AAPS to Float February Tech Millage

Purchases would include computers, software, wireless network

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (August 10, 2011): AAPS board of education trustees approved a resolution at their Aug. 10 meeting to ask voters to fund $45.8 million in technology improvements across the district.


Trustee Andy Thomas uses a magnifying glass to review the amortization table presented as part of the bond proposal during an Aug. 9 special meeting. (Photo by the writer.)

The request to the voters will take the form of a tax to be paid by property owners over the next 13 years at an average rate of around .51 mills to support the sale of bonds. The rate will vary because the bonds will be issued in series in order to ensure that the equipment purchased with the bonds has a useful life longer than it takes to pay off the bonds used to purchase it. [A rate of .51 mills is $0.51 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value.]

Trustees plan to place the measure on the Feb. 28, 2012 ballot – the fourth Tuesday of the month. Previously, the board had discussed the possibility of placing it on the Nov. 8, 2011 ballot.

If approved, the millage would pay for a bond that would fund upgrades to equipment previously purchased with a 2004 bond, including student, teacher, and administrative computers, as well as upgrade infrastructure such as switches, servers, and the district’s wireless “backbone.”

The new bond would also include support for new classroom technologies and administrative software.

The Aug. 10 decision to place the technology millage on the February 2012 ballot came after discussion at a special board meeting on Aug. 9, which was called to allow for trustees to share feedback they had received from the community since directing administration to prepare for a tech bond at a study session on July 13.

The Aug. 10 meeting also included trustees’ unanimous vote supporting a new DVD recommended by the district’s Sexual Health Education Advisory Committee (SHEAC).

Technology Bond

The Aug. 10 decision to place the technology millage on the February ballot came after discussion at an Aug. 9 special meeting to discuss community feedback on the idea of a tech bond appearing on the November ballot, as well as discussion at the Aug. 10 meeting.

At the Aug 10 board meeting, AAPS executive director of physical properties, Randy Trent, outlined a resolution to submit a bond proposal for public consideration that would fund technology improvements across the district over a ten-year period, at a total cost of $45.8 million.

Technology Bond: Background

Trent offered some context for the proposed technology bond, explaining that $20 million of the 2004 capital improvements bond approved by voters that year was approved for and used to fund technology upgrades. Since then, he explained the district has crafted a technology plan to lead students into the future. In 2009-10, Trent continued, an additional $7 million in unspent funds from the 2004 bond was used to fund a partial technology “refresh,” and the new proposed bond would pick up from there, following along the trajectory outlined in the technology plan.

“This is not about glamorous technology,” said Trent. “It’s about how we can make kids more productive in their learning environment.”

Technology Bond: What the Bond Would Buy

Trent then briefly outlined what the bond would fund. The technology bond, if approved by voters, would provide $26.6 million to fund the upgrades of student, teacher, and administrative computers on a three-year cycle; $2 million to fund switch and server upgrades on a five-year cycle; $7.4 million for classroom technologies and administrative software; and $6.2 million to complete the upgrade to a 10-Gig “backbone” across the district and redesign the district’s wireless network. Included in the bond’s costs are also funds to cover the creation of server rooms/wiring closets as necessary, contingencies, and project management costs.

Trent reported that AAPS is using 1998 software in some of its key administrative areas, and that the infrastructure throughout the district is straining to keep up with current demands. Board president Deb Mexicotte clarified that bond funds cannot be used for operational costs, such as staff salaries.

Technology Bond: Superintendent’s Thoughts

At the Aug. 10 board meeting, AAPS superintendent Patricia Green made a case for the technology bond saying that the technology plan comes together with the AAPS strategic plan to create 21st century learning. Green then reviewed the eight key strategies of the strategic plan, linking each one to the aspects of technology it would require to be effective.

Green highlighted how the bond would allow for a more robust implementation of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment, a tool recently purchased by the district. The new bond funds would also allow better implementation of online and distance learning options for students, as well as staff. Green asserted that the appropriate use of technology in classrooms can close the achievement gap, and argued that AAPS needs to lead children rather than sitting back and expecting them to lead the district.

Urging the trustees to embrace technology, Green argued that the district should stay on the cutting edge, including the use of hand-held devices and social media. Quoting educator Ian Jukes, Green asserted that teaching the “digital generation” involves preparing students for their future, not our past, and “exploring the power of possibility thinking.”

Trustees expressed confidence in Green’s vision as outlined. “This is good stuff,” asserted trustee Simone Lightfoot. Trustee Christine Stead cautioned the board to remember that, while very important, technology should not be the district’s sole focus.

Technology Bond: How the Bond Would Work

Also present at the August 10 meeting were the district’s director of finance, Nancy Hoover, the district’s bond counsel, Amanda Van Dusen, and the district’s financial planner, Paul Stauder. Hoover reviewed the wording of the bond proposal as it will appear on the ballot, and briefly explained that if the board approved the resolution, it would allow the district to issue bonds on approval by the voters. She added that the bonds would be issued in multiple series over 10 years.

In a follow-up discussion with The Chronicle, Van Dusen explained the process in more detail. School districts, she explained, cannot borrow money as straightforwardly as an individual or corporation can. For AAPS to borrow money to fund technology improvements, it needs to convince district voters to pass a millage, which would then allow the district to sell bonds to investors. The principal and interest costs of repaying the bonds are then covered by the tax levy on the property owners in the district.

In this case, if passed, voters would pay an average  of .51 mills, or $0.51 on every $1,000 of taxable property value, annually until the cost of the district-issued bonds, with interest, was fully paid back to investors.

At the Aug. 10 board meeting, trustee Andy Thomas highlighted what he argued was a common misperception about the millage and its related amortizations. Thomas noted that while it will take 13 years to pay off the debt completely, the bonds will be issued in three series, beginning in 2012, 2015, and 2019. In each case, he said, the expected life of the technology products to be purchased would be longer than the length of time it will take to pay off that series of bonds.

Van Dusen and Stauder also clarified some aspects of the process in response to questions asked by trustees. Van Dusen explained that it takes an average of three months to issue the bonds in response to a successful millage campaign. Therefore, she pointed out, a millage approved by voters in November of 2011, February of 2012, or May of 2012 would all cause a new tax to be levied beginning in July 2012. But she cautioned that there may be “market considerations” associated with waiting until May, since there would be less flexibility in meeting the requirement that bonds be sold before the levy of the July 2012 tax.

Van Dusen confirmed that the board could adopt a reimbursement resolution to advance funds immediately after a successful millage vote. Stauder added that it will take a few months before bond proceeds would be in the bank, but that it is not at all unusual for districts to advance funds and then reimburse themselves.

Technology Bond: Board Concerns and Questions

Lightfoot asked whether $45.8 million would be enough to achieve the district’s technology objectives for the next decade, and Green confirmed it would be. Green added that making these technology purchases would be “reasonable and prudent” next steps in following the district’s strategic plan.

Stead asked whether the technology bond as planned would cause add any incremental costs to the regular operating budget. Hoover answered that the bond funds can be used to pay for the bond counsel, and all other contractual staff that would be hired to do this work, so there would not be appreciable additional costs. Van Dusen added that much of the software the district would want to purchase comes bundled with the hardware, and would therefore be an allowable bond purchase. She clarified that the bond proceeds could not be used to pay for training or maintenance, but that the bond could pay for warranties.

Technology Bond: Public Commentary

AAPS parent and candidate for the school board Ahmar Iqbal commented that the magnitude of an effective technology bond requires a lot of thought. He suggested that that board complete a comprehensive evaluation of technology use in the district, and review best practices in other countries. He also wondered whether AAPS could better collaborate with the county or local universities to make the more efficient use of technology.

Technology Bond: Millage Campaign

Thomas suggested that AAPS administration create a single document for the public that ties the cost of the technology improvements directly to the benefits they provide, as well as to the implications of not purchasing each of the improvements. He also suggested describing the intended purchases as specifically as possible, and including a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the district website in order to help the public understand exactly what the bond would provide.

Stead agreed that the presentation to the community needed to have a “more tangible” focus on how these investments will help students.

Trustee Susan Baskett expressed a concern that being too specific about the technology to be purchased would tie the district’s hands in an unhelpful way, because there may be new technologies AAPS would want to purchase in the future that don’t even exist yet. She suggested that the public will want an explanation of why the district cannot just pay for the needed technology out of the current budget.

Technology Bond: Timing of the Millage

The original board resolution under consideration at the Aug. 10 meeting called for the millage to be on the ballot in November 2011. The board also considered the alternate election dates available in February, May, August, and November of 2012. Van Dusen pointed out that the district would need to cover the cost of the election if the bond proposal was the only ballot item; the cost of running a special election is roughly $90,000.

During the course of a special meeting of the board on Aug. 9, as well as the regular board meeting on Aug. 10, two major considerations regarding the timing of the millage were discussed in some detail: (1) whether asking the community to fund a technology bond in the next year would have a negative impact on the success of another countywide enhancement millage; and (2) whether there was appropriate leadership available within the administration and the community to mount a successful millage campaign by the November 2011 election date.

The gist of the debate regarding the enhancement millage weighed the likely approval of a smaller amount of dedicated funding (the technology bond) with the less likely approval of a larger amount of less restricted funding (a countywide enhancement millage). Trustees varied in the degree of optimism they had about the possible passage of a countywide enhancement millage after the last attempt was so soundly defeated in 2009.

Stead argued that the massive decreases in state funding for education will make a compelling case for controlling education funding for all local districts if and when a new countywide millage campaign is mounted. Trustee Glenn Nelson countered that it will take a long time to get the ten member-districts of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to coordinate efforts for another enhancement millage. In the end, it was decided to proceed with a technology bond sooner rather than later to space it out from any enhancement millage campaign that might begin in the next year.

Regarding leadership, concerns were raised that there are some important vacancies in AAPS administration right now – the district is currently hiring a deputy superintendent of instruction, a director of instructional technology, and an assistant superintendent for elementary education. In addition, AAPS director of communications, Liz Margolis, reported at the Aug. 10 meeting that she has reached out to members of the community who have led the Citizen’s Millage Committee in the past, but none of those people were able to co-chair a campaign at this time.

Thomas amended the original resolution to move the bond proposal from November 2011 to February 2012, arguing that it would allow the district more time to make a persuasive case to the public, and get the leadership – both in and out of the district – in place. Trustee Irene Patalan thanked Green and the administration for preparing this resolution so quickly and so well, and said she was “excited and proud” to see the strategic plan being enacted.

The board unanimously approved ballot language for a technology millage to be put before voters in the AAPS district in a special election in February of 2012.

Second Briefing: Sexual Health Education

Other than the technology bond, the only other item addressed by the board at the Aug. 10 meeting was a recommendation from the district’s Sexual Health Education Advisory Committee (SHEAC) to approve a new DVD for use in a third grade health unit. The DVD, “Staying Safe: Strangers, Cyberspace & More,” contains vignettes on good touch/bad touch, stranger safety, online safety, and what to do when a friend is in trouble.

This was a second briefing and second public hearing on the DVD. No one spoke at the public hearing, but the board expressed universal support of the new materials as well as the SHEAC members.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, SHEAC co-chair Margy Long took the opportunity to introduce the mandate of the committee to Green, and to briefly review Michigan law regarding sexual health education. She noted that each Michigan school district that wants to include sexual health education in its curriculum needs to set up an advisory committee consisting of local parents, clergy, health providers, and educators to review materials and recommend them to the board.

Pat Wells, a pediatric emergency physician and member of the committee, then spoke to the board about the role health education plays in the lives of district youth and shared some local teen health statistics. She urged everyone to understand that the best way to reduce risky behavior is for kids to understand that the risks exist.

Trustees thanked Wells for her perspective, and requested that she send them the statistics she shared.

The new DVD was approved at part of the consent agenda, which also included an approval of draft minutes, and gift offers.

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.

Performance Committee

Nelson reported that the performance committee had recently discussed communications, and determined that administration should focus on evaluating internal communication, including between the board and the administration. He noted that Green had been present at the meeting and had added her first impressions of how communication is conducted internally in the district.

Nelson also reported that his committee had update the district regulation regarding transportation to athletic events (Policy 6420.R.15) to amend the definition of local and non-local events, as referenced in the 2011-12 budget.

At its September meeting, the committee will review the changes to teacher evaluation as they relate to the new tenure law just signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Planning Committee

Stead reported that the planning committee last met in the wake of the significant changes made to the athletics budget. Coming up next month, she said, her committee will review a set of expiring policies, talk about how AAPS can support the Washtenaw County Science Olympiad, and begin to plan for how to proceed regarding revenue enhancement initiatives.

Superintendent’s Report

In her first superintendent’s report to the board, Green highlighted the work of the custodial and maintenance staff being done in the schools this summer, calling them “unsung heroes,” and thanking them for their efforts, especially during the days of intense heat Ann Arbor recently experienced. She also thanked Trent for taking her on a tour of all district facilities and summer programs.

Green noted that there is a lot going on in AAPS over the summer, naming a number of summer programs including the elementary summer learning institute, secondary level summer school, tutoring, and partnerships with the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor District Library. In light of the technology bond discussed at this meeting, Green also pointed out that 215 AAPS high school students were enrolled in online classes over the summer.

Agenda Planning

Trustees requested a review of 2010-11 suspensions and expulsions, and a discussion on the work being done by administration to recover expenses from the insurance audit. Green noted that recommendations from the auditing company on how to proceed are due to come back to AAPS within the month.

Mexicotte announced that the board had cancelled its late August meeting, making the next regular meeting of the board on Wed, Sept. 14. She also reported that the board had set a date of Friday, Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for its annual retreat.

Items from the Board

Baskett noted a letter the board had received from a retired teacher suggesting that construction work being done at Pioneer High School this summer should have been explained better to the community. The letter also suggested that the MEAP scores at Clemente and A2Tech (formerly Stone School) are troubling. Basekett suggested an additional review of the MEAP data by school officials.

Baskett also suggested that the district put up a sign by the Pioneer construction work saying something like “Thank you Ann Arbor – your bond dollars at work” to highlight how the project was funded. Stead added that it might be worth putting a communication piece out, since the project has a long history. Mexicotte also suggested that perhaps the community should be reminded of just how inappropriate and inadequate the facilities had been before the renovation.

Lightfoot and Baskett thanked Green for meeting with a group of women from the community, and noted that the feedback from those at the meeting was very hopeful. Lightfoot added that she finds Green’s direct communication style “refreshing.”

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: Sept. 14, 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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  1. By Jack Eaton
    August 22, 2011 at 3:26 pm | permalink

    Jennifer, thanks for this report on the school board meeting.

    “If approved, the millage would pay for a bond that would fund upgrades to equipment previously purchased with a 2004 bond…”

    I am unable to discern from the article whether we are paying a millage to retire the 2004 bond and if so when that millage would expire.

  2. August 23, 2011 at 11:43 pm | permalink

    Yes, we are currently paying a millage to retire the bonds approved in 2004. The millage rate is calculated each year so that it is sufficient to redeem maturing bonds and make coupon (interest) payments each year. The bonds approved in 2004 were actually sold in three series, in 2004, 2006 and 2008, with varying maturities. The last bonds of this group will come due in FY2029, 25 years after the project started. However, the required payments (and thus the millage level) will steadily decrease until that time.

    We are also currently retiring bonds issued in 2003; the last of those bonds will be repaid in FY2014 at which time the portion of the debt millage dedicated to retiring those bonds will expire.