,” and that the board tries to be respectful of people’s time when planning the agenda.
The presentations, Mexicotte continued, should be no longer than five minutes. She mentioned that candidates would be receiving an email detailing the presentation topic for which they are to prepare, but that the “idea is to tell us a little about yourself, and what inspired you to want to be on the board of education.”
Glenn Nelson added that the board will vote directly after the candidate presentations, and that the new trustee will be immediately seated, sworn-in, and given full voting power for the rest of the meeting’s agenda. “So,” Nelson suggested, “you might want to glance over the agenda [for Wednesday’s meeting] before the board selection.”
Minutes Approval Delayed
After the other trustees had also thanked Hurwitz for coming, Mexicotte walked him out. The only other business before adjournment was the review of minutes from the board study session on April 27. Mexicotte suggested to the trustees that they take the minutes home for review, and note if any changes should be made. Nelson, who as board secretary had taken minutes that evening as well as at the April 27 study session, pointed out that the minutes could be amended if necessary.
Present: president Deb Mexicotte, vice president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Christine Stead, and trustees Susan Baskett and Simone Lightfoot.
Absent: AAPS superintendent Todd Roberts, a non-voting member.
The next regular meeting of the board will be held on Wednesday, May 12, 2010, at 7 p.m. at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library 4th floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]