Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education meeting (June 29, 2011): Days before their most recent meeting, Ann Arbor Public Schools board trustees were hit with a surprise — the $475,000 reduction in athletics approved as part of the district budget had led to the elimination of entire sports programs instead of the trimming of transportation, training, and coaching costs they had expected.
After hearing significant public commentary on the issue, trustees held a lengthy public discussion with the three AAPS athletic directors (ADs) at the June 29 meeting, and ultimately requested that they revisit the cuts. “We’d like some more thinking on this,” said trustee Christine Stead, “and a different answer.”
The athletic budget reductions will be the main topic of the board’s July 13 planning committee and board meetings at 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively. Both meetings are scheduled to take place in the main conference room of the Balas administration building, and are followed by a study session 6:00 p.m. The study session will focus on the possibility of requesting that voters approved new millages to support district-wide all-day kindergarten and technology upgrades.
Also at the meeting, multiple people spoke in support of continued AAPS support of literary arts programs at the Neutral Zone teen center, arguing that is a nationally-recognized program that deserves continued funding from the district.
Finally, the board renewed the district’s food service contract with Chartwells, approved three new employee contracts, and held the first public hearing on a new video being recommended by the district’s Sexual Health Education Advisory Committee (SHEAC).
This report includes some basic background, a description of the public’s reaction, and the board’s response.
Athletics Budget: Background – What Went Wrong
In the APPS 2011-12 board-approved budget, spending on athletics was reduced by $475,000. The district expected to generate those savings by outsourcing non-teacher coaches and athletic trainers, and reducing transportation services.
However, at the June 29 board meeting, Pioneer High School athletic director Lorin Cartwright explained that taking those measures did not lead to the projected savings. Board president Deb Mexicotte added that the planned transportation cuts had gone “too deep,” and that fewer coaches could be outsourced than originally thought. AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen noted that even with the transportation and staffing cuts made, the athletics budget had still been nearly $250,000 short. (Allen served as interim superintendent leading up to the budget approval and when it was passed by the board. He served in that capacity through June 30 before new superintendent Patricia Green came on board.)
Cartwright and her two counterparts – Dottie Davis (at Huron High) and John Young (at Skyline High) — were forced to look for other ways to meet the budget target.
Athletics Budget: Original Decision by Athletic Directors
Allen explained that the ADs’ goal was to maintain equity in athletics among the three comprehensive high schools, including continuing to build up the athletics program at Skyline, while hitting the overall target budget reduction of $475,000.
After coaching, training, support staff, and transportation costs were reduced as much as possible, Cartwright, Davis, and Young worked collectively to decide what additional cuts to make. On Saturday, June 25, AAPS released a statement of their decisions.
All freshmen sports were cut, with the exception of freshmen football, due to safety concerns. Also cut were: dance at Skyline; cheer at Huron; figure skating at Pioneer and Huron, and lacrosse and bowling at all high schools.
The second junior varsity field hockey team at Pioneer/Huron was cut (two JV teams had been maintained), and finally, the fall season of crew (rowing), which was the only sport to have two seasons funded, was cut at all high schools.
The statement also contained information about how to transition an activity from status as a varsity sport (funded by the school district) to a club sport (funded outside the school district and operated under the direction of the building principal).
Athletics Budget: Public Commentary
Nine parents, many of them members of the booster clubs at their children’s schools, addressed the board about the cuts. Many other concerned parents and students attended the meeting, making it standing room only, and board members commented on the large number of e-mails and other correspondence they had fielded in response to the athletics cuts.
Frank Robenalt, a recent graduate from Pioneer, argued that eliminating freshman sports eliminates one of the best social entrees, and that the overall quality of the sports programs will decrease, because sophomores and upper classmen will be less likely to try something new. Beth Anderson, a parent from Pioneer, agreed, and pointed out that the district will lose $150 in pay-to-participate fees from each student who leaves athletics.
Anderson also referred to the $87,000 donation the Pioneer booster club recently made to the district, which she said represented years of hard work and savings. “If we had been aware of the drastic measures that were coming,” she said, “we might have reserved money to help the affected teams.”
Multiple speakers questioned why the ADs decided to cut lacrosse when it is the fastest growing sport in the nation, and expressed disappointment and frustration that they would not have enough time to transition lacrosse to club status by the start of the next school year. Andre Vasher, a Skyline parent, said that he would personally make no more donations to the AAPS educational foundation, and would encourage other lacrosse parents to do the same.
Ahmar Iqbal, a parent of two AAPS students (and who is considering running for a seat on the school board in November), said he has been dismayed at the budget process followed by the board this spring on a number of fronts. He asserted that trustees have made cuts and then responded to the community’s reactions instead of involving the community in prioritizing options ahead of time. ”What are we getting,” Iqbal asked, “for the half million that is not going to freshman sports?”
The public commentary included the following suggestions:
- Give de-funded sports guidance, such as financial data, and more time to transition to club sports.
- Share the cuts equally among all sports rather than eliminating some programs entirely.
- Require the ADs to go “back to the drawing board” and work with the booster clubs to agree on the necessary cuts;
- Keep funding all sports, but only at one level per comprehensive high school (i.e., for each sport, have a freshman team at one school, JV at another, and varsity at the third).
- Bid out transportation to another company.
- Make each sport pay for its own officials.
- Cut one of the ADs, and have the other two work district-wide.
- Increase the pay-to-participate fee.
Finally, some parents questioned the depth of the cuts, given that athletics makes up only 1% of the district’s budget. Kathy Robenalt, a Pioneer parent, pointed out that athletics is being cut disproportionately to other AAPS departments, and argued, “This seems to be the easy way out, but perhaps not the wisest.”
Athletics Budget: Athletic Directors Explain Rationale
Trustees questioned why specific programs were cut entirely instead of requiring an “across-the-board” cut that affected all programs equally. Cartwright explained that an across-the-board cut would have meant that each sport lost 17% of its funding. At Pioneer, she continued, where all sports are “full membership,” meaning every spot on every team is filled, this would mean that disproportionately more students would lose the ability to play than at Huron and Skyline. “It would be a challenge for you to sell me on cutting when there is full membership,” Cartwright said.
Allen added that there was also a feeling that across-the-board cuts would not attract good coaches.
Cartwright and Davis responded to some of the suggestions made during public commentary, saying that many of them had been tried and did not work (outsourcing busing, consolidating teams across schools); had already been rejected by administration (reducing to two ADs district wide); or were already being implemented (teams paying for their own officials).
Davis explained that increasing pay-to-participate fees might cause large numbers of students — those who are happy to sit on the bench for $150 but not for $300 or $400 — to drop participation in athletics entirely. She added that the ADs had considered longevity of the sport as a factor in decided what to keep and what to cut. In choosing to eliminate lacrosse, the ADs had also considered the membership of the conference in which AAPS plays lacrosse – all of the other lacrosse teams in that conference are club sports.
Finally, Davis explained that in some cases, due to lack of full membership on certain teams, cutting the freshman team would not have any effect on the number of slots available for students who would like to play. For example, she said, Huron girls basketball had 11 students on varsity, nine on JV, and seven on the freshmen team, which means that two teams could still accommodate all of the interested students. She also noted that Ann Arbor has other ways for student athletes to participate, such as Rec & Ed, that AAPS still offers more sports than many other schools, and that the ADs “still have a passion for every sport that we have.”
Athletics Budget: Board Debates a “Re-Do”
Some trustees questioned the lack of data provided to them to support the ADs’ decision. “We don’t have any numbers,” trustee Susan Baskett said, “and this issue did not go through either committee.” Baskett also had many questions about the ramifications of moving to club status, saying that she supported the ADs, but wanted to understand how they came to their conclusions.
Mexicotte expressed support for the ADs, saying they were dually challenged with cutting their budget while simultaneously increasing programming at Skyline by $44,000.
Other trustees expressed concern about the process followed to decide on the cuts. Trustee Irene Patalan questioned whether the ADs consulted any coaches, parents, or booster clubs. Stead questioned the timing, saying that this decision does not give the community sufficient time to convert to club status.
Davis agreed that the ADs “could have used more guidance.” Allen agreed that he would support going back through the board’s committee process to review the cuts, and asked that the board offer any other guiding principles they’d like to see followed.
Athletics Budget: Board Suggestions
Trustee Andy Thomas suggested that the ADs should bring a set of data to the planning committee, including a list of how much would be saved by eliminating each sport individually, eliminating freshman sports entirely, and increasing the pay-to-participate fee, as well as what a 17% across-the-board elimination would look like.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot agreed that she would like to see the top recommended reductions, along with the projected savings of each.
Mexicotte cautioned that the appropriate board response might be to request that the ADs explore other options, but that “it is not typically the work of our committees to go line by line through [departmental] budgets.”
Trustee Glenn Nelson agreed, saying that it was the board’s job to “focus on the big picture, relax constraints, and then let the professionals do a good job.” He suggested that the board take $250,000 out of fund equity to cover the athletics costs in excess of the planned cuts to transportation, training, and coaching.
Stead and Thomas disagreed, saying that dipping into fund equity again would be irresponsible. Since the 2011-12 budget was originally proposed, the board has reinstated funding for two elementary principals, seven teaching staff, and $300,000 in transportation costs.
Stead and Thomas suggested instead that the planning committee should work with the ADs to find better ways to meet the targeted $475,000 in reductions. They also suggested that the real solutions are higher-level – such as securing more private giving and getting more people involved in legislative advocacy.
Mexicotte said that though the decision-making process had been flawed, the board had asked the ADs for something impossible. “We have had this philosophy that we can nibble around the edges without eliminating things, but it was an impossible request in this vein. This is a tough message [for the ADs to] bring back to [the] board, which is expecting the same miracle it’s always gotten.”
Saying that there is a penalty to a bad process, Mexicotte said she would be in support of revisiting the discussion to see if there was a way to not eliminate any programs, but that if there was not, that the board might need to “pay the price” by taking the money needed out of fund equity.
Athletics Budget: One Committee or Two?
The board had some discussion about having the ADs meet with both the planning and performance committees before the next meeting. Another possibility was to add the athletics budget discussion to the agenda of the upcoming study session, so that all trustees could be involved.
Stead suggested that running everything through two committees would sabotage the board’s committee structure, and Thomas took it a step further, saying that the current committee structure is “dysfunctional.”
Mexicotte replied that it is not dysfunctional, but “an evolving set of practices with a new set of board members.” Patalan said she believes in the board’s committee system, saying she was confident that the planning committee, on which she sits, would do an appropriate and thorough job. “We will vet this for you,” she asserted.
Mexicotte suggested that instead of running the athletics budget discussion through both committees that it be sent only to the planning committee. She also said all trustees should have an opportunity to review the additional data to be brought forth by the ADs ahead of the next meeting. “I am not interested in having the whole conversation again at the board table,” she said.
Board members were amenable to Mexicotte’s suggestion, as long as the planning committee members would agree to receive questions or concerns ahead of time from the rest of the board to inform the committee’s vetting process.
The board decided that the planning committee will revisit the athletic cuts at its next meeting on July 13, followed immediately by a meeting of the full board on the same day.
Other Public Commentary
The board also heard public commentary on topics other than athletics funding.
Public Commentary: Special Education Young Adult Program
Brenda Romig-Fox addressed the board about the importance of developing a young adult program for special education students transitioning from high school. Her son just left Pioneer, and she has found each of the five programs currently offered within the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to be lacking features. “It’s time for AAPS to keep special education student and their funding in the district, and offer a spectrum of services,” Romig-Fox said. She encouraged the board to support a young adult program proposal being created by AAPS assistant superintendent of student intervention and support services, Elaine Brown, and said she would be happy to work the SISS and other parents to see it happen.
Public Commentary: Neutral Zone Literary Arts Funding
Several people spoke in support of the district’s continued funding of literary arts programming at the Neutral Zone teen center. Currently, the district allows Pioneer High School creative writing teacher Jeff Kass to teach 0.8 of the time at Pioneer and spend the remaining 0.2 of his time advising the Neutral Zone’s Volume Youth Poetry Project, and overseeing its Red Beard Press and Short Story Workshop.
Kass spoke with The Chronicle at the June 29 meeting, and explained that the reduction in teaching staff district-wide (AAPS cut 62.3 teaching positions as part of its recent budget reductions) meant that he would now be required to teach full-time at Pioneer and that the district would no longer support his work at the Neutral Zone.
Amay Lee, a perfomer and author, said creative writing had been the most important part of her education. Molly Ranier agreed, saying her “whole life is based around what [Kass] has taught [her].” Ranier was one of Kass’ students when Volume Youth Poetry Project was founded, and has now replicated the program in Richmond, Calif. for 200 kids.
Poet Roger Bonair-Agard said that many students from Ann Arbor who have been part of Volume Youth Poetry Project have then gone to other places in the country to start similar programs or made themselves very important in those places. He said that the Neutral Zone is known nationally for doing some of the best work in poetry in the country. “This is not just a program that helps kids write,” Bonair-Agard said. “This is about saving the lives of youth.”
Kevin Coval, who is from Chicago, where he runs the largest youth poetry festival in the world, concurred, saying that he “know[s] this work to be a treasure on a national level.” Ann Arbor’s reputation, Coval said, is that it’s the most tightly knit youth poetry group in the country.
Angel Nasis credited the Neutral Zone with raising her, and credited Kass with changing her life. She now does workshops with students herself, and sees the “ripple effect” of Kass’ work.
Kass then addressed the board, saying that his work at the Neutral Zone is really a full-time job that he does for only 20% of his salary. He promised the board that if they support his position for two years that in that time, he can get it paid for by people in this community. Kass urged the board to take responsibility for continuing this support, saying it was not a principal-level decision: “You are sitting in these seats for a reason.”
Public Commentary: Racial Politics
Two former students spoke in support of Pioneer teacher Vickie Shields, who has been recently taking criticism for holding a contentious discussion about racial politics in her African-American humanities class. Kathryn Drumright asked: “Why is she being punished for doing her job — making students think?” Cheyenne Taylor added that if Shields resigns, “AAPS will lose one of the best teachers that has ever taught in this district.”
First Briefing: Sexual Health Education Recommendation
The one first briefing item on the board’s agenda was the set of annual recommendations brought forth by the district’s sexual health education advisory committee (SHEAC). The SHEAC is a state-mandated committee that reviews and recommends sexual health materials for classroom use.
Margy Long, co-chair of the SHEAC and AAPS parent, reported that the SHEAC had reviewed and recommends a new DVD for use in third grade classrooms as part of a unit on safety. She noted that it’s a great video which is very age-appropriate, and gives clear safety rules to follow without being scary.
In response to questions from the trustees, Long added that the video was not created in-house, but is a very high quality product that would be purchased by the district to update to materials being used currently. She also explained that, though the video contains sections on a variety of safety-related topics including stranger safety and cyber-safety, it came through the SHEAC because it also refers to “good touch/bad touch” and what to do if you think your friend might be being sexually abused.
Trustees thanked the SHEAC for its work. “Sometimes,” said Nelson, “it’s a little bit ignored how important this area of education is.”
The board then held a public hearing to solicit input on the video, but no one spoke. Long noted that the DVD is available at the district office if anyone would like to preview it before the second public hearing on the matter, which will be held during the next regular board meeting.
Policy Updates and Chartwells Contract Renewal
There was no discussion on the Chartwells contract renewal, which had been briefed at the previous meeting.
A set of board policy updates was presented at first briefing at the last meeting, and only one — the graduation requirements policy– was discussed again at this meeting. Joyce Hunter, AAPS assistant superintendent for secondary education, briefly reviewed the new language in the amended policy.
Trustees questioned whether it was necessary to include a requirement for world language study at this time, and board secretary Amy Osinski said no, but that the board would need to address it in 2016.
Outcome: Both items — the policy updates and the Chartwells contract renewal — were approved unanimously as part of the consent agenda.
Board Committee Reports
The school 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.
The performance committee did not meet since the last regular meeting and will not meet before the next meeting on July 13. The planning committee will meet before the next regular board meeting on July 13, and review the athletics cuts as already described in this report.
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 June 29 meeting, no associations were present to address the board.
Awards and Accolades
The June 29 meeting also included a number of special presentations and awards honoring staff and students.
Awards/Accolades: Envision Michigan
AAPS student Alison Carlson was honored with a $500 Envision Michigan scholarship sponsored by state representative Rebekah Warren. Warren’s special projects director, P.J. Petitpren, was on hand at the June 29 meeting to announce the award, and said Warren had found Carlson’s scholarship essay “insightful.”
Allen thanked the entire AAPS family for their work this year, and noted a variety of awards and honors received by individual staff members and students.
He recognized the trustees, staff, parents, community members, and his cabinet for supporting him this year as the interim superintendent. He singled out AAPS director of finance Nancy Hoover, his executive assistant JoAnn Emmendorfer, and board secretary Amy Oskinski for their extraordinary work.
Finally, Allen thanked former AAPS interim superintendent Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, who retired last week after 38 years in the district. Though she had wanted to slip away without fanfare, Allen said, he listed some of her many accomplishments during her tenure as a teacher, principal, and central administrator.
Dickinson-Kelley oversaw the implementation of the district’s balanced literacy program, developed a food allergy handbook, was instrumental in getting the preschool built, and brought Spanish language instruction, humanities, and enrichment coordinators to the elementary schools. “We will need about three people to replace her,” Allen said, and ended by noting that Dickinson-Kelley was about to become a grandmother to twins, and was looking forward to spending more time with her family in her retirement.
Approval of Contract Agreements
With no discussion, the board unanimously approved contract agreements for three of its employee unions — ASCSA, AAEA-OP, and AFSCME-TSP.
On Mexicotte’s suggestion, Stead agreed that the planning committee would postpone review of additional policies until the fall in order to focus on the athletic budget at its July meeting. Osinski pointed out that many district staff are on vacation through the summer, which may make the policy review difficult as well.
Items from the Board
Thomas congratulated Kelsey Boes, a 2010 Huron graduate who recently had a crossword puzzle printed in the New York Times – a puzzle that Thomas said he was unable to complete.
Stead congratulated all the children who participated in the local science olympiad, and said she’d like the planning committee to look at ways to ensure the continuity of the local, county-run science olympiad, which is the largest science olympiad at the elementary level in the country. She also thanked the large number of adult volunteers who coached the kids.
Nelson said he was particularly impressed with the rockets at the science olympiad. He also congratulated the AASP homebuilding program on the completion of their house this year, and encouraged everyone to contribute to the AAPS educational foundation current campaign.
Patalan thanked Allen and Dickinson-Kelley for their work this year, and said she was looking forward to having the new superintendent at the table during the next meeting.
Baskett offered Dickinson-Kelley her best wishes in her continued life as a grandma, and said she was happy Allen would not be going far, just “down the hall” into his former position as deputy superintendent of operations. She also noted the departure of Shonte Langford-Green from human resources, and thanked her for her hard work.
Mexicotte gave a “shout out” to all faculty and staff in the district, saying “this has been an interesting, productive, challenging year.” She singled out Nancy Hoover for stepping up to take on more of the financial duties, Ruth Williams for coming out of retirement to serve as assistant superintendent of elementary education, and Dickinson-Kelley for working relentlessly in the district.
Mexicotte then thanked Allen for reluctantly and with humility stepping up in to the position of interim superintendent and doing an exemplary job. “Thank you,” she said, “for carrying the district on your shoulders for the last nine months.”
She concluded by saying that the board is looking forward to working with Patricia Green, and noting that her first day in the district would be July 1.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice-president Susan Baskett, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Simone Lightfoot, Glenn Nelson, and Christine Stead.
Next regular meeting: July 13, 2011, 5:30 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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