Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (April 20, 2011): Wednesday’s meeting of the AAPS board of education outlined the district’s planned budget cuts for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The district needs to cut about $15 million from their budget in response to reductions in education funding they expect to be handed down from the state.
The proposed cuts would eliminate 70 teaching positions, and would likely lead to changes in the district that include larger class sizes, fewer elective options and new roles for teachers. Other proposals include eliminating busing for high school students, cutting salaries and benefits, and creating “shared” principal positions at four elementary schools. On the revenue side, the budget plan calls for expanding the district’s Schools of Choice program and increasing parking fees at Pioneer High School for University of Michigan football and basketball games.
Interim superintendent Robert Allen delivered the presentation, saying that this year’s budget preparations were the most difficult he’s had in his five years working with the district’s finances.
“Although we have made similar cuts, it is even more difficult to make them on the heels of the $18 million we reduced last year,” he said. “We tried to keep the cuts away from the classroom, but at some point that becomes impossible.”
Allen said the district’s structural deficit, which creates an annual hole of $6-7 million dollars, will not go away until it’s dealt with directly. ”We’ve been facing the structural deficit for about 10 years and we can’t address it by cutting,” he said. “We have to fix the structure.”
The deficit could grow even larger – by nearly $6 million – if voters don’t pass a special education millage renewal that’s on the May 3 ballot. At several points throughout the meeting, board members and AAPS staff urged the public to support the millage renewal.
Allen closed his introduction by saying that the district tried to make the cuts in an equitable manner, adding that everyone should maintain efforts to lobby state representatives to come up with a permanent fix for budget woes.
The budget update was an informational item at Wednesday’s meeting and will come back before the board as a briefing item next month before it can be approved.
Budget: Cuts to District Staff
The first area of reductions Allen touched on was district staff, including teachers, administrators and central office staff. These cuts total about $7.1 million:
- Eliminate 70 teaching positions within the district.
- Reduce or combine administrative positions through the reduction of an assistant principal position at each comprehensive high school (not including Skyline) and the sharing of principals at four elementary schools.
- Use Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grant funds to cover the salary costs of one central office full-time employee.
- Reduce support staff and general support services.
Allen said these reductions will lead to a number of changes in the AAPS landscape, including larger class sizes, fewer elective options and new roles for teachers.
On the issue of class sizes, Allen estimated there would be an increase of about two to three students per classroom because of the reductions in teaching staff. Elimination of teaching positions accounts for the biggest cuts to the budget, totaling about $6.3 million.
These class size increases did not sit well with trustee Glenn Nelson, who said it would result in an increase in children with behavioral issues and teachers with less time for programming and other work.
“The truth is that Michigan is not a good place to be a kid these days,” Nelson said.
Elective classes with low enrollment were also examined, with Allen and his budget team looking for ways to combine classes for a more efficient use of teachers. Allen said these combinations could limit student options for scheduling these classes.
More reliance on split classrooms – when classes from two grades share one room – may also be necessary, according to Allen. The district had been moving away from split classrooms in recent years.
The proposal of shared principals drew concern from trustees on issues such as school leadership. Allen explained that the two pairs of elementary schools that will share principals will be Wines and Abbot, and Angell and Pittsfield. Of those schools, Pittsfield principal Carol Shakarian and Abbot principal Pam Sica will be reassigned within the district, leaving David DeYoung of Wines and Gary Court of Angell to split their time.
Trustee Susan Baskett asked what the criteria were for selecting principals. Interim deputy superintendent Lee Anne Dickinson-Kelley spoke on that, saying that while all four were valued members of the district, Court and DeYoung had experience managing larger buildings. She added that the district will still benefit from the leadership of Shakarian and Sica.
Baskett was also curious as to how schools would operate under the new system.
“What does a potential day look like?” she asked. “Will there be two offices? Are there models to adopt?”
Dickinson-Kelley said there were no models because each school is unique, but it would likely not be a 50-50 split, and would depend on each school’s situation. She added that the district will use its talents to support each school.
She also said that the district envisioned giving the title of Lead Teacher to “strong and well-matched” teachers who can take on additional responsibility when a principal is not present.
Allen also touched on why the district chose to recommend sharing principals over other possible solutions, such as closing schools.
“Some elementary schools have low enrollments, but there’s not a lot of excess capacity in other schools,” he said. “We’d have to move students from the closed schools and our buildings can’t accommodate the additional kids.”
Allen added that the Snyder administration has not finalized their budget for K-12 education, creating the possibility that the district will have more funds than anticipated. The shared principal system would be more easily reversed if additional funds are available, whereas the decision to close a school would be difficult to change.
The last area of staff reductions Allen discussed related to central office staff. Allen said the cost of one full-time employee will be transferred to funds provided by an IDEA grant, saving the district about $90,000.
Budget: Cuts to Operational Services
Allen then discussed reductions in the district’s operational budget, focusing on transportation and ways to make other aspects of the district’s operational services more efficient, saving more than $2 million:
- Eliminate all high school busing, seventh hour busing and middle school shuttles.
- Reduce legal fees and one human resources support position.
- Renegotiate the district’s gas contract.
- Reduce three operations and information technology positions, two of which will be reduced through attrition.
The elimination of all high school busing services was another issue that trustees viewed as possibly problematic.
Allen said the district has been looking at a number of alternatives, as well as some of the implications of these reductions. One focus of the district has been on conversations with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA). Allen said that while there have been no talks about entering into a contract with AATA, they have discussed how bus schedules could be adjusted to align with high school bell schedules. Allen also said the district would be encouraging other methods of transportation, such as carpooling.
According to Allen, 4,700 students in the district are eligible for busing, and about one third of those students use the service.
Allen also said they have discussed the plan with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD). [In June 2010, the AAPS board voted to contract with the WISD to provide the district’s busing services, which resulted in the district laying off its entire transportation staff. See Chronicle coverage of the decision at the board's June 23, 2010 meeting.]
Allen said he and other administrators will be bringing this plan to the community to gain more information.
“We know the numbers but don’t know who those students are,” he said. “We’re always open to good suggestions and we have the expertise to make adjustments.”
The two positions that will be eliminated due to attrition consist of one retiring employee who will not be replaced and one vacant position that will not be filled.
Budget: Cuts in Wages and Benefits
Allen briefly mentioned the $2.6 million in savings the district will see from the proposed cuts to employees salaries and benefits:
- ¾ of the year pay step freeze.
- Renegotiate health care benefits and perform dependent care audit.
- Reduce supplemental pay.
Budget: Cuts in District-Wide Budgets
Allen also outlined remaining reductions to other budgets in the district, totaling $1.275 million:
- Reduce department budgets by 7%.
- Reduce noon-hour supervision at elementary and middle schools.
- Reduce transfers to building budgets, trusts and agency accounts.
- Reduce transfers to athletic departments.
These areas of cuts all held the theme of the district needing to tighten its belt, according to Allen. The reductions in noon-hour supervisors was something he felt could be made up for by solid building leadership. Trustee Irene Patalan also felt this was an opportunity for schools to brainstorm cost-effective methods of noon-hour supervising.
The reductions in transfers to building budgets, trusts and agency accounts would lessen the amount and frequency of transfers for purchases that require funds to be moved from one account to another, such as a music department needing money to purchase band uniforms.
Allen said the final cuts to the athletic departments will be in the form of reducing services such as transportation to events, opting to look for outside funding to fill those needs.
Budget: Revenue Options
The last methods Allen mentioned for combating the deficit were options for raising revenue, which would total about $1.3 million:
- Enact a targeted Schools of Choice (SOC) program.
- Increase parking fees during University of Michigan football and basketball games.
The board had discussed an SOC program at previous meetings, deciding to open up 190 spots in a number of grades for students outside of the district wishing to enroll in the AAPS. [See Chronicle coverage of this decision at the board's March 30, 2011 meeting.] The window for application opened on April 15 and runs until May 15. The district hopes it raises about $1.2 million.
The increases for parking fees would see the price to park a car in the Pioneer High School parking lot jump $5 – from $35 to $40. Allen maintained that, despite the increase, they were not pricing themselves out of consideration.
Trustee Susan Baskett felt the $1.3 million that the district was projected to earn in revenue was on the low side. She asked if there were any other options to raise more funds.
Allen said that money raised from grants was not included in these figures, so it was possible that grants could provide more funds. He added that thanks to the establishment of a designated grant coordinator, the coming years should see more solid projections of income from grants.
The more than $14 million in savings will still leave a gap of about $683,000, something that Allen recommended covering from the district’s fund equity, leaving about $18.5 million in the FE account.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot expressed concern over using fund equity in this situation, a sentiment that Allen agreed with, saying that the district usually tries to protect it.
After Allen’s presentation, trustees expressed their appreciation for the work done by Allen and his administrative cabinet. They recognized that it was a difficult process and commended the effort to keep cuts away from students, as much as possible.
Allen closed his presentation by reminding the board that this budget proposal did not account for the additional $6 million the district would have to cut if voters fail to pass the special education renewal millage on May 3. He encouraged the public to vote for the millage, saying that these cuts have already gone deep.
Trustee Glenn Nelson took the opportunity to express disappointment at the state of K-12 education funding, framing the issue in terms of how Michigan families have fared over the last 10 years.
“From 2002 to 2012, per capita income in the state rose 25% – these are official state projections,” he said. “Our foundation allowance in 2012 will be the same as in 2002.”
Nelson said this showed what the priorities of Michigan’s leaders were, and he hoped that others who did value the children would continue to fight for their fair share.
Every board meeting includes an opportunity for members of the public to address the board.
Public comment: Future of the District
The meeting started with performances by the Tappan Middle School girls flute quartet, the Tappan boys clarinet quartet and the Slauson Middle School boys choir ensemble.
The Slauson ensemble was led by Cherry Westerman, who stayed after the performances to open the meeting’s public commentary session.
Westerman expressed concern over the cuts the district has had to make over the last seven years. She said she hoped parents who may not see how the cuts directly affect a school and its students will know that there is an impact.
“Those who are in the building, we feel it (the cuts) everyday,” she said.
She thanked the board for their responsible financial management, helping to make the impact of the cuts less severe.
She closed her comments by encouraging the public to educate and involve themselves in what is going on, to help the AAPS continue its service.
Public Comment: Northside Elementary Teacher Let Go
The public commentary session was highlighted by parents speaking in defense of Diane Baker, a first-year fourth grade teacher at Northside Elementary School who is being let go at the end of the year.
Carlene Colvin-Garcia and Jack Edelstein, parents of students in Baker’s class, both spoke in her defense. They felt that, while she may have gotten off to a slow start earlier in the year, she recovered and had been doing an exemplary job in a difficult classroom.
Both parents had heard that Baker, who the board later identified as being on probation, was going to be let go before the end of the school year, making for what they felt would be a very turbulent end to the school year. They both implored the board to reconsider the firing, and to at least let her finish the school year.
The board addressed this issue while voting on their action items at the end of the meeting, voting unanimously to not renew Baker’s contract after this school year.
Trustee Susan Baskett addressed the parent’s concerns by saying that, despite what they had heard, Baker would be finishing out the school year. She added that a school administrator has taken care of all the documents substantiating that Baker had not performed to expectations.
Public Comment: Rising Scholars
Stephanie Abalos, a parent with children in the district, also spoke during the public commentary session, touching on a proposal that would make cuts to the district’s Rising Scholars program. She claimed that the students enrolled in the program, including one of her children, had made significant commitments – to deprive them of this would be unfair. She also felt this program would help to close the achievement gap, questioning the board’s commitment to that initiative. [The board had recently discussed the achievement gap at their April 13, 2011 study session.]
Board president Deb Mexicotte addressed this issue later during the items from the board section of the meeting, saying that the information presented on the Rising Scholars proposal was premature and would likely undergo significant vetting before a final version is made public.
Public Comment: Haisley Elementary School Parking Lot
Tam Perry and Christie Schichtel addressed the board on the issue of a planned alteration and expansion of the parking lot at Haisley Elementary School. Perry is a parent of a Haisley student and organizes a “walking school bus” to the school. She’s also teaching a course at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, cross-listed in the College of Architecture & Urban Planning, on community organizing [S.W. 651/UP651— Planning for Organizational and Community Change]. Schichtel is a student in the class, which has considered the Haisley parking lot as a case study.
Perry thanked the district for holding a third public meeting on the topic of the parking lot expansion. She noted several aspects of the meeting that could have been improved.
[That meeting, which The Chronicle attended, was held at the school on April 12. At the meeting, Randy Trent, AAPS executive director of physical properties, presented two variants of revisions to the lot – one would expand the surface area of the lot, and the other would not. Neither of those alternatives would appreciably increase the number of parking spaces available from the current number of 70. The district had begun its engagement with the public by citing a state requirement that the number of parking spaces be increased and had presented plans at previous meetings with up to 120 spaces; however, the information about the state requirement proved to be inaccurate. Staff of the school who were present at the April 12 meeting, and some parents, indicated a strong preference for additional parking. Some nearby residents and other parents questioned the need or desirability of additional parking spaces, especially if it meant trading parking spaces for green open space.]
Perry noted that two of the alternatives had been projected on a screen, while a third alternative, developed by a parent at the school – Norm Cox, of the Greenway Collaborative – was presented only on an easel. There’d been no opportunity to get up close to the on-screen alternatives and mark on them, she said. She said it’s important to make clear whether the purpose of a meeting is just to provide information to the public or to get input.
Perry suggested that when dealing with controversial issues like the Haisley parking lot expansion, the district should balance the need for leadership against the usefulness of getting input. A school newsletter was sent out, she said, that included the statement that the state required an increase in the number of parking spaces, but that proved to be inaccurate. A balanced fact sheet about the parking lot should have been made available, she said.
The district should have also displayed more balance, Perry said, with respect to allowing access to the school property to gather information on traffic patterns. On the one hand, they’d allowed a member of the PTO access to the roof, she said, to document vehicle movements. But when a parent of a Haisley student [Norm Cox] had attempted to document the traffic patterns photographically, the school administration had called the police, even though he was not standing on school property.
For more information on the topic – including a time-lapse video of the Haisley parking lot showing activity in the course of one full day – Perry encouraged the board to visit the Greenway Collaborative’s website.
Schichtel told the board she had attended the April 12 meeting. She suggested that promoting behavioral change to reduce demand on the parking lot at Haisley could benefit from some community-organizing tools from the UM course. [One parent at the April 12 meeting had flatly stated that she would simply not get up early to walk her child to school or park on a side street and walk that distance – she let everyone know she'd be parking in the parking lot and taking her kid into the building from there.]
Schichtel suggested aligning those efforts with the Safe Routes to School program, which includes “walking school buses” – groups of children walking to school led by an adult. Parents should be invited to “choose safety,” she said.
Schichtel suggested that this choice for safety be supported by asking parents to make a year-long pledge to commit to choosing safety. She showed members an illustration of a human evolving into a bicyclist as an example of the kind of messages that could be used to help normalize behavior. She also suggested that some strategy of reminding parents of the desired drop-off zone behavior would be useful – people forget, she said.
Public Comment: Vote to Recall Gov. Snyder
Ann Arbor resident Thomas Partridge spoke last during the public commentary portion of the meeting. Partridge asked for the board’s support in an effort he was leading to recall Gov. Rick Snyder. He also encouraged the public to support the May 3 special education millage renewal.
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 April 21 meeting, the board heard reports from the PTO Council and AAPAC.
Amy Pachera briefly addressed the board on behalf of the PTO Council, updating the trustees on the May 16 officer training they’ll be holding for PTO officers. The session costs $25 plus $10 to take the materials home. She also expressed the PTOC’s support for the special education renewal millage.
Linda Rouse spoke for the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Council, reporting on AAPAC’s desire to keep students with their peers during transitions from elementary to middle school. She also thanked Sandra Bromley, the AAPS Student Intervention and Support Services assistant director, and Elaine Brown, SISS assistant superintendent, for their contributions to AAPAC and SISS.
Rouse closed by giving AAPAC’s full support for the special education renewal millage, saying that the millage is needed to keep up with a growing demand for services.
“State and federal funding has not kept pace, so this millage is needed,” she said.
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.
Glenn Nelson updated trustees on the April 19 meeting of the performance committee, discussing purchase of Northwest Education Association software for student and teacher assessment. Nelson said that the performance committee recognizes the value that this software would provide, laying out three options for purchase:
- Purchase the software for all AAPS students in grades K-2 and for students in grades 3-8 at Mitchell elementary and Scarlett middle schools, costing $61,100.
- Purchase the software for all AAPS students in grades K-5 and for students in grades 6-8 at Mitchell elementary and Scarlett middle schools, costing $109,000.
- Purchase the software for all AAPS students in grades K-8, and new computers for all elementary and middle schools other than Mitchell and Scarlett, costing about $3.7 million.
The necessary cost of updating computers was an issue for Nelson.
“We can’t afford decent technical equipment – never gonna make it (the lost opportunity for progress) up,” he said. Nelson gave the committee’s endorsement for a second-tier purchase, with the understanding that budget issues could keep them from moving to the third tier.
Nelson also shared the committee’s disappointment that the enactment of a balanced calendar was pushed back a year, contending that the district needs to be proactive instead of reactive. [A balanced calendar features a shorter summer break, and includes optional intersessions – one or two-week long academic or enrichment activities held during breaks in regular instruction. It was discussed in detail at the board's Dec. 8, 2010 meeting.]
He closed his remarks by expressing the committee’s support for the special education millage renewal, urging the public to vote yes on May 3.
Trustee Christine Stead delivered a report on the April 14 planning committee meeting, discussing reports they heard from Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, Chris Barry, AAPS grant coordinator, and Annette Ferguson, the district’s director of business partnerships. Stead said they were happy to hear about structures being put in place to allow anyone to contribute to writing grants. Stead added that Barry had told them about $3 million of grants she will be pursuing.
According to Stead, some of these grants require the receiving group to be a 501(c)3 organization. Stead encouraged the board to look into earning this distinction. The topic was added to the board’s next executive committee meeting.
Stead had comments similar to Nelson on the topics of the NWEA software and the balanced calendar, expressing regret that the former was out of the district’s price range and that the latter was being pushed back.
Interim superintendent Robert Allen’s report was highlighted by the announcement that the Pioneer High School music department had been named the national Grammy signature school, honoring the best school in the country for commitment to music education. This is the second time Pioneer has won the award, with the last time coming in 2006.
[Allen will continue to serve as interim until the arrival of Patricia Green, who's been hired as the district's next superintendent – she'll start her tenure at AAPS in July. Green's contract with the district was finalized on March 30.]
SISS Technology Purchases
Elaine Brown, Student Intervention and Support Services assistant superintendent, was on hand to give the first briefing on proposed purchases for special education in the district. SISS administrators had presented on these purchases during the March 2 regular meeting of the AAPS board of education, and Brown was looking to answer some of the questions trustees had. [See Chronicle coverage: "AAPS Preps to Push for Special Ed Tax"]
“We made every effort to address the curriculum and instructional needs of students,” Brown said. “This is the appropriate technology needed for all students to grasp the curriculum.”
One of the board’s biggest questions was how much the technology would cost to maintain over the years. The initial funding for the purchases would come from funds distributed by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), funds that had to be used by June 30 or they would be lost.
Brown provided the board with information detailing each item they were looking to purchase, discussing the three biggest items: The Kurzweil 3000 software and components, the Promethean Interactive Touch Boards, and the Tap It Mobility touch screen computers. These three items total $179,000 and would be covered by ARRA funds.
As far as yearly costs for the items, Brown said the upkeep would total $10,000, which could come from an IDEA grant.
“This is the perfect time to do this,” she said. “We’ll never see these funds again.”
Brown added that SISS would host open houses for teachers, administrators and the community to foster familiarity with the new technology.
Outcome: This was a first briefing item and will come back before the board for approval at their next meeting.
Linda Doernte, director of the district’s purchasing and business support services department, announced $4.6 million in grants received by the district. These grants came from ARRA funds, Title I, II and III initiatives, Head Start initiatives and the Ann Arbor Educational Foundation, which gave $283,000.
Pioneer High School Performing Arts Upgrade
Randy Trent, AAPS executive director of physical properties, reported on the bids they awarded for upgrades to Pioneer High School’s performing arts facilities. Improvements include a new orchestra shell, lighting and sound system equipment, and flooring on the stage.
Trent reported that all the bids came in just under the predetermined budget of $695,000.
The discussion about bid awards led trustee Simone Lightfoot to express disappointment due to the lack of bids for Historically Underutilized Business program members (HUB). Trent said that while they have worked extensively with HUB businesses in the past, there were just no HUB bidders for this project. Lightfoot requested a document detailing the work they’ve done with HUB members, as well as how others can get involved.
Trent closed the meeting’s presentations by reiterating the easement request from Mark and Elizabeth Perry for access to property at Forsythe Middle School – the request was previously brought up during the board’s March 30 meeting. The granting of an easement to install a drain line was added to the consent agenda. [.pdf file of easement contract]
Outcome: The board unanimously passed the consent agenda, which included the easement request, upgrades to Pioneer’s performing arts facilities and previous meeting minutes.
Items for Agenda Planning
Trustees Christine Stead and Susan Baskett both had items for the board to address. Stead promoted the scheduling of a legislative roundtable to help educate representatives on how to promote K-12 funding.
Baskett also asked for a summary on the progress of the Haisley parking lot situation, an issue that was going to be dealt with at the next meeting of the planning committee, according to Stead.
Items from the Board
The biggest issue that members of the board promoted was the May 3 election – the special education millage is on the ballot for renewal. Trustees encouraged the public to support the initiative at the ballot box.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Susan Baskett, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, Simone Lightfoot, and Christine Stead. Also present were Robert Allen, interim superintendent of AAPS; Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, and Randy Trent, AAPS executive director of physical properties.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the fourth floor conference room of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
About the writer: Eric Anderson is an intern for The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Jennifer Coffman, who usually covers AAPS board meetings for The Chronicle, is taking a maternity break. Chronicle editor Dave Askins contributed to this report.