Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting (March 2, 2011): The board’s decision – made at a special meeting held Saturday – to begin negotiations with Patricia Green about becoming the district’s next superintendent was preceded earlier in the week by a regular, routine meeting of the board.
At Wednesday’s regular meeting, the highlight was a presentation on the special education millage that will appear on the ballot on May 3, 2011. The proposed tax would renew an existing levy for the next seven years, and is projected to generate $14 million to support special education services in school districts across Washtenaw County. Of that amount, AAPS would be allocated around $5.7 million.
The special ed millage is not the same kind of proposal as the unsuccessful November 2009 ballot proposal – which was to levy a new, additional 2 mill tax to support general operations for districts countywide.
In addition to the presentation, the board heard its usual range of board and association reports during the meeting.
Special Education Presentation
By way of background, at its December 2010 board meeting, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) voted to place before voters a renewal of an existing tax that supports special education in all school districts in Washtenaw County. It will appear on the ballot on May 3, 2011.
The funds collected through the millage support special ed services for students with physical, mental or emotional disabilities up to age 26.
First approved in 2004 at the rate of 1 mill, the six-year millage expired after the 2010 tax season. The proposed renewal of the special ed tax, at a rate of 0.985 mill, would extend another seven years – through 2017. A tax rate of 1 mill is equivalent to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. The millage appears on tax bills under the label WISD SPEC ED.
Countywide, the millage would generate around $14 million. According to WISD, the estimated distribution among school districts in the county would look like this:
Ann Arbor $5,767,020 Chelsea 752,360 Dexter 790,300 Lincoln 1,464,120 Manchester 281,540 Milan 403,480 Saline 1,349,460 Whitmore Lake 296,100 Willow Run 542,640 Ypsilanti 2,163,000 9 Public School Academies 189,980 Total $14,000,000
Representatives from the AAPS Student Intervention and Support Services (SISS) were present at Wednesday’s meeting to update the AAPS board on the services currently being offered, their hopes for the future and to discuss the importance of the upcoming special education millage.
Special Ed: Addressing Areas of Disproportionality
Elaine Brown, assistant superintendent for SISS, began by discussing the efforts the district has made to address two areas the state had identified about two years ago as disproportional. These two areas were: (1) the disproportionate representation of specific learning disabilities and cognitive impairment; and (2) and disproportionate suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities. In a followup phone interview with The Chronicle, AAPS communications director Liz Margolis explained that “disproportional” in this context means that the state felt the district was identifying a higher number of male African American students as special education students than would be warranted based on their statistical representation in the district.
“Our mission is to ensure that every special needs student has access to, and progresses in, the general education curriculum,” Brown said, reading from the SISS mission statement at Wednesday’s meeting. “Each student with special needs will be provided appropriate supports, interventions, and strategies to afford she or he an opportunity to receive the highest quality education in the least restrictive environment.”
SISS addressed the disproportions by developing corrective action plans that focused on identifying early those students who may have academic or behavioral concerns, Brown said. The earlier identification was accomplished through an emphasis on communication between teachers, administrators and parents.
Special Ed: Corrective Action – Achievement Teams
The chief tool for increasing communication are the district’s achievement teams. Ruth Williams, the interim assistant superintendent of education, said that students with potential issues are targeted earlier through regular meetings of a school’s achievement team, which includes teachers and administrators.
After identifying students who may have potential behavioral or academic issues, teachers can use a range of solutions to attempt a remedy of the situation. These solutions, called interventions, can range from simple disciplinary tactics to regularly scheduled meetings with the student and the student’s parents.
“During these meetings, teachers discuss concerns about the student’s performance and the interventions they have tried,” Williams said. “We also invite the parents – it’s important to keep them informed about our concerns.”
This increased focus on early identification was accompanied by the creation of a database to document what efforts have been made with students, and the effectiveness of those efforts. Teachers can log information about what has and has not been effective while working with a student. This information can help other teachers make informed, data-driven decisions about the best way to deal with a student. Other than interventions, the database includes information such as a student’s test scores or discipline referrals.
“We are focused on success for all students,” Williams said. “We want to make child-centered, data-driven decisions with consistent implementation and team consensus.”
In the eyes of the state, these corrective action plans worked. As of Feb. 18, 2011, the Department of Education deemed the district to be back in compliance in the two problem areas. Brown did add that these corrective plans will help in the future as the state continues to monitor the district.
“We have to make sure we have procedures in place to ensure compliance,” Brown said. “As long as we stay up on our documentation and our compliance processes, we will be okay.”
Brown then moved to show how the district had documented its success by using achievement teams: The number of special education students identified by the district has declined. After achievement teams were implemented in 2008, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of special education students, dropping from 2,215 students in 2008 to 2,170 in 2009 and 2,094 in 2010.
This drop, Brown said, was due to earlier identification of students with potential problems, as well as providing proper support to those students.
Special Ed: Changes in Special Education Numbers
After addressing the trend of a declining special education population, Brown was quick to explain that the decreasing numbers did not mean that funding could decrease.
One segment of the district’s special education population that is increasing is the number of students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In 2010 there were 241 students with ASD, up from 154 in 2005. In addition, Brown said, supporting these students costs more, and that the trend seen in Ann Arbor is also being seen across the nation.
She added that the district was mandated to maintain their levels of funding, an issue that would be expanded on later in the discussion.
Special Ed: Technology Upgrades
Jeff Flynn, the assistive technology consultant for the district, updated the board on new technology that SISS had purchased with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – widely known as the federal stimulus bill. He also outlined a number of items that SISS was hoping to purchase, but that would have to be reviewed by the board.
Brown added that the role technology can play is immensely important.
“We need to ensure that we align our technology purchases with our curriculum and instruction,” she said. “Providing students with technology is one of the best ways to close the achievement gap.”
One of the larger purchases yet to be approved is the Kurzweil 3000, a server-based piece of software that can convert text to speech so students can be read to, along with writing and editing features. The district is currently using an earlier version of the software, and SISS is looking to purchase an updated version.
“We’re also exited about the software’s web-based licenses that allows students at home to access this support – we find that compelling and exciting,” Flynn said.
Flynn also introduced the board to the “Tap It” 42-inch touch screen monitors. These touch screens, if approved by the board, would be located at Skyline, Pioneer and Huron high schools, as well as Forsythe middle school and Haisley, Abbot, Wines and Logan elementary schools.
Trustee Susan Baskett asked why those schools were chosen to host the touch screens. Flynn replied that they were chosen because they had the groups of cognitively- and health-impaired students who would most benefit from the technology.
The touch screens can be positioned upright to be used for presentations or laid flat to be used as an interactive table for a group of students. Flynn said this technology is great for allowing autistic or cognitively impaired students to communicate with the computers.
Baskett raised concerns over the cost of some of these items, including the ongoing cost of maintenance that will come down the road.
Flynn and the other SISS representatives didn’t have specific figures for maintenance, but said they planned on bringing more specific figures to the next meeting when the board begins to review some of the larger purchases SISS is looking to make.
Special Ed: Helping Students Transition
Cassandra Benion, SISS assistant director, followed Brown by talking about how SISS helps special education students transition from a school setting to life after they graduate.
Benion started by summarizing how the district’s transition services help students enrolled in high school. She highlighted the Practical Assessment Exploration System (PAES), which has been in use for about a year. The PAES program is a research-based assessment that identifies a student’s interests, functional skills, aptitude for community-based employment and workplace strengths and weaknesses.
This program is used along with a number of events, hosted by SISS and other supporting organizations, that school officials believe address important areas of transition by outlining what services are available for special education students and their families.
Special Ed: Young Adult Programs
Benion also discussed the possibility of establishing a Young Adult Program for special needs students transitioning after high school.
YAPs serve special education students who need services after graduating high school. Students usually move into the program around the age of 20 and can be in the program until the age of 26.
Currently, YAP programs are hosted in Saline and in five other locations throughout the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.
Benion said the conversation about starting a YAP in Ann Arbor began about two years ago when parents were looking for an alternative to the program offered by WISD. She added that the WISD program is either near or at its capacity, while the YAP program in Saline offered more space and room for activities.
“Both programs have similar offerings with the exception of available space,” Benion said, adding that students in the Saline YAP are grouped into three tiers. The first tier includes students learning general life skills, the second has students learning about employment and the final tier prepares students for transitioning into society. The WISD program does not have these groups, and a program in Ann Arbor could offer local families a closer, more appealing setup, she said.
Board president Deb Mexicotte added that the parents comparing the programs in Saline and the WISD have found Saline’s program more appealing.
“I believe that many of the parents opted for that site based on evaluations of the WISD’s sites,” she said. “In looking at a range of choices, people are looking for sites like the Saline model.”
Benion said that the next step to be tackled would be finding a suitable location. Representatives from the SISS have visited sites, finding that school buildings provide the best venues. Saline’s program is housed in the former high school, and the WISD has programs at locations such as Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College.
Once a site is secured, Benion said that discussions can start about program details, such as what sorts of resources will be required.
Special Ed: Importance of the Special Education Millage
After the presentation, much of the trustees’ response centered on how important passage of the upcoming special education millage is, emphasizing that funding these initiatives is mandatory, and not doing so would require the funds to come from cuts elsewhere in the district.
Special Ed: Budget Breakdown
Trustee Glenn Nelson began by outlining the specific figures the district is dealing with and how much of an impact the millage would have. Brown had supplied a breakdown of the AAPS special education costs, which amounted to just over $37 million. Nelson added in other costs related to meeting federal guidelines, bringing the total to roughly $40 million.
Nelson then explained the extensive process of receiving reimbursement from federal and state levels of government. The district is reimbursed for portions of everything – from money spent on transportation to general costs, reducing the final cost.
“It’s important to use the net amount, not the gross amount, when thinking about costs,” he said.
In 2010, the district was left with $4 million to pay from the general fund after going through the reimbursement process. Nelson connected these figures to the impact of the upcoming vote in May to support special education.
“The millage will produce almost $6 million a year,” Nelson said. [Nelson's figure is roughly the amount that would be allocated just to AAPS – countywide, it would generate around $14 million.] “Without the millage, our costs would have been more like $10 million rather than $4 million, so that we would have $6 million less in the general fund for other purposes.”
Nelson went on to say that providing this support is mandatory, and funding for special education services could not decrease.
“This mandate that we must maintain the funding effort has a financial hammer,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we don’t get all the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds from the federal government. We wouldn’t be cutting expenditures, because we’d be cutting revenues too.”
Trustee Andy Thomas supported Nelson’s comments about the importance of the funding that would be provided by the millage.
“In the absence of the millage, there would be roughly $6 million, in addition to cuts that are accruing from changes in foundational allowance, that we would have to absorb, and it would have to come out of other programs,” Thomas said. ["Foundational allowance" refers to the per-pupil amounts that schools receive from the state School Aid Fund.] “There is kind of a false debate that the special education millage is more money being shoveled into the pot, increasing funding for general education students. By setting this aside, we have a way of meeting the need of the special education students.”
Trustee Christine Stead said that, even with the millage, there would still be remaining costs the district would have to cover, making the millage funds even more important.
“It’s difficult because, even if the millage passes, we’ll still have to make cuts somewhere to maintain our level of services,” she said.
She added that, over the next two years, the board would be hard-pressed to consider funding increases. With coming decreases in education funding from Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal and the effect of declining property values on the millage, approving increases in funding will become difficult.
“This is the context we’re operating in,” Stead said. “We have to be realistic.”
Special Ed: Investing in the Future
Nelson concluded the discussion by emphasizing what this millage will mean to the district, calling the money “an investment.”
“The earlier you make the investments, the greater return you get,” he said. “This $6 million we’re thinking about putting into lives, it will save many times that later on. It’s an investment in the truest form of that word, and it’s time for us as a society to be making the investments rather than cutting them.”
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.
Board Report: Performance Committee
Nelson updated the board on the March 1 meeting of the board’s performance committee. Nelson reported on the committee’s discussion regarding the possible purchase of Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) software, a new piece of testing and evaluation software.
He explained that the NWEA test could be given in all grades in reading, math, language usage and science. The tests are online and are adaptive, which means they are personalized to students based on their performance on initial questions. The NWEA tests can also be given up to three times per year, which he said make them much more useful for planning than the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests, which does not have as fast a turnaround time.
A presentation had been given by Andy Ingalls, executive director of instruction for the Chelsea school district, who attested to the quality of the product during the committee meeting.
Nelson also discussed how the testing data can be aggregated in different ways, grouping students based on performance and identifying the subject areas in which a student may be excelling or falling behind. These student performance measures also include measurements of entire classes, allowing for teachers to be judged on the growth of their students.
Thomas praised the student evaluation portion of the software, saying that having the baseline of a student’s abilities to work with so soon will prove to be very valuable.
Nelson concluded his report by giving the board a general idea of the costs that would be associated with the purchases. According to Nelson, the low end would include leasing 1,100 computers, the minimum they would need to be able to run the program, for $365,000 per year. The most expensive option would be the outright purchase of 3,300 computers for $3.7 million, a one-time cost.
Nelson acknowledged that this program will have to be compared against other priorities when the budget is being created this year, but said he felt it was a strong option.
“The benefits are so large that this may be the best use of our funds,” he said.
Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, AAPS deputy superintendent for instruction, added that there were other districts interested in the software, and by purchasing it together, a better deal could be reached.
Board Reports: Planning Committee
There was no report from the planning committee, as it had not met since the last board meeting. Stead, who reported from the committee to the board, did say that the committee’s future work will include trying to meet with Gov. Rick Snyder to discuss education funding in the context of economic development.
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 Wednesday’s meeting, representatives from the Youth Senate and the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee were on hand to present during the meeting’s association reports.
Association Reports: Youth Senate
Nikila Lakshmanan, a junior senator from Community High School, along with other local high school students, updated the board on the Youth Senate’s efforts. These included an upcoming job search convention they will be attending and work done by the Youth Activist Training and Networking – a group started by community high school students to empower youth interested in helping the community and volunteering.
In addition to summarizing the work of the Youth Senate, Lakshmanan invited the board and the public to join them in their volunteer efforts. The group usually meets every Friday at 6:15 p.m. at the downtown Youth Senate office – at 202 E. Huron St., #101 – before heading out to help feed the homeless with different sponsors. Lakshmanan said that volunteers talk with the homeless while helping set up and serve food.
Association Reports: AAPAC
The report from Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee was delivered by Melany Raubolt, the co-vice chair for AAPAC and the parent of an autistic student at Slauson Middle School. Raubolt praised everyone who has worked with AAPAC to enrich the lives of special needs students, adding that her son, an eighth-grade student at Slauson, was fully with his regular education peers and will be transitioning to Pioneer High School next year.
Raubolt also touched on the upcoming special education millage, expressing her organization’s support for the measure. She asked for community support in the formation of a Young Adult Program (YAP), a concept that was discussed during the presentation by the SISS on the district’s special education performance.
“This millage is a special education renewal, serving a critical function in our communities by empowering all students with the necessary tools required for individual success,” she said.
Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, AAPS deputy superintendent for instruction, gave the superintendent’s report in place of interim superintendent Robert Allen, who was away at a conference.
She noted a number of awards recently received by AAPS students, including awards in math, choir, chess, and athletics. In addition, she reported that students in one class at Pattengill did a service project instead of exchanging Valentine’s cards with each other this year.
Dickinson-Kelley also stated that Allen was a keynote speaker at a recent Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce meeting, which resulted in chamber members making visits to two AAPS schools. She noted that the participants were very impressed with the schools they visited.
Dickinson-Kelley reported that National African-American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID) had been a large success throughout the district. Finally, she encouraged all staff and community members to attend the forums and final interviews of the two remaining candidates for AAPS superintendent. [The forums and interviews were held later that week, on March 4-5, and resulted in the board decision to enter into negotiations with Patricia Green to be the next AAPS superintendent.]
Nancy Hoover, the district’s director of financial operations, provided the first briefing for the board during Wednesday’s meeting. Hoover’s brief report touched on grant money received by the district and how it was being used.
Currently, the district is able to cover some salaries of high school teachers with a $1.9 million grant from federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. This allows the district to remove that expense from the general operating budget.
Trustees took the opportunity to make a point about how budget figures could look artificially low or high because of these funding shifts. Trustee Glenn Nelson warned against reading too much into coming figures.
“When we do the budget for the 2012 fiscal year with none of these grants, these high school salaries are going to come back in, and it will look like the general fund budget has increased,” he said. “This is purely an artifact of accounting, not a real increase.”
Trustee Andy Thomas echoed these sentiments.
“It’s important to realize that, in making comparisons from year to year, there are a number of adjustments such as this that need to be taken into account,” he said.
Pioneer Field Bid Update
Randy Trent, executive director of physical properties for the district, gave the board a special briefing on the progress of collecting bids for work on the Pioneer High School football dressing room and field.
The project includes building new dressing room facilities and putting in new turf for a practice field next to the school’s football stadium. Trent recommended selecting Granger Construction for the bid at a cost of just over $42.3 million. Trent said that past dealings with Granger have been positive.
The board took action on the proposal later in the meeting, voting unanimously to approve it as part of a consent agenda, which also included minutes and gift offers.
Public Commentary: Bullying
The meeting opened with public commentary from Christa Moran, a parent concerned about the presence of bullying in the district. Moran spoke about a bullying situation in which her son was forced out of AAPS by a student who she said was extorting money from him. In her description, the situation was addressed poorly by his school, and resulted in ongoing retribution bullying. Once her son became suicidal, she pulled him out of AAPS, and enrolled him in a local charter school where he is now thriving.
Moran spoke, she said, on behalf of students without a support system, and who don’t have anywhere else to go. She noted that bullying policies are inconsistently applied across schools, and urged all board members and administrators to take the issues of bullying and “predatory aggression” seriously. Moran suggested surveying parents and students regarding their experiences with bullying, instituting a bullying policy similar to the districtwide zero-tolerance policy toward weapons, and training student bystanders about how to deal with bullying episodes they witness.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Susan Baskett, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, and Christine Stead.
Absent: Simone Lightfoot.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, March 16, 2011, 7 p.m., at the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave.
About the writer: Eric Anderson is an intern for The Ann Arbor Chronicle.