Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education special regular meeting (Nov. 3, 2010): At Wednesday’s special regular meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) school board, a slim majority of trustees approved a motion by president Deb Mexicotte to set the annual salary for the new superintendent “in the range of $245,000.” It was one of two unusual split votes for the board.
The board also voted 5 to 2 to allow themselves access to the full set of candidate applications, ultimately resolving a conflict they have been grappling with for several weeks. While it grants access to applications, the motion passed by the board prohibits individual trustees from directly selecting specific candidates out of the pool for consideration. The motion stipulates that if trustees’ review of the applications leads them to feel that the established search criteria were not well-applied to the candidate pool, a majority of the board may request an additional review of the pool by the search firm.
The meeting also saw less contentious resolutions of the other remaining aspects of the search process, including: the candidate profile, promotional materials, application form, advertising plan, and timeline.
The board had discussed compensation for the new superintendent at an earlier study session, without resolution. In the interest of reaching a decision, they directed Ray & Associates, the firm hired to assist with the superintendent search, to provide additional comparison data on salaries of superintendents in other university towns. The additional data was reviewed and discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.
Bill Newman of Ray & Associates summarized a table he had e-mailed to the board earlier in the week, which listed the 2010-11 salaries and 2011-12 estimated salaries for nine districts near other large universities – Iowa City, Iowa; Knox County, Tenn.; Lincoln, Neb.; Milwaukee, Wisc.; Seattle, Wash.; Cambridge, Mass.; Socorro ISD, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Sacramento, Calif. The average estimated salary of these districts for 2011-12 was $246,001, with a range of $189,520 to $272,950. All of the districts listed had enrollment at least double that of the 16,536 students in Ann Arbor Public Schools, except for Iowa City (12,500 students), and Cambridge (6,500 students).
Newman added that the board should take into account that although a lot of these districts are larger, they might have attracted candidates who might have looked at AAPS. Setting a higher salary attracts better candidates, Newman stated, explaining that each increment of roughly $25,000 would attract a different tier of candidates.
Trustee Glenn Nelson asked if offering the average comparison salary for 2011-12 – $246,001 – was overshooting or undershooting. He also asked Newman how likely it is that a potential candidate who thinks the listed salary is low will inquire how fixed it is – rather than just not apply.
Newman answered that Ray & Associates recommends advertising “in the range of a number,” so the board has some leeway. He added that if a really good candidate questioned the upper limit of the salary, he would tell them it was “narrowly flexible,” and would ask the board for direction on any increase.
Trustee Andy Thomas stated that his understanding of the posted salary benchmark was more of a bottom limit, and that candidates who applied for the position would expect nothing less than that. Mexicotte disagreed, pointing out that adding the phrase “commensurate with current experience or training” would allow the board to depress the salary as well. Newman agreed, saying that a salary offer could drop or rise as much as $10,000 to $12,000 in either direction.
Thomas argued that AAPS should not be paying a superintendent the same as a superintendent would get in a district two to three times larger. Mexicotte retorted that the job is the same, regardless of the number of students.
Trustee Christine Stead and Nelson also argued that the similarities among the districts on the list outweigh their differences in size, saying that opportunities to leverage the university and existing capacity to improve the quality and access of educational services are the key considerations.
Thomas disagreed, saying that having three times the students means having three times the discipline issues, and three times the parents to deal with. He noted that a larger district would also have significantly greater resources to allocate, since revenue is based on enrollment. Finally, Thomas expressed concern that paying the superintendent a higher salary would result in pressure to increase the salaries of other administrators as well.
Trustee Susan Baskett pointed out that the board should keep the public perception, cost of living, and economics of the state of Michigan in mind. She cautioned that when Livonia Public Schools raised the salary of their superintendent by $50,000, it was not well-received, and that poor public perception could impact the passage of the special education millage in the spring.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot asked what former superintendent Todd Roberts’ starting salary had been, and what was included in his compensation package. She also asked whether the board would want to propose a similar package for the incoming superintendent.
Mexicotte answered that Roberts was hired four years ago at $175,000, and his compensation remained at that level each year until he voluntarily took an 8% pay cut during the last school year. Since he was opposed to raising his salary, Mexicotte said, the board rewarded him in other ways. They gave him $5,000 against the $13,000 health insurance plan that he would have received had he not been insured under his wife’s policy, which is a greater amount than teachers receive for forgoing health insurance.
AAPS also offered Roberts a longevity bonus, Mexicotte continued. In the state of Michigan, teachers and administrators can opt to “buy years” of retirement, allowing them to retire with full pension benefits sooner that they could otherwise. Mexicotte explained that Roberts’ longevity bonus was arranged so that for every three years he worked for AAPS, the district would buy him one year of retirement, at a value of approximately $30,000 each year.
Finally, Mexicotte said, Roberts was given a cell phone, laptop, and car for use in his work. She suggested that those amenities would be part of any contract made to the incoming superintendent as well, along with similar health care and retirement plans.
At that point in the conversation, Mexicotte focused the discussion by introducing a motion to pay the incoming superintendent “in the range of $245,000.” She asked for feedback from her colleagues. Trustee Irene Patalan seconded the motion.
Baskett asked for clarification on how the salary range would be presented in the promotional materials and advertisements for the position. Newman explained that the salary benchmark would be presented as a range, and that it would be clear in the materials that the final salary for a successful candidate would be negotiated by the board.
Lightfoot argued that a $70,000 increase in salary from what Roberts had been paid was “in excess.” She suggested she was more in favor of a $220,000 base range.
Newman suggested that the board consider the one longevity bonus year Roberts received as part of his base pay for the purpose of comparison, which would have made his salary $205,000. He also challenged the board to address the public perception directly, and acknowledged that many people in the community will be surprised by the number, thinking, “How can somebody be worth three, four, ten times what I make?”
Still, Newman said, the market for superintendent salaries has held up even though many districts are making significant cuts. He counseled that the public outcry happens in the opposite direction as well, when a really good superintendent leaves the district for a larger salary elsewhere. Mexicotte agreed, saying that she received criticism when Roberts left – because the board had not made a sufficient counter offer, even though his motivation for leaving was purely based on being closer to family.
Stead pointed out that Roberts also incurred no moving costs to work at AAPS, because he was already living in Ann Arbor at the time. She noted that Roberts was not a superintendent when he was hired. He was a deputy superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools before coming to AAPS. This time around, the district is looking to attract someone who is already a seated superintendent, she said. Stead said $245,000 was higher than she was thinking, but that she would support the motion.
Nelson pointed out that another way for board members to use Roberts as a reference point is to compare their offer to what Roberts is making in his new position in North Carolina. If you add up Roberts’ new salary – $210,000, plus a house at a value of approximately $20,000 annually, plus a 3% cost of living raise – Nelson argued, you’ll get a salary of $237,000. Nelson pointed out that Mexicotte’s motion sets the salary for the incoming superintendent at only $8,000 more than Roberts will be making next year, and that “we know he is the kind of person we want as a superintendent.”
Baskett dissented, and referred again to the upcoming special education millage. “I think this is crazy, and this is going to be a hard sell to our community as we go to them to ask for more money,” she said, saying that the $70,000 difference between Roberts’ former salary and the proposed new salary could be put toward other services for students instead.
Mexicotte explained her reasoning for suggesting the motion. She looked at the average, she said, of superintendent salaries at similar university towns, and then considered that Michigan is not a compelling place to move to right now. She also considered, she said, what may need to happen to the salary down the road if the board continues to deal with declining state funding. “[The proposed salary] may seem high and odd to the community at first, but a couple of years down the road, we’ll be in the middle, and then in a couple more years, we’ll be at the bottom again. This would give us some parity in terms of longevity.”
The motion to set the incoming superintendent’s base salary “in the range of $245,000″ was approved 4-3. Mexicotte, Nelson, Patalan, and Stead voted for the motion, and Baskett, Lightfoot, and Thomas voted against it.
Candidate Review Process
Mexicotte opened the discussion on the candidate review process by going over how the board had in recent weeks been questioning how much access to grant to– and to whom– information about the whole applicant pool. The opinion of the district’s legal counsel, she said, was that under the proper circumstances and control by the search firm, the applications could be available for board member review without being subject to disclosure via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
At the previous board meeting on Oct. 27, the board directed its executive committee to craft a proposal for the board’s consideration. Mexicotte reported that though the committee had enjoyed a “lively, interesting, and civil” discussion, they had not been able to reach consensus on a compromise motion regarding this issue. Therefore, she opened the floor for discussion.
Stead moved that trustees should review only those candidates for the superintendent position who had been thoroughly vetted by Ray & Associates, and who were presented as semi-finalists by the firm. She also noted that Ray & Associates would provide a summary table of candidate characteristics.
Newman added that the summary table would take the board through the process of how the selection of the semi-finalists occurred using the criteria established by the board, and would not contain any candidate names.
Patalan seconded Stead’s motion, and Mexicotte asked that the board use a round robin for each trustee to state his or her position on the motion.
Stead began, saying that the overarching goal for all board members was to end up with the best possible superintendent out of this process. She noted that the board wants the best applicants to apply, and that for people who are not from Michigan, applying to an “open state might already be a struggle” without introducing the additional risk of breaching confidentiality, even though any breach would be unintended. Stead asserted that providing full access to the applications is not typical, does not add value, and would not take advantage of Ray & Associates’ expertise. She summarized by arguing, “This [motion] maintains care of candidates, protects us, leverages Ray, and provides a fair and objective process.”
Nelson argued that the board would be best served by finding the middle road on this issue, and said that while he would not support Stead’s motion, he would also not support his original position of allowing trustees to “cherry pick” candidates. Nelson stressed that board harmony was an important part of his vision, and that board members needed to celebrate difference among trustees, while working together in a cohesive fashion.
Thomas expressed his disappointment that a compromise had not been reached by the executive committee. With the choices at hand, Thomas said, he supported Stead’s motion. “Let Ray & Associates handle what we are hiring them to do, and let’s proceed according to that, without having to go out and rework, redo, or rehash in any way whatsoever the work they have already done, and which they are quite competent and capable to do.”
Baskett said that while she appreciated candidate care, she wanted to emphasize client care. She framed the question in terms of her ability as a trustee to do what the community expects of her. Stead’s motion is too restrictive, she said, in terms of being able to hold the search firm accountable. “There is a trust factor in this community, whether we want to accept it or not,” Baskett asserted, adding that the stated concerns about breaching confidentiality were overblown.
Lightfoot expressed frustration that the fear of breaching trust was even part of the discussion, and cited the fact that there are no cases of that ever happening with this board. The issue, she argued, is being able to do her due diligence as a trustee. “It is important to weigh in on the [candidate] pool,” she said. “We should be able to say where the data came from, and know what we are talking about.”
Patalan began by thanking her colleagues for working so hard to resolve this issue. She asserted that the assurance of confidentiality is important to many good applicants, and expressed concern that if access to applications is allowed, the best candidates would not apply. Noting that Ray & Associates’ vetting process was fair, objective, organized, and successful for 35 years, Patalan said she was comfortable being directed by the consulting firm as to which candidates to review.
Mexicotte wrapped up the round robin, noting that the board was still split three to three, and that she would be the deciding vote. She, like Nelson, said she would vote no on this, as well as the original opposing idea of letting trustees pick candidates out of the pool that Ray & Associates had not recommended.
Saying she had dual goals of securing the best possible superintendent, while also having the board feel that its due diligence was honored, Mexicotte said she would move the board instead toward a compromise path. “I see us moving forward so we don’t have winners and losers on this. Even though there is risk, I think a compromise engenders in us the utmost cleaving of values like confidentiality, trust in each other, and focusing on what is best for students in this district.”
Outcome: The vote on Stead’s motion to allow access only to the applications brought forth by Ray & Associates as semi-finalists for the position failed 4-3. Baskett, Lightfoot, Mexicotte, and Nelson voted against it, and Patalan, Stead, and Thomas voted in favor of it.
On the failure of Stead’s motion, Mexicotte asked for a new motion to come forward. Lightfoot moved that trustees have the option of viewing all applications that come in, ensuring no breach of confidentiality, and without an option of bringing forward additional names for consideration.
Thomas asked whether Lightfoot’s motion contained a way to bring forth general concerns to Ray & Associates or to the board. Mexicotte suggested amending the wording of Lightfoot’s motion to allow for a majority of trustees to request an additional review of the candidate pool by Ray & Associates, while understanding that an additional review like that could jeopardize the search timeline as it’s currently laid out. Lightfoot accepted the amendments to her proposal, and Mexicotte asked the board if anyone had anything else to add to the compromise motion.
Baskett questioned whether Mexicotte’s wording would restrict application viewing to the time before a slate of semifinalists was brought forth by Ray & Associates. Mexicotte clarified that she intended for the applications to be viewable “at any time that is appropriate.”
Lightfoot questioned the emphasis on confidentiality in the discussion. Mexicotte commented that over her years on the board, she has witnessed some mistakes – a casual comment, even an eye roll, she said – that demonstrate how “even a small risk can get away from us.” She reminded the board that any deviation from the agreed-upon process could have severe consequences – the board could lose credibility, the timeline could be jeopardized and Robert Allen might not be willing to stay on as interim superintendent of AAPS for another year, or top candidates might not apply. Mexicotte reiterated that the board needs to do everything it can to “move forward with camaraderie and trust, and get the best candidates.”
Both Stead and Bill Newman from the search firm made final arguments against the motion to allow access. Newman reiterated that preventing trustees from viewing all the applications is a way to protect the board. If there is a leak, he said, and the board does not have access to the full candidate pool, “we can say, ‘It did not come from the board … Perhaps it came from our vetting process of the candidate, or the candidate themselves.’”
Stead restated her concern that a truly excellent candidate – who is doing a great job, loves his or her district, and is well-compensated – might perceive the risk of applying to AAPS as more than he or she is willing to bear. She spoke to Mexicotte directly, saying, “I hear you when you say you want to do everything you can to get the best candidates, but this feels like not doing everything we can.”
Mexicotte responded, “I want the best candidates, and a unified board supporting them.” She then re-read the motion with its amended language, Thomas seconded the proposal, and the board voted.
Outcome: The vote on Lightfoot’s motion to allow trustees to review the entire applicant pool at any time that is appropriate in the process – under the constraints of Ray & Associates maintaining legal ownership of the applications, and while maintaining confidentiality – passed 5 to 2. The motion also prohibits board members from introducing specific names from the candidate pool to the board for consideration, but allows a majority of the board to request an additional review of the candidate pool by Ray & Associates, if it is felt that the selection criteria were misapplied. Baskett, Lightfoot, Mexicotte, Thomas, and Nelson voted in favor of the motion. Patalan and Stead voted against it.
Mexicotte thanked her colleagues for the thought and care they put into the issue, and acknowledged that “this was difficult.”
Newman asked for clarification about how the board would ask for additional review, and Mexicotte responded, “Based on the application of our criteria, we might send you back to the pool to collect more of a certain kind of candidate, while agreeing to extend the timeline as necessary.”
Nelson added that Mexicotte has been designated Ray & Associates’ contact member on the board, and that the search firm should not respond to requests from individual trustees. Mexicotte concurred, “This motion says we will only send them back to the pool by majority vote, and only based on the criteria.”
Lightfoot closed the discussion by saying that she was frustrated with the conversation that had taken place, in particular the implication that “Simone has this plan to pick her own people.” The board’s discussion had felt “condescending, like there are children being talked to,” she concluded.
Review of Community Input
Newman presented the board with a set of themes that emerged from the public meetings held, and surveys completed to aid in developing the candidate profile.
Community Input: Public Meeting Themes
Newman presented 10 main themes that had emerged in at least three or four of the 12 public meetings held to solicit input for the candidate profile:
- Ann Arbor has excellent resources;
- Schools have strong community support, and the community has high expectations of schools;
- AAPS has a great reputation, though some see the district as “coasting;”
- There is universal concern regarding the budget and possible upcoming cuts;
- The new superintendent will need strong academic credentials, and should be decisive, inclusive, a strong communicator and listener, a visionary, and a risk taker;
- Progress in closing the achievement gap has been too slow, and the focus of efforts too narrow (AAPS should include closing special education disparities as well as those along racial or socioeconomic lines);
- Differentiated instruction and strategic plan initiatives are positive steps in the right direction for the district;
- The new superintendent will need a track record of successful negotiations with organized labor;
- Accountability is highly desired throughout the district, and closer management is welcomed if effective; and
- The new superintendent will need to be visible, accessible, and engaged in the community.
Lightfoot pointed out that some of the characteristics sought by the community that she heard at the community meeting she attended were not represented in this list. Newman responded that specific characteristics recommended by Ray & Associates to be included in the promotional materials would be presented later. Mexicotte also pointed out that some characteristics may be embedded in other themes, such as the idea that differentiated instruction requires that teachers be culturally competent.
Nelson asked if there were other school districts that Newman knew of that operated on a management model like a university, with a president taking care of outside matters, and a provost managing the academic programs. Newman said there are some districts in which superintendents teach, others in which they hire a cabinet to run things and focus on the running the business of keeping the school in the forefront of the community. Newman said there are successful districts at both ends of the spectrum.
Baskett asked how the themes were gleaned from the meetings, and Newman responded that the themes were ideas that came up in more than one community meeting, usually in three or four.
Patalan asked if the survey data was included in the themes, and Newman said it was not.
Community Input: Survey Data
Newman presented a spreadsheet summarizing the results of the survey completed by community members at the forums or online. He noted that the goal of the survey was to whittle down 33 qualities often desired in superintendents to the 10 or so most desired by the AAPS community. The 10 will be included in a promotional flyer advertising the superintendent position.
A total of 257 surveys were completed – 101 at community forums, and 156 online. Newman noted that having the survey online likely contributed to the fact that not everyone who attended a forum completed a survey there.
The surveys had been color-coded by community group, so that the opinions of each set of stakeholders could be more clearly identified during the analysis. Baskett noted that many of the participants at the Black Parents Student Support Group (BPSSG) forum did not want their responses to be identifiable as being from that group and chose instead to complete the survey online to stay anonymous. Mexicotte responded that color-coding the surveys had been done on request of the groups participating, including the BPSSG.
The board reviewed the spreadsheet, and Newman walked them through how to compare the rankings of each characteristic by different groups. For example, the characteristic “Has leadership skills to respond to the challenges of ethnic and cultural diversity” was highly ranked by almost all constituent groups, making it the highest ranked quality overall. Newman noted that this fact “says something unique about this district.”
Nelson expressed relief that most of the characteristics ranked highly by the board were also ranked highly by the community.
Newman suggested that the large volume of comments that people added at the end of their surveys could not be analyzed efficiently enough to be worked into the promotional flyer. He encouraged board members to read all the comments, and to use them to begin crafting interview questions for candidates around specific topics of concern to the community. Mexicotte suggested a question format such as, “How have you responded to this issue in your district, since it’s a big deal here?”
Newman said the board would also receive guidance directly from Ray & Associates on crafting interview questions, and would receive customized questions a couple of weeks before the interviews for review. Any other questions the board crafts in response to the survey comments need to be prepared for the evening that Ray & Associates presents the list of semi-finalists for discussion and review.
Community Input: Recommended Superintendent Profile
Newman then presented a list of the highest-ranked characteristics for board approval, and explained that, once approved, they would be added to the promotional flyer being distributed to advertise the superintendent position. The board suggested a couple of slight wording changes, and then approved the following list of characteristics:
- Inspires trust, has high levels of self-confidence and optimism, and models high standards of integrity and personal performance;
- Possesses the leadership skills required to respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community;
- Possesses ability to enhance student performance, especially in identifying and closing or narrowing the gaps in student achievement;
- Is a strong communicator – speaking, listening, and writing – and will listen to input, but is a decision-maker;
- Is strongly committed to a “student-first” philosophy in all decisions;
- Possesses excellent people skills and presents a positive image of the district;
- Has experience in the management of district resources and sound fiscal procedures;
- Has knowledge of emerging research and best practice in the area of curriculum/instructional design and practice;
- Has demonstrated strong leadership skills in previous positions;
- Is able to build consensus and commitment among individuals and groups with emphasis on parent involvement; and
- Is able to delegate authority appropriately while maintaining accountability.
Finalization of Materials, Timeline
Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, presented the board with a draft promotional flyer for the superintendent position, and the board took a few minutes to read through it. The one-page, double-sided flyer contained sections on the AAPS mission, schools, staff, budget, and student achievement, as well as a description of the city of Ann Arbor, the superintendent profile as just approved, and information on job requirements, compensation package, and application process.
Newman suggested that the board consider how much information to include on the flyer versus how much to expect candidates to research the district on their own. In general, board members commented that they were pleased with the amount of background information on the flyer, and felt that it left enough unsaid to be teased out during the interview process.
Trustees suggested a few minor additions, such as highlighting the district’s acknowledgment of gaps in achievement among groups of students, and commitment to closing such gaps. They also suggested giving a more detailed description of the diversity of the student body in multiple dimensions.
Mexicotte moved that the board direct Margolis to make the changes as suggested and then send it out. The flyer as amended was approved unanimously.
The board had few questions or comments on the application form proposed by Ray & Associates before approving it. They asked that the wording being reviewed by legal counsel, and agreed to accept electronic signatures to facilitate ease of applying. The full position posting on Ray & Associates website includes the application form approved by the board.
Finally, the search timeline was slightly amended to align the final two meetings with the search firm with days when the board was already scheduled to meet. The timeline was then approved.
Items from the Board – Youth Voice
Mexicotte noted that youth who participated in the superintendent candidate profile, as well as other youth with whom she has worked, have expressed interest in having more of a voice in the district. She suggested that one of the committees should consider exploring models for incorporating more of the “youth voice” in the board’s work, such as having a youth advisory council. Baskett noted that some other school boards have a youth member, though she said this would not be the right time to consider such an arrangement in AAPS due to the superintendent search. Patalan added that when she was co-chairing a PTSO, the other co-chair was a student, and it worked well.
Newman confirmed that youth who were part of the community forums consistently expressed wanting to have more access to the superintendent. Mexicotte mentioned that one model would be to direct the superintendent to work directly with a group of students.
Neither standing board committee committed to working on the issue at this meeting.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Susan Baskett, secretary Andy Thomas (by speakerphone), treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, Simone Lightfoot, and Christine Stead. Also present was Robert Allen, interim superintendent of AAPS; Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications; and Bill Newman of Ray & Associates.
Next regular meeting: Nov. 17, 2010, 7 p.m., at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, with an AAPS Education Foundation donor reception held immediately before the meeting at 6:30 p.m. [confirm date]