Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Dec. 15, 2010): At Wednesday’s meeting, the AAPS board of education voted unanimously to pursue tenure charges against two teachers – high school orchestra teacher Christopher Mark and elementary classroom teacher William Harris.
In neither case did the board explain its reasoning or share any details of their investigation. However, public commentary about Mark’s case revealed the board’s concern that Mark had engaged in a possibly inappropriate relationship with a woman when she was a student at Huron High School five years ago. Mark and the woman are currently dating.
Also at the meeting, AAPS interim superintendent Robert Allen presented a draft of proposed changes to the district’s strategic plan. Three of the eight original action teams for the plan, each centered on a core strategy, have been asked to reconvene from January to March of 2011 to clarify the focus of their work in light of the proposed changes. Finalized updates to the strategic plan will be presented in April 2011 for board approval.
A number of additional actions were taken by the board at the meeting, including adoption of a set of principles to be used in drafting education reform legislation. The principles will now be shared with other local districts in the hopes of presenting a unified set of suggestions to legislative representatives early in 2011.
In the state of Michigan, after four years of achieving satisfactory performance evaluations, a teacher receives tenure. This means that for the teacher to be demoted or discharged, the board must pursue charges with the Michigan State Tenure Commission (MSTC). An administrative law judge then hears the case, and makes a determination about the teacher’s continued employment with the district that brought the charges. Before the board were two resolutions to proceed with tenure changes – one for Christopher Mark and the other for William Harris. Their cases are not connected.
Tenure Charges: Public Commentary
Ten people made public comments regarding Mark. Five parents, three students, and Mark’s attorney, Nick Roumel, spoke in support of him.
Parents challenged the board to be confident in their assessment of Mark’s behavior, and not to “rush to judgment.” They likened the district’s investigation to a “witch hunt,” and a “vendetta” brought by the parents of the former Huron student who Mark is now dating. Yi Keep added that there are ethno-cultural issues at play, contending that the former student’s parents are using Mark as a “pawn” to control their daughter’s behavior.
Students defended Mark’s behavior, saying that his spending significant time alone with individual students was not unusual, and arguing that this is “not inappropriate student-teacher conduct, but friendship.” One added, “A lot of us don’t want to talk to our parents, but we will talk to Mr. Mark.”
Another implored the board to consider the testimony of the many students who have spoken in support of Mark, and advised, “Amazing high school teachers can change lives. So can their absence.”
Roumel, himself a former member of the AAPS board of education from 1994-2000, stressed that Mark broke no laws or rules, but “acted from the heart” to help a distressed student. “If you believe some of his actions were not appropriate, it’s up to you to put some guidelines in place, because there were none.” Roumel challenged the board to “punish [Mark], but it doesn’t have to be the death penalty.” He suggested, “We can satisfy everybody’s concerns … I look forward to trying to reach that resolution with you.”
In contrast, Marian Faupel, an attorney and former member of the Saline Area Schools board of education, encouraged the board to follow the law. She cautioned, “The children of this district rely on you and your wisdom … The past is a good predictor of the future … If [Mark] admitted to the challenged conduct, but does not see a problem with it, there is no chance of rehabilitation.” As Faupel spoke, hisses from the audience crescendoed until board president Deb Mexicotte, who chairs the meetings, admonished the gathering to afford Faupel the courtesy due all speakers.
Tenure Charges: Two AAPS Teachers
At Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted to proceed with filing tenure charges against Christopher Mark and William Harris. For now, both Mark and Harris remain on paid administrative leave. Ultimately, their continued employment with AAPS will be based on the MSTC rulings, if they file an appeal of the board’s decision to the MSTC. If they do not file an appeal, each will be automatically terminated as an AAPS employee 20 days after receiving the board’s decision.
Several of Mark’s supporters had also addressed the school board at their Nov. 17, 2010 meeting. A few agenda items before the vote on the tenure resolutions on Dec. 15, the board recessed to a closed, executive session for 43 minutes for the purpose of discussing attorney-client privileged communication. As board members began to stand up and leave the room, one of Mark’s supporters questioned the board’s action, calling out, “Will you be back?” Board president Deb Mexicotte answered that yes, they would return to complete the agenda. The supporter’s reply: “We’ll be here.”
Following the vote to proceed with tenure charges against Mark, many students began crying, and some parents glared at the board members as they filed out, one offering bitterly, “Justice has been done!” Some consoled each other, saying, “It’s not over.” Mark, who had been sitting hand in hand with his girlfriend during the vote, offered a sarcastic, “Thank you,” to the board as he left the room.
After the board heard and voted on the second resolution – to pursue tenure charges against Harris – Mexicotte read a statement stating that the board followed the due process afforded all Michigan teachers, and that the next step would be hearings before an administrative law judge. She closed by saying that the board would not make any further comments at that time.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to pursue tenure charges against Christopher Mark and William Harris.
Strategic Plan Update
AAPS embarked on its three-phase strategic planning process in 2007, and in late October 2010 strategic planning team members reported to the board on the successes of Phase I.
Strategic Plan: Staff Report
At Wednesday’s meeting, interim superintendent Robert Allen explained that the strategic planning team had reconvened for a two-day meeting in early December to conduct a planned review of the process this far, and to kick off Phase II.
The district’s strategic plan contains eight strategies, each directing the work of an action team made up of staff, students, administration, and community members. The primary charge of the review meetings, according to Allen, was to determine whether the work of each of the action teams was on track, needed a slight correction in focus, or should be abandoned. At the same time, the strategic planning team was asked whether any new strategies should be added to the eight already identified.
Allen reported that the team decided to continue work on the same eight strategies, but that three of the eight action teams would be asked to reconvene to clarify their focus, given language changes to their strategies suggested by the strategic planning team. He highlighted the impact of local and national economic changes in the past three years as the main reason the strategies might need to be tweaked. “We embarked on this process at the worst possible time, as we were about to enter into an economic downward spiral,” Allen said, noting that the outside facilitator working with the planning team commended the district for what it had been able to accomplish during Phase I, given the economic climate.
The strategies around which the three teams will be reconvening are:
- Strategy #1: We will create a complete educational program featuring personalized learning that realizes student aspirations and meets international standards;
- Strategy #5: We will implement a system to ensure continuous development of staff capacity; and
- Strategy #6: We will engage and inform our constituents to engender trust and support to accomplish our mission and objectives.
AAPS has put out an open call to the community to be part of these action teams. Allen noted that, though the first set of action teams met for eight months, these teams would work for only three months, from January to March of 2011. Final revisions to the strategic plan will then come before the board in April of 2011 for approval.
In addition to reviewing the strategies, the planning team also analyzed the strategic plan’s belief statements, mission statement, and objectives. Allen presented the draft of proposed language changes to the belief statements and objectives. Of the mission statement’s review, he said, “We went over every word, but did not reach any consensus as to what needs to be changed … Should [the mission statement] be something you can fit on a pencil or recite from memory, or should it be comprehensive? … We are still working on that.”
Noting that approximately one-third of the planning team members are new to the process, Allen suggested that the time spent on reviewing the beliefs and mission statement was particularly useful for them to “gain a high level of understanding as to what was behind all those words.”
Finally, Allen reviewed the general dynamics of the process, suggesting that more emphasis should be placed on communicating about the strategic plan internally. He asked four members of the strategic planning team – Sylvia Nesmith, chair of the Black Parents Student Support Group; former AAPS superintendent Scott Westerman; Alex Hassan, a junior at Huron High; and Clague principal Cindy Leaman – to share their reflections on the two-day review meeting with the board.
Nesmith noted the variety of opinions shared at the review meeting, saying, “It drove home the importance of having diversity on our planning teams, so as the district moves forward to address the needs of all of our students, it can be done with real meaning.” Hassan agreed, “You can’t just have one perspective – you need everyone’s voice to reach consensus.” He argued that the student voice in the strategic planning process was extremely important, and thanked the administration for inviting student participation.
Westerman said he was encouraged by the work of the strategic planning team so far, and asserted that the board will be impressed when they see the final product of the review in April. “We spent 20 hours together and were pretty productive,” he said. “It didn’t seem like 20 hours.”
Leaman, one of the new members on the team, called the process “challenging and provocative, with plenty of opportunities for creative expression, and the nurturing of human spirit.” She noticed the dynamic of the plan’s mission statement reflected in the review process.
After recognizing the hard work of three administrators – Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly, interim deputy superintendent of instruction, Liz Margolis, director of communications, and Jane Landefeld, director of student accounting – Allen invited board members’ comments or questions.
Strategic Plan Update: Board Response
Board members asked for some clarification on the way wording changes were presented on the slides in the presentation, and requested that future presentations include strike-throughs and underlines, rather than character color changes, to show wording that has been deleted or added, respectively.
Simone Lightfoot asked how more students could be invited to participate. Margolis said she would be recruiting students to participate on the three reconvening action teams by calling the high schools.
Irene Patalan, who had been on the original planning team, said “it broke my heart that I could not be part of this one due to other personal commitments.” She said the strategic plan has been her “guiding light” as a board member, and she thanked those who are giving of their time to keep working on it. Patalan expressed pride that the plan has yielded innovative and creative programming, even as available funds are dwindling.
Susan Baskett thanked the planning team members, and asked how new action teams members would be recruited, and when the board would be notified of who is sitting on each team.
Allen said AAPS would reach out first to the action teams’ original members, and then seek new members. Margolis added that, in addition to posting information on how to volunteer on the district’s website, AAPS will send out information to all of its parent and community groups. She also noted that she has been collecting names of community members interested in participating for the past year, and that she would follow up with them as well.
Allen noted that the teams will need to be in place by Jan. 12, because the action team leader training will take place on that day. Deb Mexicotte asked that the complete list of action team members for the three reconvening teams be included in the board packet for the next regular meeting, also scheduled for Jan. 12.
Christine Stead shared that she was honored and privileged to be a part of the strategic planning team’s review, and “to see the passion and intellect of the people of our community.” She also expressed surprise that the finance action team (team 8) did not need to be reconvened given the changing economic environment, and noted that much of the work currently being done by the board committees, including legislative reform and broadening funding sources, is the work that had been planned for by that action team.
Glenn Nelson stated that he was impressed with the process, and noted that Patalan’s “regrets turned into my joy at being able to participate.” He encouraged the community to participate by joining a reconvening action team. “If you have any inclination at all,” he said, “… come and join us. I was on an action team last time and really learned a lot.”
Andy Thomas joked that, to him, the 20 hours of meeting “seemed like 40 hours …We were trying to reach agreement on every. single. word. … It was painful, but very much worth the effort, I guess.” Mexicotte ventured that Thomas “needs to work on his trustee-speak.”
Mexicotte thanked everyone who participated, and asserted that the process has yielded some amazing results.
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.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the performance committee gave an unusually long report, embedding a presentation on enrollment data.
Nelson turned over his report to Thomas, and then Lightfoot. Thomas shared a chart created by AAPS director of student accounting Jane Landefeld, which showed student enrollment on count day by grade over time. The state of Michigan determines the official number of enrolled students in each school district by requesting that students be counted twice a year – on specific “count days” in September and February. The state uses a blended count from these two days to determine total foundation allowance allocations for each district.
The chart Thomas presented included data as far back as the 1994-95 school year. Overall this year, AAPS has 16,552 students, which is a net increase of 110 students from last year, due to new students in the WAY Washtenaw program and those who opted to attend AAPS as a school of choice. Thomas praised the district’s efforts to increase enrollment, asserting that without these new students, AAPS would have lost the equivalent of roughly $100,000 this year.
Thomas then pointed out some trends from the data presented by Landefeld. Student enrollment increases from kindergarten to first grade, then gradually declines through elementary school. Middle school enrollment is steady, and then the high school enrollment numbers show a loss of approximately 40 students per year, which is roughly equivalent to the district’s drop-out rate.
Thomas pointed out that the performance committee is also looking at the reasons why students living in the AAPS attendance boundaries choose to attend school outside the district, and what AAPS can do to bring them back. He also noted that the committee is exploring what local private schools offer, other than religious education, that AAPS is not currently offering.
Lightfoot added to the committee’s report, saying that the board will continue to tweak the district’s achievement gap plan, which is currently in draft form. She suggested that the board talk to those students who are in the gap on a regular basis. Lightfoot also acknowledged that when she came on the board, she wanted to move more expeditiously, but that now she is comfortable with moving just a little slower to “get it right.”
Mexicotte thanked the performance committee for sharing the enrollment chart, and said it can be used to debunk myths, such as a perceived drop in middle school enrollment.
Stead reported that her committee had met Dec. 9. They reviewed the strategic plan update, discussed the district’s transition to Google Mail, and reviewed an early draft of a document intended to better communicate with the community about the district’s efforts to close the achievement gap.
Next, Stead reviewed a resolution to be voted on later in the meeting for the board to adopt a set of principles on education reform. The principles were crafted by a task force of the board’s planning committee, and include ideas on appropriate funding, performance, and charter schools. The board had reviewed the principles in some depth at a study session earlier in the month. [.pdf of reform principles]
Stead asserted that this is the board’s opportunity to have a chance to change legislation, along with other districts in Washtenaw County. Once approved, the idea would be to forward these reform principles along to other local districts, and then take them to legislative representatives in February.
Mexicotte commended the set of principles put forth by the task force as “comprehensive, and forward-thinking,” asserting that “it is an excellent framework to begin a countywide and statewide discussion.” She thanked Stead for her leadership in bringing the document forward.
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 Dec. 15 meeting, the board heard reports from the Youth Senate, the AAPAC, the BPSSG, and the PTOC.
Association Reports: Youth Senate
The Youth Senate representative reported on a voting age survey taken at Huron and Pioneer high schools. The survey results indicate that most students would vote if the voting age was lowered, while also showing that most students believe that young people do not understand the full power of voting. Some students suggested that students should be able to vote at least in local decisions involving schools.
The Youth Senate also reported a shift in its philanthropic efforts at Pioneer to address poverty locally instead of globally. In particular, Pioneer will look at how poverty affects youth and the rate of homelessness in the local community.
Association Reports: AAPAC
Rick Altschuler reported for the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee on Special Education. He began by thanking the AAPS administration for its support, and said the AAPAC was pleased to learn of Elaine Brown’s technology vision. Brown is the assistant superintendent of student intervention and support services. Altschuler noted that assistive technology is important, as it is the only way for many children to access the curriculum.
He also thanked Ann Roger, the director of Special Olympics for Washtenaw and Livingston counties, for coming to the AAPAC’s December meeting in the hopes of increasing the number of children in AAPS who can join Special Olympics teams. He noted that the Special Olympics is for all persons who have a disability, and that it also offers an inclusion curriculum program called “Get Into It,” which teachers can use in their classroom for free.
Altschuler reported that parents of exceptional youth are already thinking of upcoming transitions, noting that “a great deal of care goes into helping exceptional students transition successfully from year to year.” The AAPAC, he said, is looking forward to continuing to work with AAPS administration to ensure successful transitions.
Finally, he reported that the Disability Awareness Workshops will be taking place again this year for fourth grade classes across the district. He offered a special thanks to Wendy Correll, of the AAPS Educational Foundation for help with disbursing the necessary funds to keep the program going.
Association Reports: BPSSG
Sylvia Nesmith reported for the Black Parents Student Support Group, first thanking everyone who attended the group’s meeting on Dec. 14. She reported that the BPSSG had discussed ideas on boosting their meeting attendance, and has decided to put together a brochure about themselves, along with information about scholarships and other information that might be of interest to parents and students. The brochure will be distributed at school functions, churches, and community centers. Nesmith welcomed the board’s input to the brochure’s content.
Association Reports: PTOC
In her report from the Parent-Teacher-Organization Council, Amy Pachera said that ongoing training for PTOs would continue in the new year, with treasurer training on Feb. 7 and officer training on Feb. 8. The PTO training sessions are being put on by the NEW Center, and each will cost PTOs $25, which Pachera asserted is well worth the price.
Coming up, the PTOC will hold two forums, each in a round-robin style, at which member PTOs will be able to share ideas and best practices. The January forum will be on enrichment activities, and the March forum will be on fundraising.
Pachera also reported that the PTOC advocacy committee has been busy scheduling meetings with the newly elected legislature, and encouraging other school districts to do the same. The PTOC is also participating on the board task force on education reform legislation.
Finally, she reminded the community that the PTOC is a great resource for PTOs if they have questions about issues coming up within their individual schools. The PTOC, Pachera said, can advise on issues of school funding, or help with the review of bylaws or policies.
Robert Allen reported on the successes of a set of students, teachers, and individual schools in the district. AAPS homebuilding students won a local competition, Forsythe Middle School students came in fifth in a national Knowledge Master Open competition, and many individual students have won scholarships for next year.
In addition, Allen pointed out a number of holiday service projects in play at some local elementary schools – Thurston students collected 88 coats to be distributed to those in need in Washtenaw County, Logan collected 135 paired sets of pajamas and bedtime storybooks, and Eberwhite raised over $1,000 for local families in need. Deb Mexicotte commented that Allen’s report points out how generous and competent AAPS students are, even at young ages.
Allen wished a peaceful and safe holiday season to all.
Board Action Items
There were no first briefing items at this meeting. In addition to pursuing tenure charges as described above, the board approved a number of other items at this meeting with little or no discussion.
Action Item: Consent Agenda
Outcome: After confirming that there were no questions for the second briefing on the first quarter financial report, the board unanimously approved a consent agenda consisting only of the financial report and a set of gift offers.
Action Item: Nomination of WISD Committee Representatives
Deb Mexicotte explained that the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) has a parent advisory committee that is mandated by the state to advise them on special education matters. Recently, the AAPS has not had representation on this particular advisory committee, and members of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee on Special Education asked if they could address this lack of representation by suggesting names of parents who would be willing to serve on the WISD committee.
Mexicotte asked for any discussion on the two parents nominated for this committee by the AAPAC – Scott White and Barb Byers.
Glenn Nelson applauded their willingness to serve on this committee, especially as the WISD embarks on a major change in leadership – both superintendent, Bill Miller, and assistant superintendent, Rick Leyshock, have recently announced their upcoming resignations, Nelson said – while working on renewal of the special education millage. He stated that White and Byers are excellent candidates to represent Ann Arbor, and that they are two of the people who first educated him about special education services.
Outcome: Irene Patalan and Mexicotte seconded Nelson’s enthusiasm for White and Byers, and the board voted unanimously to recommend them to WISD as new committee members.
Action Items: Education Legislation Reform Resolution
Christine Stead had presented a resolution on education reform legislation earlier in the meeting during her planning committee report. Mexicotte asked her if she had anything to add, or if the resolution was ready to bring to a vote.
Stead took the opportunity to thank the committee that had crafted the set of principles the resolution would adopt, saying that this body of work came together from the ongoing work of many people.
The only discussion was Nelson’s suggestion of a friendly amendment to reword a piece of the language on charter schools to make it more positive toward their existence in areas where the existing public schools are providing low quality education services.
Outcome: The amendment was accepted, and the board unanimously approved the education legislation reform resolution.
Action Items: Student Discipline Action
Before the board was a resolution to reinstate an unnamed student to AAPS.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously with no discussion to recommend that, as discussed in a closed hearing on Nov. 30, Student A be reinstated to AAPS, but placed in a different middle school in January 2011.
Action Item: Policy Reinstatements
Mexicotte explained that three board policies that have not yet been re-reviewed will expire at the end of the calendar year unless the board votes to extend time for their review. She moved that the board delay expiration of three policies – 3760 (Transportation), 6120 (Pilot Projects/ Innovation), and 7220 (Parent & Booster Organizations) – until March 31, 2011, to allow for their review and renewal.
Outcome: With no discussion, the board unanimously approved extending the expiration date of policies on transportation, pilot projects/innovation, and parent & booster organizations until March 31, 2011.
Mexicotte said she would like an update on the district’s special education services before the special education renewal is voted on by the community in May. She requested that Elaine Brown, AAPS assistant superintendent for student intervention and support services, provide such a report in February or March of 2011.
Items from the Board
Susan Baskett pointed out that information on board members needed to be updated on a purple card that the administration created with speaking points on it about the district. Mexicotte added that the mission statement on the same document had been truncated.
Simone Lightfoot pointed out that for her, Dec. 16 marks one year of service on the board, and that she has loved it. She thanked those who supported her initial appointment, and the electorate who voted for her this past November, saying, “It is indeed my pleasure to serve.”
Baskett also thanked the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice for its efforts to create a community-wide task force on the elimination of the district’s achievement gap. “We put out there that the community needs to pick up some of the work, and they picked that up.” In addition, Baskett reported that her fourth grade teacher made a donation to the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation in honor of Baskett’s service on the board. Baskett thanked her teacher – “the first person to introduce me to American civics.” Finally, she wished everyone a happy and safe holiday.
And with that, the board adjourned until the new year.
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: Jan. 12, 2011, 7 p.m., at the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]