All six candidates for the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education attended a 90-minute forum at Ann Arbor Open @ Mack school on Thursday evening, Nov. 3. It was the final public candidate forum before next Tuesday’s election. About 50 people, including teachers and parents of AAPS students, filled the small auditorium. Several candidates remarked that it was the best-attended event of the election season.
Candidates for the two open seats – each for four-year terms on the seven-member school board – are Albert Howard, Ahmar Iqbal, Patrick Leonard, Larry Murphy, and incumbents Simone Lightfoot, and Andy Thomas.
The forum was hosted by the Ann Arbor Open Coordinating Council, and was moderated by AAOCC co-chair Sascha Matish. After brief opening statements from all candidates, they responded to a series of six questions that had been submitted by parents whose children attend Ann Arbor Open.
Questions covered the topics of programs of choice, standardized testing, state-mandated initiatives, the district’s budget, class size, and the proposed technology millage. Summaries of each candidate’s answers are provided below, presented in the order in which they responded.
This year, the general election falls on Nov. 8. Readers who are unsure where to vote can type their address into the My Property page of the city of Ann Arbor’s website to get that information. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Programs of Choice
Question: Most of the “choice” programs – Ann Arbor Open, Community High, the Skyline High magnet programs – have many more applicants than they have space. Ann Arbor Open has consistently high test scores and often ranks in the top 10 middle schools in the state. What is your position on open education in the AAPS? Do you support an expansion of open education programs in the AAPS?
Programs of choice: Albert Howard
Howard focused on the need to realize that each child is different, and said the goal of a student’s education should be to tap their creativity and nurture their development. He said that competition is good.
Programs of choice: Ahmar Iqbal
AAPS has some of the highest-achieving schools in the state, Iqbal noted. Why aren’t the factors driving success in the programs of choice inculcated into the rest of AAPS schools? These successful approaches should be available for all children, he said. Education in the district can be a brand of excellence for all, not just for a few, he said.
Programs of choice: Patrick Leonard
Leonard supported expansion of the district’s programs of choice. One of his University of Michigan professors who encouraged him to run for school board taught him that children respond to an individualistic approach, he said. He noted that Ann Arbor Open is based on the work of John Dewey, who advocated for this style of education. But it could be difficult to expand, given the district’s current resources, he said.
Programs of choice: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot would like to see the district better infuse choice programs throughout all the schools, especially as a way to address the district’s achievement gap. She hoped that would happen now that the new superintendent has been hired – Patricia Green has a five-year contract, which should provide a level of stability, she said. Lightfoot noted that some programs work best because of their small scale, and couldn’t be transplanted to large schools. However, certain principles of the programs of choice could be adapted to other environments. She said the district needs to preserve the programs of choice.
Programs of choice: Larry Murphy
Murphy also said he’d support expanding alternative approaches, as a way of preventing an exodus of students to charter schools, which is important, he said. But perhaps some students need more formal settings, too, he added, like programs that focus on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Programs of choice: Andy Thomas
One of the district’s strengths is its diversity of opportunities, Thomas said. Two examples are the new International Baccalaureate program – Washtenaw International High School – being run by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and the Mitchell-Scarlett partnership with the University of Michigan. But they shouldn’t just add more students to existing programs, he said. And some students wouldn’t do well in certain programs. The district needs a smorgasbord of choices, he said.
Question: What are your views on the increased reliance on standardized testing in the AAPS, in evaluating student achievement as well as using the results in evaluating teachers?
Standardized testing: Ahmar Iqbal
Iqbal said he didn’t really know enough about standardized tests. His two children have attended multiple schools, including some overseas, and tests helped benchmark their progress. So some sort of baseline is useful, he said. Tests also help teachers identify where students need more help. He noted that AAPS is using the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment to address the achievement gap, but said there’s no plan to gauge its benefit. There needs to be an explicit benefit to testing, he said.
Standardized testing: Patrick Leonard
Leonard said he doesn’t support the new state legislation that says by 2013-14 that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on student performance. He said he talked with the head of the Ann Arbor teachers’ union, Brit Satchwell, to clarify that the current teacher contract does not include the 50% provision. This year in the district, 20% of teachers’ evaluations will be based on demonstrated student academic growth. The state is trying to make everyone accountable, he said, but that doesn’t give teachers room for creative pedagogy. He said he’s talked to state Rep. Jeff Irwin about the issue.
Standardized testing: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot said standardized testing is the kind of issue where it’s helpful to have your children in the school system, as she does, so that you can see how they are affected. There are many things that standardized tests don’t measure, she noted, such as resourcefulness and critical thinking. Those skills don’t show up on tests. Lightfoot also objected to the fact that some testing is an unfunded mandate by the state.
Standardized testing: Larry Murphy
Murphy said he knows it’s an unpopular opinion, but some kind of baseline is needed. However, he’s wary of using standardized tests to measure teacher performance. Teachers have no control over which students get assigned to their classes, he noted – it’s random. He’s also concerned about too much reliance on the NWEA and MEAP.
Standardized testing: Andy Thomas
One of his core values, Thomas said, is the need to make data-driven decisions. He described the MEAP as worthless, but said he’s a supporter of the NWEA. The previous night, the board had a good committee meeting where board members discussed state-mandated changes to teacher evaluations, he said, and Ann Arbor will lead the way for best practices in that area. He looks forward to implementing the changes.
Standardized testing: Albert Howard
Standardized tests can be politically motivated, Howard said – it’s important to define “the voice behind the voice.” No Child Left Behind mandates are one of the worst outcomes of the Bush presidency, he said. There’s a language of brilliance that children speak, Howard said. Schools should never label a child based on standardized testing, nor base teacher performance on those outcomes.
Question: Do you agree with the bulk of Gov. Rick Snyder’s and the state legislature’s reforms affecting public education? What role do you feel the Ann Arbor school board should play in responding to those reforms?
State reforms: Patrick Leonard
Leonard noted that in responding to a similar question on the Ann Arbor Schools Musings blog, he indicated that he didn’t support any of the proposed reforms except for one: a teacher evaluation system tied to student academic growth. However, evaluations shouldn’t be solely based on student test scores, he said, but should include a more comprehensive set of factors. School board members can be strong advocates in Lansing, he said.
State reforms: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot said Lansing doesn’t “get it.” In Ann Arbor, people have been reluctant to play politics, she said – it’s seen as nasty, and not polite. But state legislators keep making budget cuts, so local educational leaders need to get involved. She said when she was first elected to the board, she was the lone voice urging AAPS to lobby in Lansing, and now they’re doing that. The board needs to do a better job in enlisting the community to lobby, too, she said.
State reforms: Larry Murphy
Murphy said he agrees with proposed changes in the teacher tenure law. He didn’t feel that the number of charter schools is a threat to public schools yet, so removing the cap on the number of charter schools wasn’t a concern. AAPS needs to stand out by example, he said.
State reforms: Andy Thomas
In evaluating these reforms, Thomas said, the mantra should be: What’s best for the children? But these laws are being proposed with a completely different agenda, he said, that involves busting the teachers’ unions and wresting power away from local school boards. At an AAPS board committee meeting the previous night, he said, trustees discussed a possible board resolution that would oppose elimination of the personal property tax. If the PPT is eliminated, he said, that would have a huge impact on all school districts, in terms of revenue. Holding legislative breakfasts is a good idea, Thomas said, and it’s important to involve the entire county, not just Ann Arbor.
State reforms: Albert Howard
The governor lives in Ann Arbor, Howard noted. Snyder is out of touch – he doesn’t interact with people who are involved in decision-making in the school districts. Board members should highlight the district’s successes, he said, and tell state legislators not to mess up what’s working well.
State reforms: Ahmar Iqbal
The state’s School Aid Fund should be used for K-12 education, not higher education, Iqbal said. He called for AAPS to hire a lobbying firm that could provide policy updates to the board on action in Lansing. But the board needs to focus on Ann Arbor. He said the district’s total general fund budget revenues had increased from last year to this year by $2 million. Yet even with this increase, he said, there were still cuts to busing and teachers. [Included in the AAPS approved budget document for 2011-12 are total general fund revenue figures of $184.13 million in 2010-11 compared with $186.03 million for 2011-12. That's where Iqbal gets his $2 million figure. In years after that, the projections for that figure show decreasing amounts: $182.81 million, $177.29 million and $176.22 million in successive years. The approved total expenditures for the 2010-11 AAPS budget stood at $185.3 million, while in 2011-12, that figure was $183.62 million. The 2011-12 budget included an appropriation from fund equity of $800,000.]
Question: What kind of involvement should parents and taxpayers have in AAPS budget discussions?
Budget involvement: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot urged the community to attend upcoming budget forums that are being hosted by AAPS. [The forums are scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 10 at Huron High School's cafeteria and on Monday, Nov. 14 at Pioneer High School's cafeteria annex. Both forums begin at 6:30 p.m.] More detail should be provided in the proposed budget, she said – an itemized listing for each category. Information needs to be provided in a timely way, with a website that’s easy to navigate. She also said school officials shouldn’t put up defenses when challenged about the budget.
Budget involvement: Larry Murphy
In a meeting earlier this year with candidates and the administration, Murphy said, he had urged officials to make budget information available earlier and in more detail. It looks like the district is doing that, he said. As an example of how more details would help, a line item in the current budget proposed $475,000 in cuts to athletics. But it didn’t indicate that the cuts would significantly reduce freshman sports, he said. That level of detail is important in making decisions. Pushback on budget decisions is good, he said. It helps the board gauge what’s important to the community.
Budget involvement: Andy Thomas
The point of the upcoming budget forums is to help prioritize, Thomas said. These are difficult discussions. Many people feel that participation in athletics isn’t important, for example, while others feel that it is. The other side is revenue, he noted. There’s an important bond proposal that will likely be put before voters in May, which will ask them to support a millage for technology enhancements in the district, he said. Parents need to get involved in these discussions. He also said another countywide schools enhancement millage should be considered. Such a millage was on the ballot in 2010 but defeated by voters. It’s time to give that another try, he said.
Budget involvement: Albert Howard
Safety needs to come first, Howard said, and if busing is not reinstated by the winter, then superintendent Patricia Green needs to resign. She shouldn’t be attending a $50 per plate NAACP dinner when this issue is unresolved, he said. If he can’t trust officials with the budget, how can he trust them with his children, he wondered.
Budget involvement: Ahmar Iqbal
When Iqbal asked how many people in the audience attended the AAPS budget forums in January, a few people raised their hands. He said he found them useless, in part because the sessions only focused on about 5% of the budget. The other 95% had already been decided, he said. Instead of breaking into small groups, the attendees should have talked together and duked it out regarding budget priorities. He’d like to see the process start with a blank page, so that people could list what’s important to them, and start allocating resources. He objected to the district’s use of so many consultants, for example.
Budget involvement: Patrick Leonard
The community’s involvement shouldn’t be limited, Leonard said. He gave an example of a woman who spoke to the board during one of its meetings during public commentary, who was apologetic and indicated that she didn’t feel she had the credentials that others did in giving their opinions. But regardless of background or education level, people know their neighborhoods and schools, and their opinions are valuable, he said.
Question: What do you consider a reasonable class size at the elementary and middle school levels, and what strategies would you advocate to preserve those class sizes?
Class size: Larry Murphy
Murphy pointed out that his campaign motto is “More teachers, less overhead.” His sons’ classes have 23 and 27 students, but Emerson School – a private school – has about 15 students per classroom, he said. Another private school, Daycroft Montessori, advertises that it has two teachers per classroom, he noted. There are 744 AAPS teachers now, he said, compared to 807 in the past – he wants to get back to that former level.
Class size: Andy Thomas
Ideally, Thomas said, there would be about 22 students in K-2 classes, 25-28 students in grades 3-5, and no more than 30 students in middle school and high school classes. But the fact is that the budget is continually shrinking, he said. The biggest challenge is a structural deficit related to increased costs that the district doesn’t control, he said, like the state-mandated retirement fund. The board needs to think about how to increase revenues – and that means a countywide enhancement millage. Thomas noted that Murphy opposed a technology enhancement millage, but Thomas said he hoped Murphy would support a millage that would allow AAPS to hire more teachers.
Class size: Albert Howard
Teachers should be treated like royalty, Howard said. He’d like to start with classes of around 15 students. There needs to be a safety net, and schools should feel like family. “This is not blood money,” he said. “This is flesh and blood.”
Class size: Ahmar Iqbal
Iqbal began by saying “I think the ideal class size would be one to one” – a statement that drew good-natured laughter from the audience. His son’s 7th grade classes have between 31-39 students, and his daughter’s high school classes are large. On a recent curriculum night, some of the rooms were so crowded with parents that it was standing room only. It’s the board’s responsibility to figure out the best way to address this issue, he said. Some classes might work with more students in a lecture-style approach, while others – like a writing class – might be best with under 20 students. He felt like the district is at a tipping point in terms of asking voters for more money.
Class size: Patrick Leonard
Leonard said that everyone would want a one-on-one teaching situation, but realistically that’s not possible. The district has had to make $50 million in cuts over the last five years, and there have been additional cuts in state funding. It’s the state that provides funding for about 75-80% of the district’s budget, he noted, but the state has different priorities. He said he’d support an enhancement millage.
Class size: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot indicated she’d be comfortable with about 22 students in K-2 classes, and less than 30 in grades 3-12. The high schools should consider offering some auditorium-sized classes – perhaps up to 80 students – that would help prepare students for college-style courses. The district should do a better job of getting grant funding, she said – not for new programs, but to support existing work. She also advocated for soliciting revenue-raising ideas from the community, and to market what the district does well. AAPS could also save money by using its own staff to conduct professional development, rather than hiring consultants, she said.
Question: Do you support the millage to fund technology improvements across AAPS that will come before voters in 2012? Why or why not? [Editor's note: The tech millage, if approved by voters, would pay for bonds issued in three series, beginning in 2012, 2015, and 2019. In each case, 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, which is also a legal requirement. See The Chronicle's coverage of the technology bond being considered for more details: "AAPS to Float February Tech Millage" ]
Tech millage: Andy Thomas
Thomas supports a tech millage – the schools need to be well-equipped with current technology, and in many cases students are using systems that are outdated. Laptops get dropped or smeared with peanut butter, he said. The district needs to make a significant investment in infrastructure, he said, that could connect classrooms remotely, for example. He said he thinks the voters will get behind a technology enhancement millage.
Tech millage: Albert Howard
Howard also supports the millage. Technology should be used to enhance creativity, but shouldn’t be a marketing tool, he cautioned. Children shouldn’t be intimidated by technology. They shouldn’t been concerned over whether it’s a Dell or Apple computer.
Tech millage: Ahmar Iqbal
Before the district embarks on any capital expenditure, Iqbal said, it should be measured in terms of how it benefits the students. The district should also be clear about how the technology enhancements are accounted for – as operating expenses, or capital expenses that can be depreciated. When the AAPS 2009 technology plan was written, 16 people were involved and produced an 80-page report. But now, it’s not clear how the technology millage would be spent – that’s outrageous. He wouldn’t support the millage until the district can show how the $46 million in proceeds would be used.
Tech millage: Patrick Leonard
Leonard supports the millage, and cited the importance of being able to make connections between schools within the district, or with other schools in the state or nation. This district isn’t tech savvy, he said, and the millage would help. Ann Arbor Open has a partnership with Comcast, which he’d read about in the Ann Arbor Open newsletter, and which is supposed to help bridge the digital divide. It’s important to provide these kinds of opportunities, he said.
Tech millage: Simone Lightfoot
Lightfoot said that Iqbar’s question is a good one. The board talked about the possible uses of the millage at a recent committee meeting, she said, “so stay tuned.” She noted that when she served in the U.S. Air Force, rotary dial phones were used – even though the Air Force has a reputation of being technologically advanced. The same is true at AAPS. The district needs better technology so it can offer online classes, or use Skype so that courses can be viewed remotely. AAPS also needs to look at more partnerships, with Comcast, Google or other firms. She expressed some concern over relying too heavily on technology, however.
Tech millage: Larry Murphy
Too often, Murphy said, people look at technology as a panacea. Too often, person-to-person interactions are discounted. His wife is a professor at the University of Toledo, and has described the difficulties that college students have when they take online courses. It would be even more difficult for K-12 students, he said. Murphy said he’s on the record in opposing the technology millage, but he would definitely support a broader enhancement millage, if it could be used to hire more teachers.
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