Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Nov. 17, 2010): Wednesday’s school board meeting opened with a standing-room only crowd that flowed out of the boardroom and into the hall. Most of the audience attended in support of a teacher who was put on administrative leave in August and is being investigated by the district. But there was also a good showing to cheer on Thurston’s 5th grade choir, which opened the meeting with a four-song performance. Another contingent attended to represent Roberto Clemente Student Development Center during its annual report to the board.
The Clemente report was the final part of an annual high school update, covering the district’s three alternative high schools, and will be reported in a separate, forthcoming Chronicle article.
In response to criticism and questions received from the community, the board also defended its decision to set the incoming superintendent’s salary in the range of $245,000, as well as other aspects of the superintendent search.
The board also discussed some of the financial challenges currently faced by the district following the annual audit report, in light of dwindling state funding for education. And they thanked the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, which will be providing $300,000 in grants to AAPS this school year from money raised through its One Million Reasons campaign.
Proposed Superintendent Salary: Board Response to Criticism
During public commentary, Terese Olson spoke in response to the board’s decision earlier this month to set the incoming superintendent’s salary in the range of $245,000. Olson’s concern was the negative impact that at 36% raise will have on the support and cooperation the new superintendent will receive from the community. Calling the decision a “glaring error in judgment,” Olson pointed to the close nature of the board’s vote (4-3), and argued that such a salary increase gambles with the goodwill of the community, and risks public outrage. She urged the board to reconsider and reverse its decision.
Board president Deb Mexicotte and other trustees responded to concerns such as Olson’s that they had received from community members since finalizing the superintendent profile and other aspects of the search process at a special meeting on Nov. 3.
Mexicotte began by sharing her rationale for proposing to set the salary where she did. Saying that “this is not the time for a competent manager, but for a visionary leader,” she argued that the salary as it was set will attract the best pool of candidates possible from a national search.
She reiterated that the board is hoping to attract sitting superintendents who have the depth of experience necessary to address the district’s budget issues, close the achievement gaps, and push forward with the many new initiatives put in place, and that the proposed salary is an average salary for superintendents in university towns similar to Ann Arbor. She also noted that though Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County may be attractive, “relocation to Michigan might be a harder sell.”
Mexicotte also argued that the incoming superintendent’s salary needs to be set with the next decade in mind. “During the next 10 years,” she said, “the likelihood of a raise is very small. A salary in the range of $245,000 is a fair salary.” Finally, she argued that disagreeing about the salary was not a reason not to support the new superintendent. “We will support our new superintendent as a community because we need that person to succeed.”
Trustee Christine Stead referenced additional comments made on AnnArbor.com which indicated that it had been unclear as to when the salary would be set. Stead argued that setting the salary was a posted agenda item for the Nov. 3 meeting. She also responded to comments made by local radio host Lucy Ann Lance, who questioned why a salary would be set without a specific candidate in mind. Stead stated that setting a target salary is a normal part of a search process, and that the final salary offered would be adjusted based on the candidate chosen.
Regarding use of the search firm in the process, Mexicotte clarified that all decision-making authority rests with the board: “They are helping us with the work, and advising us in the process, but the board will make the final decision about finalists and the successful candidate.” Trustee Andy Thomas added that the firm is being paid a set fee, not a percentage of the incoming superintendent’s salary – as comments made on AnnArbor.com had incorrectly stated. Lastly, trustee Irene Patalan clarified that Ray & Associates is conducting a candidate search specific to criteria laid out by the AAPS community, and that it “does not have a pool of candidates readily available at its fingertips.”
AAPS 2009-10 Financial Audit
An annual financial audit is required of all school districts by the state of Michigan. The AAPS auditor, Eric Fromberg, a partner at Plante & Moran, presented a summary of the district’s audits for the 2009-10 fiscal year as a first briefing item at this meeting. Separate audits are required for the federal funds the district receives, as well as for the sinking fund and the bond fund, so five separate programs were audited in total.
For background on how public schools in Michigan are funded, see Chronicle coverage: “Does It Take a Millage?”
Fromberg began by congratulating the district, saying, “You get an ‘A.’ Not everybody gets to hear that – it’s something you should take pride in.” He noted that there are no issues of concern that are related to the district’s control processes regarding financial information. That means that the information being used to make financial decisions is reliable. He also applauded the district for being self-insured, which he argued generally provides good value, and for reducing their obligations to retirees by capping what will be paid out upon retirement.
He then briefly presented some key numbers from the audit, highlighting what he called “the big challenge” graph. The graph showed the decline in projected state revenues against the projected expenditures of the district’s general fund. The auditor argued that the financial stresses in Michigan are unparalleled since he began auditing schools in 1983.
As reasons for the disparity between revenue and expenditures, Fromberg acknowledged the following: 1) the loss of 20j funding last year, which has supplemented the state foundation allowance since the passage of Proposal A in 1994; and, 2) increases to the employer-required retirement contributions and state retirement incentives. Fromberg also noted that enrollment in the district declined from 2007 until this year, causing a decrease in the district’s foundation allowance, and that $6 million out of the $20 million special education millage is up for renewal this coming spring. He reminded the board that if the special education millage does not pass, the district will be obligated to fund special education services with money from the general fund.
Fromberg cautioned, “You will have continue to think creatively about how to get the cost line closer to the revenue line.”
Audit: Board Questions and Response
Trustee Christine Stead asked why the 2011 revenue showed an increase, and Fromberg answered that it was because of increased enrollment.
Trustee Glenn Nelson thanked Robert Allen, AAPS interim superintendent, and the finance staff, saying it was wonderful to have this kind of audit and recognition. Fromberg concurred, saying that “Nancy [Hoover, AAPS director of finance] works tirelessly!”
Nelson also pointed out that with state support for education decreasing, a major transformation of Michigan’s financing of education has occurred. AAPS revenue from local sources amounts to 52% of funding, he noted, up from 41% in 2001. Nelson stated, “We in this district have an exciting vision of what education can be for our students and our community, and the point I want to make is not to bash the state. The point is to continue to find ways in our local area to support education, including the countywide millages.”
Stead noted that one of the audit’s recommendations was to levy school taxes in the summer only, and she asked whether there was any negative impact to moving to a summer-only levy. Fromberg explained that getting the money earlier would allow AAPS increased liquidity. Conversely, he noted, taxpayers would have to learn to deal with the change in cash flow, but for those who escrow, there would not be a significant change.
Stead also asked if the district should expect to have to borrow money this year to manage its summer cash flow, given that fund equity has declined to 8.3%. Fromberg answered that Hoover and Allen are monitoring that very closely, and that it’s likely that the district will not need to borrow funds, but “your window of opportunity is getting very narrow.”
The board then asked about the possible return of 20j funding, and Fromberg expressed his lack of ability to predict whether that would ever occur given the number of recent changes in Michigan’s executive and legislative branch representatives: “I’m confident that I don’t know.”
Saying that the district took an “inordinate hit” last year, Stead expressed frustration at the possibility that the state is not considering restoring the 20j funding, and asserted that without it, AAPS needs to revisit the option of levying locally.
Fromberg agreed that without the 20j revenue source, the district should be allowed to solicit money locally. He explained that the 20j funding was created as a way for 20j districts to receive their full foundation allowance, once Proposal A capped the allowance at the rate of inflation. Districts with higher property taxes were, therefore, not receiving all of their promised foundation allowance, and so 20j was created to give those districts the remaining amount over the cap. However, now the state has decided to cut 20j money since it was not required as part of Proposal A.
Deb Mexicotte argued, “It isn’t the case that the 20j money fell like manna from heaven. We pay additional mils and that money goes to the state, and then through some magical process, some of it came back to the donor districts.” Our millage rates have not changed, she continued, and so now we’re just donating money to the state.
The removal of 20j funding is a violation of the agreement set forth in Proposal A, Mexicotte asserted. “We are now a donor district with no recourse to replace those funds.” The 20j compromise was integral to getting Proposal A passed, Mexicotte reiterated, arguing that it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Stead added, “They tried to pass it for 20 years. We have always been a donor district … Should 20j funding not get restored, the degree to which we are a donor district just gets worse.”
Allen responded that the finance staff is planning to add a fourth amendment cycle to the budget process so that changes that occur during May and June can allow the district to make any necessary adjustments just before the final budget is passed. He also publicly thanked Hoover and the finance staff for their efforts.
Outcome: Approval of the annual financial report came to the board as a first briefing item at this meeting, and will be considered a second time at the next regular board meeting.
Public Comment: Huron High School Orchestra Director
The meeting saw extensive public commentary regarding Christopher Mark, an AAPS orchestra teacher who was placed on administrative leave in August 2010, according to Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications. Margolis said that the district has been investigating Mark since he was put on leave regarding an undisclosed matter, and that the district’s inquiry was nearly complete.
Twelve people – four current students, four alumni, and four parents – addressed the board on this issue. The students spoke of how Mr. Mark single-handedly turned the Huron orchestra program into an award-winning enterprise. They shared personal stories of how he had helped them to develop confidence in their abilities, and a passion for music. And, mostly, they spoke of his integrity, honor, and leadership. Their comments included references to Mark as “the head of our family,” “the source of our joy,” and “his reverence.” The students also presented the board with a stack of letters three inches high, written by students in support of Mark, and pleaded with the board, “Bring back our leader.”
The alumni praised Mark for being an important part of who they became as people. All four attributed the continued presence of music in their lives to Mark, and credited him with building a community in which students bonded over music. “His passion for music,” one asserted, “inspired great things.”
The parents each spoke of Mark as an amazing educator who lead students to believe in their own musicianship, while helping the orchestra program to grow in many ways. They spoke of how he made a difference in their children’s lives, credited him with leading their children to receive notable music scholarships, and argued that he would be difficult to replace. One parent, herself an educator, pointed out the outpouring of support Mark has received, saying, “I only dream that a small fraction of my students would do for me such a testimonial as these have.” They implored the board to take all facts into consideration during Mark’s investigation. One added, “If there is room for benefit of the doubt, I hope you will grant that to him.”
Mexicotte thanked the speakers, saying she was proud of the students who spoke, and noting, “It can be difficult to speak in public and to stand up for what you believe in.”
AAPS Educational Foundation Grant Awards
Robert Allen introduced Wendy Correll of the AAPS Educational Foundation (AAPSEF), and thanked her for the $22,000 in teacher grants awarded to AAPS so far this year from the AAPSEF.
Correll added that the $22,000 is only part of the $300,000 in funding that will be awarded this school year due to the success of the foundation’s recent One Million Reasons campaign. She added that the remaining awards will include funding for:
- Tributes to retiring staff who get to designate use of those funds
- The Village Fund
- The Karen Thomas Memorial Fund
- Disability awareness workshops
- Elementary enrichment coordinators
- Environmental science programs
- Plan & Explore testing
- 5th grade music, and other initiatives
Correll said that the funding is being distributed according to donor designation, and that the AAPSEF is committed to allocating all funds from the campaign this academic year. She acknowledged that while private funding is not the sole solution to supporting public education, it is a collaboration.
Board members expressed appreciation for the AAPSEF as a local source for this critical revenue, and for “the people in Ann Arbor who stepped up to make it a little bit better for all of our students.”
Outcome: The AAPSEF 2010-11 grant awards came to the board as a first briefing item, and will be scheduled for approval after a second briefing at the next regular board meeting.
Pioneer Computer Lab
Joyce Hunter, AAPS assistant superintendent of secondary instruction, requested board approval to fund the replacement of 25 Dell computers at Pioneer High School for a total cost of $28,382.50. She noted that the funds to purchase these computers will come from a Perkins grant, and added that the district’s goal is to upgrade one computer lab per year.
The board clarified that the computers would be for a lab at Pioneer, not Huron as the meeting’s agenda had stated, and that the “shelf life” of computers is roughly seven years.
Outcome: This was the first briefing on replacing these computers. Approval of this proposal will be scheduled to occur after a second briefing at the next regular board meeting.
At each meeting, the board invites reports from six associations: the Youth Senate, the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee on Special Education (AAPAC), the Parent-Teacher-Organization Council (PTOC), the Black Parents Student Support Group (BPSSG), the Ann Arbor Administrators Association (AAAA), and the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA). At the Nov. 17 meeting, the board heard reports from the Youth Senate, the BPSSG, the PTOC, the AAAA, and the AAEA.
Nikila Lakshmanan reported for the Youth Senate, and began by summarizing the qualities that students are looking for in the new superintendent. She then asserted that the board needs to maintain creative and fulfilling learning experiences for students in the midst of budget cuts and funding uncertainty. Lakshmanan suggested in particular that students would benefit from attending more classes in college formats, such as larger lectures, and open discussions.
Black Parents Student Support Group (BPSSG)
Sylvia Nesmith reported for the BPSSG, and began by congratulating the NAACP’s Freedom Fund scholars. She thanked the board for asking the BPSSG to co-host a superintendent search forum, and reiterated some of the threads of the conversation shared at the forum. She also noted that there was a concern that the input from various constituent groups might not be considered equally in the search process.
The goals and concerns being addressed by the BPSSG this year, Nesmith said, include: lack of positive black history in curriculum, lack of black male teachers, need for discipline monitoring, need more communication with black parents, and easier ability to have children switched out of classes if the class environment is not working well for them.
Nesmith noted appreciation for the district’s recent initiatives to update the elementary social studies curriculum to be more inclusive of African and African-American history. She appealed to the board and district administration to solicit additional input from community members with applicable knowledge before that supplement is integrated, as there were some items that the BPSSG felt were left out and should be included in the curriculum.
Amy Pachera reported that the PTOC will offer officer training in conjunction with the NEW Center. In February, she noted, there will be a second round of treasurer training. Noting the PTOC’s continued commitment to share practices and level resources, Pachera reported that it will be hosting round robins on enrichment activities, and fundraising strategies during which each school can share its best ideas with other schools. Lastly, she noted that the PTOC’s advocacy committee is currently setting up meetings with newly elected state representatives.
Ann Arbor Administrators Association (AAAA)
Mike Madison, principal at Dicken Elementary, reported for the AAAA. He noted that principals are currently being briefed on the district’s achievement plan, and stand ready to implement it. “We too want to close the achievement gap,” he stated. Madison then gave brief updates on recent successes and events from a number of specific schools.
Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA)
Teachers’ union president Brit Satchwell began his report by expressing his appreciation of the “celebration of excellence in the testimony regarding what a teacher in AAPS has meant” to those who spoke during public commentary.
He then reported his attendance at a recent union conference, and argued that compared to districts in other states, Michigan is “in this bubble of dark ages” when it comes to doing meaningful teacher evaluations, and creating performance-based compensation systems. He pointed out that legislation currently pending in the state legislature would eliminate teacher tenure, which he asserted is “nothing more than due process.” The problem, he said, is the legal costs of getting rid of bad teachers, and noted that taking a case before an administrative law judge costs over $100,000. Satchwell argued that tenure is not the problem, but the administrative costs associated with removal of ineffective teachers should be addressed.
Satchwell also spoke in support of the Mitchell-Scarlett lab school being created as a partnership between AAPS and the University of Michigan. Calling the initiative a “gap attack,” Satchwell argued that stretching the school year builds time to work better with students who need extra support, and that the program would create meaningful professional development opportunities for district staff. “This would build space so people can jump off the hamster wheel and do real reform,” he argued, “It’s putting 120 pounds of quality into 80-pound bag.”
Lastly, Satchwell commented on the proposed superintendent salary, saying that it’s important that the board’s decision honors the sacrifices people have made in this district. “It’s going to hang out there as a huge emotional issue,” he warned. “You’d be honoring all of your employees in the community to dial that number down.”
Board Committee Reports
The board has two standing committees. The planning committee consists of: Christine Stead (chair), Susan Baskett, and Irene Patalan; the performance committee consists of: Glenn Nelson (chair), Simone Lightfoot, and Andy Thomas. Board president Deb Mexicotte sits on neither committee.
Nelson reported that the performance committee met on Nov. 16. At that meeting, they discussed revisions to the teacher evaluation process that’s being considered. The committee recognized that these revisions are a very important part of how AAPS continuously improves as a district, and that evaluations provide key input to decide whether to grant tenure to individual teachers. The committee had considerable discussion, he said, and “everyone agrees that teachers should be helped to achieve at their full potential.” A key issue yet to be decided in the evaluation process, Nelson noted, is how to incorporate student growth as an indicator of teacher effectiveness. He also pointed out that the revised evaluation system will need to be in place by January 2011, but that implementation could be delayed by pending state legislation.
Nelson noted that his committee had had a very lively, intense discussion on the financial audit, during which Thomas questioned the current level of reserves, and Lightfoot asked whether AAPS should adjust its procedures to be more conservative.
Stead reported that the planning committee met on Nov. 4, and heard a report from the UM Ross Business School students who had performed a benchmarking analysis of schools similar to AAPS. Stead said the analysis will be an important piece of information as the district begins to review its strategic plan, and upcoming special education millage. The planning committee, she said, is also looking at education reform, and “trying to leverage some of the thinking that’s gone on in many different ways” to share countywide by January or February. Lastly, Stead said her committee plans to review the impact that charter schools have on education funding in the state of Michigan. “We believe there is a funding and efficiency context with which to craft legislation regarding charter schools,” she argued.
Allen congratulated Community High School for receiving the Pacemaker journalism award, and the 102 high school scholars honored at this year’s Freedom Fund dinner. He noted that Skyline High School inducted 89 students into its new chapter of the National Honor Society, and commended Huron’s field hockey team for bringing the district a state championship. Among additional accolades, Allen also thanked the AAPSEF again for the $21,000 of grants awarded to AAPS teachers this year.
Consent Agenda Approved
After the removal of a set of minutes for clarification of included dates, the meeting’s brief consent agenda was approved. It included acceptance of the 2010-11 grant awards, as presented for first briefing at the last regular board meeting. The only comment made at this meeting’s second briefing was by Stead, who noted that the decline in grant funding from the state was something that her committee would continue to focus on. The consent agenda also included additional minutes, and gift offers.
Board Appointments to Strategic Planning Process
Mexicotte asked for board members to volunteer to be a direct part of the next phase of the district’s strategic planning process, as requested by interim superintendent Allen. Allen noted that the upcoming planning sessions would take place on Dec. 1 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Dec. 2 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Based on self-nominations, and after confirming with Nelson that he would not feel slighted about not being included this time, Mexicotte appointed Patalan, Stead, and Thomas to the strategic planning team.
Items from the Board
Thomas offered condolences to AAPS executive director of physical properties, Randy Trent, and his family on the death of Trent’s father.
Nelson reported that he and Lightfoot were delegates at the statewide Michigan Association of School Boards conference, and that it was a worthwhile experience. He noted that they both voted to change MASB bylaws to increase representation on the MASB board from districts that are struggling with achievement issues, but that the motion failed.
Baskett requested that Ray & Associates, the consulting firm that’s leading the superintendent search, advise the board about what to consider in the compensation package beyond salary and benefits, and noted that it does not have to be the same as what was offered to former superintendent Todd Roberts. She requested that board member phone numbers be added back to the board’s website. She also requested that a standard report be brought to the board by the Student Intervention and Support Services team, describing the students who currently use special education services, or who are on 504 plans. Such 504 plans grant students temporary learning accommodations for such reasons as a broken arm, or other medical issues.
Mexicotte asked the trustees to be sure to complete and return an evaluation of the board requested by Ray & Associates as part of the search process. She noted that this is a necessary step to fulfilling the district’s obligation to prepare itself to make the new superintendent successful, and required to receive the search firm’s multi-year guarantee. Thomas noted that he “did not appreciate the significance of that document,” and requested another copy. Mexicotte asked board secretary Amy Osinski to send additional copies to all trustees, and reminded them that the forms are due back to Osinski by Dec. 3.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Susan Baskett, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, Christine Stead, and Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Robert Allen, interim superintendent of AAPS.
Next regular meeting: Dec. 8, 2010, 7 p.m., at the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]