On Thursday evening, June 30, 2011, the Ann Arbor Public Schools hosted an information session for prospective candidates for election to the AAPS board of trustees. Two board seats will be up for election on Nov. 8, 2011, both for four-year terms beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The two incumbents – trustees Simone Lightfoot and Andy Thomas – have told The Chronicle that they will seek re-election.
Voters will choose up to two from the field of candidates, and the top two vote-getters will take seats on the board.
Thomas, along with two other prospective candidates – Larry Murphy and Ahmar Iqbal – attended the informational meeting. The deadline to file an intention with the Washtenaw County clerk’s office to run for a school board seat is Aug.16 at 4 p.m.
In response to questions from Murphy, Iqbal, and Thomas, longtime board members Deb Mexicotte, Glenn Nelson, and Susan Baskett reflected on several topics: the campaigning and election processes; closing schools; the recent dearth of candidates in local school board elections; dealing with displeased constituents; the time commitment involved in serving as a trustee; the role of board members; skills needed on the board; the use of outside consultants; and countywide enhancement millage campaigning.
Larry Murphy has two children in the district, and expressed his interest in applying the knowledge he has gained as a small business owner to the school budget crisis. His previous experience includes serving on the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board in the 1990s.
Ahmar Iqbal is the CEO of a green energy consulting firm, and has a background in public finance, including experience at the World Bank.
Iqbal explained that his family has recently returned from years spent abroad to settle in Ann Arbor, and that his children had just completed sixth and ninth grades in the district.
Then Iqbal offered a candid critique, saying he “had not figured out why Ann Arbor Public Schools are so highly regarded.” Thus, he said, he was interested in being more involved.
Attending the information session does not in any way obligate someone to become a school board candidate. Although Murphy and Iqbal each said they are considering an election run, neither has declared a candidacy yet.
Both thanked the board members, as well as Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications, and Teri Williams, election coordinator for AAPS, for offering them an opportunity to ask questions.
Mexicotte encouraged Murphy and Iqbal to get involved in the schools regardless of their decision about running for the board.
Campaign and Election Processes
Teri Williams, election coordinator for AAPS, reviewed the requirements for getting on the ballot, which include filing either a nominating petition with at least 40 signatures, or paying a $100 fee.
She cautioned the potential candidates to be sure that signatures are collected on the proper petitions – AAPS serves the city of Ann Arbor as well as parts of eight surrounding townships, and a separate petition is required for each municipality. Williams suggested trying to get at least 50 signatures in case some are invalidated.
Thomas, who was elected last year and holds the shortest tenure as a trustee among current board members, said he would welcome Murphy and Iqbal to the race. He said it’s in the best interest of the community to have contested elections.
Thomas asked whether or not the title “incumbent” would accompany his name on the ballet, and Williams explained that neither a candidate’s status as an incumbent nor political affiliation would be included on the ballot. She also added that the names are placed in random order on the ballot in each precinct, not alphabetically.
Iqbal asked how the number of seats on a ballot is determined each year, and how board officer positions are chosen among board members. Mexicotte explained that one or two seats open up each year, generally for four-year terms, unless the vacancies are due to board members leaving mid-term. She also explained that each January the board holds an organizational meeting to choose its officers, and that the process is generally not contentious.
Murphy asked whether the board had considered consolidating schools or closing buildings in light of the current financial constraints, and Nelson said yes, that was a “somewhat active discussion.”
Murphy suggested that consolidating two of the district’s alternative high schools – Stone and Clemente – could lead to significant savings. Mexicotte said that closing buildings does not lead to as much savings as people often assume, because the bulk of district costs are in personnel. The same number of children still need to be taught, even if they are moved into fewer buildings.
Margolis added that, rather than closing buildings, the district’s focus has been on trying to fill any buildings not at capacity by offering schools of choice to Washtenaw County residents. She also explained that the district owns all of its buildings, so consolidating schools would leave buildings unused unless rented out; the most probable renters, she continued, would be charter schools in direct competition with AAPS for students.
Mexicotte also noted that Clemente has a unique set-up, and was purpose-built for the population it serves. Baskett suggested that Murphy visit Clemente, Stone, and other AAPS schools in order to understand better the politics around closing schools, and the ownership that each school community feels toward its building.
Recent Dearth of Candidates in Local School Board Elections
Iqbal asked for trustees’ thoughts on why there had been so few candidates in recent board elections. Nelson pointed out that this has not always been the case. But according to data from the Washtenaw County elections division website, all school board elections in the past five years have been either uncontested or included no more than two contenders for one position. The years 2002-2005 had higher numbers of candidates on average, which Nelson attributed to significant disagreement in the community about how to govern the district.
Board members weighed in about why the interest in serving on the board has waned since 2005. Mexicotte said she would like to think it’s a sign of community support for the work of the recent and current board members, who came onto the board to “restore civility and integrity” after those difficult years.
To explain the lack of interest in the community for contesting school board elections, Nelson and Baskett instead focused on the difficulty of being on the board. Noting that trustees are “dealing with people’s money and their children,” Baskett called serving on the school board “the toughest job in politics.” Nelson agreed, saying many people saw the job of school board trustee as “thankless.”
Dealing with Displeased Constituents
Iqbal asked how trustees dealt with not pleasing everyone, and board members said it was a challenge, especially when the displeased constituent is your best friend or even your spouse.
Baskett suggested that you have to be able to “hang your hat” on the belief that you made a decision in the best interest of the children. Mexicotte added that board members needed to have “a certainty of self, and a strong inner core.”
Time Commitment to Serve as a Trustee
Mexicotte explained that service on the board of trustees generally averages about 8-10 hours of work per week, but that some trustees attend school events multiple times a week. Nelson added there are usually two board meetings and two committee meetings each month, and that trustees need to be able to commit time to prepare for those meetings.
Thomas, who is currently the board secretary, added that he also spends a variable amount of time each week responding to all e-mails addressed to the board as a whole. Iqbal asked whether the board had staff to help them, and trustees explained that they had a full-time board secretary, Amy Osinski.
Role of Board Members
Nelson said he sees the board as an interface between the community and the schools, and noted that “it’s healthy for people to come onto the board through the campaign process,” since that process reflects the very social nature of being a board member. He gave multiple examples of being approached in public to discuss education issues.
Mexicotte agreed that successful candidates for the board are usually social people, given a board member’s role as liaison between the district and its constituents. She noted the challenge of being a very social person while carrying around a substantial amount of confidential information.
Trustees explained that only one employee reports to the board – the superintendent. Mexicotte said the job of the board is to give direction to the administration via the superintendent, and then let the professionals do their jobs.
Murphy said he would see himself as a trustee pushing the administration a bit more than that – to question the value added by various budget proposals, for example. Baskett agreed, saying that when she “does not get the sense that the homework has been done,” she gets concerned about being able to explain the district’s choices to the community. She sees her role, she said, as being sure the superintendent is fully informed of the community’s perspective.
Iqbal expressed frustration at not having access to the new superintendent, Patricia Green, whose first day in the district was Friday, July 1. He explained that he thought it was not right that he was told her schedule was not open to the public yet when he called to set up a meeting with her. He suggested that the board direct her to hold office hours at least monthly so parents could meet her. Trustees reported that in September, the district will host a reception to welcome Green.
Skills Needed on the Board vs. the Use of Outside Consultants
Iqbal asked what skills a successful candidate would need to round out the skill set already present on the board. Each of the trustees offered a different opinion.
Nelson said political skills were needed – that the new trustee should be someone who would be able to generate support for a countywide enhancement millage. Baskett disagreed, saying that the current board had political expertise, but needed more diversity. “With more diversity,” she said, “we can reach out to more people.” Mexicotte said the most important quality in a trustee is the ability to work on a team.
Iqbal asked why some of the enhancement millage campaign work could not be done by hiring an outside consultant, and Nelson explained that advocacy work cannot be done with taxpayer funds. Iqbal applauded the use of a consultant to conduct the superintendent search, and suggested the board evaluate itself in order to determine its weaknesses. Outside consultants might then be brought in to mitigate those weaknesses, he suggested.
Iqbal asked what resources the board has to conduct research, and Mexicotte answered that the board has a budget of roughly $60,000 for meals at board meetings, travel, conferences, etc, as well as a separate budget for legal expenses. She noted that the board can also direct any of the resources of the district as a whole to meet its needs.
Countywide Enhancement Millage
Iqbal and Murphy questioned the need for an enhancement millage to be countywide, and trustees explained that the only millages that could be enacted exclusively within the AAPS district are those that would fund capital improvements or facilities maintenance.
While acknowledging that Ann Arbor “enhances the standards of living” of those living in the rest of the county, Iqbal argued that AAPS was acting like a “political bully” if it campaigned for an enhancement millage countywide. Mexicotte responded by saying that if Iqbal were to serve on the board, he would see that “we don’t just call on our neighbors at election time.” She pointed to the district’s involvement with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), as well as other partnerships with other neighboring districts.
Next regular meeting: July 13, 2011, 7 p.m., at the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
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