Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Dec. 14, 2011) Part 1: After an extensive, sometimes heated discussion – and a rarely used parliamentary action taken well after midnight – the AAPS school board voted 4-3 to ratify contract amendments for two of its top administrators.
Brought forward by superintendent Patricia Green, the amendments raised the salary of deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen by 7%, and that of assistant superintendent of human resource and legal services Dave Comsa by 12%. The board also reclassified Comsa’s position, bringing him up to the executive level of the superintendent’s cabinet, and changing his title to “deputy superintendent of human resources and general counsel.”
The board initially voted to consider the contracts as a first briefing, which meant the item would return to the board’s next meeting for a final vote, allowing more time for public input. But later in the meeting – about 1:30 a.m. – board president Deb Mexicotte moved to reconsider that initial vote, which it did, and the item was then classified as a special briefing, allowing the board to take a final vote that night. Trustee Simone Lightfoot called the move a “bait and switch.”
Mexicotte defended her decision, saying that she is elected to make decisions like these on behalf of the district. Other trustees backed that view. Irene Patalan said she often explains her vote to constituents after the fact, and this time would be no different.
In the end, concerns over transparency and equity for other employees were outweighed by the belief that salary adjustments were needed to retain Comsa and Allen, and to reflect their value to the district.
Also at the Dec. 14 meeting, on a 6-1 vote, the board ratified contracts for two new administrators hired by Green to complete her cabinet: deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye, and assistant superintendent of elementary education Dawn Linden.
The set of contract ratifications reflect Green’s desire to reorganize her executive cabinet to contain three deputy superintendents – Allen, Comsa, and Flye – at an equivalent salary of $140,000.
This report will cover in detail the discussions and procedure regarding the administrative contract ratifications. Additional coverage of the remainder of the Dec. 14 board of education meeting will be forthcoming in a separate report.
Near the beginning of the Dec. 14 meeting, the board engaged in a review of the meeting’s agenda, which it typically does with a simple assent. What made the Dec. 14 meeting agenda review atypical was an extended repertoire of parliamentary procedures: a motion, a friendly amendment, a calling of the question, and two roll call votes.
Part of the agenda included an item on ratifications for four administrator contracts: deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen; assistant superintendent of human resource and legal services Dave Comsa; deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye, and assistant superintendent of elementary education Dawn Linden.
The item was included on the original agenda as a “special briefing.” Such items are briefed only once and voted on at the same meeting, usually because they are of a time-sensitive nature. A somewhat more common process is for the board to give an item an initial review as a “first briefing” and then, at a subsequent meeting, vote on it as a “second briefing” item.
Agenda Approval: Motion to Reclassify to First Briefing
Trustee Simone Lightfoot argued that the public should have a chance to give feedback on the ratification of administrative contracts before they are approved. So she made a motion to change the administrative contract ratification agenda item from a special briefing to a first briefing item. That meant it would be discussed at the Dec. 14 meeting, but would then return to the board for a second briefing and vote at its next regular meeting.
Trustee Andy Thomas asked superintendent Patricia Green if there was anything time-sensitive about the contracts that would make it problematic to postpone a vote on them. Green responded that she was concerned about waiting any longer to ratify the contracts for Alesia Flye, deputy superintendent of instruction, and Dawn Linden, assistant superintendent of elementary education, who were hired on Sept. 1 and Oct. 18, respectively.
Agenda Approval: Board Policy on Contract Ratification
Green explained her impetus for bringing the four contracts to the board for review. She reported that when she was in the process of extending offers to Flye and Linden, who were hired to fill vacancies due to retirements, she thought she had the authority to offer contracts to administrators without board approval. As such, Green explained, contracts for Flye and Linden were signed by Green and board president Deb Mexicotte without coming before the board.
Green stated that it wasn’t until she started to do research on contracts for Comsa and Allen, in order to bring them forward for possible amendment, that she found “deeply embedded” in board policy 2120 – Superintendent Contracting Authority – that cabinet-level employment contracts require board approval. Though it had not been established practice to do so, Green consulted Comsa, who counseled that indeed Green should present the contracts to the board for ratification.
Agenda Approval: Discussion on Board Policy 2120
Lightfoot asked what sort of predicament the board would be in if trustees voted down contracts for Flye and Linden, even though they had already been signed. Green responded that, though the contracts should have been brought to the board first, they were signed in good faith and the district should honor them.
Lightfoot expressed frustration that the board was being asked to ratify contracts “after the fact.” Mexicotte and trustee Susan Baskett each stated that they remembered administrative contracts coming before the board in years past, but that this practice had become out of compliance with board policy in recent years.
Green pointed out that she was trying to change past practice to comply with board policy and asserted, “The buck does stop with me.”
Lightfoot thanked Green for highlighting where the district needs to improve. Thomas also thanked Green for rectifying the policy variance and increasing the district’s transparency on this issue.
Trustee Glenn Nelson commented that the governance group of the seven trustees and the superintendent need to help each other out if any of them notices inconsistent application of board policies, and he acknowledged “sharing the responsibility for this procedural snafu.”
Agenda Approval: Motion to Reclassify to First Briefing – Discussion
Based on Green’s explanation, Thomas requested that Lightfoot (and Baskett, who had seconded her motion) consider a friendly amendment to split the administrative contract ratification agenda item into two parts – retaining the discussion and approval of contracts for Flye and Linden as a special briefing, but moving discussion of contracts for Comsa and Allen to first briefing.
After some additional clarification, Lightfoot and Baskett agreed to the friendly amendment suggested by Thomas.
Baskett asked when the second briefing and vote would take place, because the next board meeting – on Jan. 18, 2012 – is its annual organizational meeting, when board officers and committee appointments are set, and the board reviews its processes and procedures. Mexicotte answered that the organizational meeting is not usually for doing work, but noted that because it now occurs in the middle of the school year [it was previously held over the summer, when board elections were held in May], perhaps the board will need to take up some of its regular work at that meeting as well.
Baskett then echoed Lightfoot’s concern that putting the contract ratifications on the board agenda as a special briefing was “not fair to the community,” especially in light of how the district “[has] been preaching to the community that we are resource-constrained.”
Thomas called the question on Lightfoot’s motion to a vote, and Christine Stead seconded. The parliamentary move of calling the question is intended to end debate and force a vote on the item.
Outcome on calling the question: The roll call vote on whether to close discussion on Lightfoot’s motion passed 5-2, with Mexicotte and Patalan dissenting.
Outcome on main item: The roll call vote on Lightfoot’s motion, as amended, to shift the ratification of contract amendments for Comsa and Allen from special briefing to first briefing passed 4-3, with Baskett, Lightfoot, Mexicotte, and Thomas voting yes, and Nelson, Patalan and Stead dissenting.
First Briefing: Current Administrators
Green opened the discussion of contract amendments for Comsa and Allen by reminding the board that after taking the job as superintendent, she had wanted to spend some time assessing AAPS operations and organization before making any changes, and she had said she “did not want to make change just for change’s sake.” Saying she would not be bringing forward the contract amendments without reason, Green then outlined her rationale for the proposed changes.
First Briefing: Current Administrators – Green’s Rationale
Green began by explaining her thoughts behind suggesting the reclassification of Comsa’s position from assistant superintendent of human resources and legal services to deputy superintendent of human resources and general counsel, saying that the title shift would allow AAPS to use Comsa to attract revenue in the future. Green suggested, “The WISD [Washtenaw Intermediate School District] might want to use Mr. Comsa … There are [also] some smaller districts that do not have the kind of resources we have here.”
Green also said she has been very impressed with the legal services Comsa provides to the district. “There are very few folks of his stature in the entire state,” she asserted. “He is very marketable and could very easily be marketed right out of AAPS.” Green argued that, in her review of Comsa’s work, she could see that he has saved the district at least $500,000 a year in legal fees, and gave two examples.
Just this week, Green said, Comsa saved the district $55,000 “by reviewing some billings and saying ‘we don’t think this is appropriate.’” She also noted that AAPS recently fielded an Office of Civil Rights complaint [regarding the effect of athletics budget reductions on Title IX requirements], and that Comsa was able to get it dismissed by providing excellent leadership during the review process. “If it had not been dismissed, the legal fees could have continued to multiply,” she asserted. “The risk management function is something very significant. This is something we should not take lightly.”
In terms of her proposed raise for Comsa, which would take him from $124,542 to $140,000, Green argued that there was precedence in the district for having the head of human resources be a deputy-level position, and for all three deputies having the same compensation package. Finally, she offered some comparable salary ranges for the board to consider: Wayne-Westland is paying over $160,000; Warren and Utica are each paying over $140,000; and Troy is paying $151,900. Green noted that if Comsa chose to leave the district, the district would not be able to attract a good replacement without significantly raising the compensation level.
Regarding Allen’s proposed contract amendment, which took his salary from $130,556 to $140,000, Green said he has worked closely with her to make the Medicaid reimbursement happen. [This will be discussed further in Part 2 of this meeting report. In brief, Green’s comment refers to $1.4 million in AAPS special education reimbursements currently being held by the WISD that Green is working to get returned to AAPS.] Green also noted that Allen worked diligently to be certain AAPS qualified for best practices incentives offered by the state of Michigan. Finally, she reiterated that the three deputy superintendent positions should be at the same compensation level.
First Briefing: Current Administrators – Board Discussion
Thomas said he was torn about this issue. On one hand, he noted, his previous professional experience as a chief administrative officer of a large medical practice makes him sensitive to the fact that salaries should keep pace with market conditions. He argued that Allen had done an admirable job taking the lead on high-profile, high-controversy issues, and that Comsa has also been an exceptional leader behind-the-scenes. In this vein, Thomas said, “Frankly, I think both of them without question deserve a salary increase.”
However, Thomas said, the district has a lot of good people – including principals, teachers, paraprofessionals and others – who have not received pay raises. “I am very concerned about the message we are sending to our rank and file that we recognize inequities among cabinet and will rectify them, but not the rank-and-file salaries.” Thomas said he recognizes that the money in this situation is “a drop in the bucket,” but argued that it does “move the needle in the wrong direction” while the district grapples with another $14 million in budget reductions.
Finally, Thomas said he feels a little better about approving a salary increase in Comsa’s position because it would be based in part on a reclassification of his position. He asked Green if her rationale for raising Allen’s salary was primarily to equalize salaries among administrators of the same rank. Green answered that it’s possible that Allen could be used to consult with other districts in the future too, but that is not part of what she is proposing currently.
Stead asserted that the salary increases being proposed for Allen and Comsa are small relative to the savings they have brought, and will continue to bring the district. She reminded her colleagues that in the past five years alone, AAPS has had to cut $50 million out of its budget, and that Allen and Comsa have done that work. She also pointed out that former superintendent Todd Roberts left AAPS to manage a much smaller group of students for significantly more pay. She argued that the district especially needs good leaders during these times when the state is not valuing education.
Patalan said she is willing to support an excellent team, and noted that Green is using her experience to bring new ideas to the district and look at things differently.
Nelson said Comsa and Allen have performed admirably under very stressful conditions. Like Patalan, Nelson pointed out that Green’s fresh perspective confirms that these are really excellent, important people to the district. Saying he supports Green’s recommended contract amendments in part because of the stresses the district is under, Nelson noted that Allen and Comsa will be with the district longer than any short-term pushback from the community.
Lightfoot asked whether Green was aiming to give all cabinet members parity in compensation, and Green answered, no, just the deputies. Lightfoot then argued that AAPS cannot be compared to other places because it has other amenities. She also suggested tying Comsa’s salary to a percentage of whatever he brings to the district in terms of additional revenue, instead of giving him a raise preemptively. Green countered that Comsa has already saved the district $500,000 in legal fees.
Baskett said that AAPS cannot compete on price, but offers employees a great quality of life. She said she has a concern about bringing all the deputies up to the $140,000 level at which Flye was hired. Baskett asserted that new employees coming in will always “negotiate high,” and argued that the district should not continually ask to realign top salaries every time someone leaves and a new person comes in. Finally, Baskett noted that the district has communicated to the community the need to sacrifice everywhere, and that the board needs to be cautious about proceeding with these proposed raises.
Mexicotte simply noted, “At this time I am in support of these amended administrative contracts as presented by [Green].”
Outcome: Votes are not taken on first briefing items. So as a first briefing item, these proposed contract amendments would usually have been brought back for a second briefing and vote at the next regular meeting. However, later in the Dec. 14 meeting, the items were eventually returned to special briefing status and approved.
Special Briefing: New Administrators
After holding the first briefing on proposed amendments to contracts for Comsa and Allen, board members returned to the discussion they had begun during the agenda approval, and discussed the ratification of the two new administrative contracts the district recently signed.
Deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye was extended an annual contract for $140,000 on Sept. 1, 2011, and assistant superintendent of elementary education Dawn Linden was extended an annual contract for $117,900 on Oct. 18, 2011. Both contracts were signed by Green and Mexicotte, but not brought before the board as required in board policy 2120.
Special Briefing: New Administrators – What Is a Raise?
Lightfoot contended that giving $140,000 to Flye when that is more than the salary of her predecessor was essentially giving Flye a raise before she had even started working for the district. [Former interim deputy superintendent of instruction Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley’s salary was set at $132,000.]
Green countered that it’s not considered a raise for an individual who hasn’t been here. She argued that the market is such that if AAPS paid less than that, they would not be able to get a “top quality” person, and pointed out that the range for Flye’s position goes up to $169,000 in comparable districts.
Lightfoot asserted that there is no shortage of people wanting to work for AAPS. In response, Mexicotte and Green pointed out that the Flye did not accept the first offer made by AAPS, but negotiated a higher salary before accepting the position.
Nelson thanked Flye and Linden for bringing their “considerable talents” to the district.
Special Briefing: New Administrators – Incentive Compensation
Baskett asked for clarification about the “incentive compensation” section of the contracts being considered. [.pdf of contracts. See section 9 of Appendix 1 – Fringe Benefits within each contract.] Incentive pay is offered to top administrators based on the percentage of their performance objectives they reach each year. On top of their regular salaries, they are paid an additional $4,500 for reaching 100% of their performance objectives; $4,000 for reaching more than 90% but less than 100% of their performance objectives; and $3,500 for reaching more than 80% but less than 90% of their performance objectives.
“Is this consistent with other contracts?” Baskett asked Green. “How did you come up with these numbers?”
Green answered that the incentive compensation section is a standard part of AAPS contracts. Comsa clarified that incentive compensation was only offered to employees in Class 1, which consists of Green, the deputy superintendents, the assistant superintendents, and the executive director of physical properties, Randy Trent.
Baskett clarified that the district had budgeted for the high end of the salary range for each individual, so that in case the highest level of incentive pay is reached, it will not cause a deficit. Allen confirmed this is the case.
Lightfoot said she was “challenged by the standard practice” of offering incentive pay to staff who are already highly paid, while the district continues to cut services and raise class sizes. “This type of contract is not sensitive to current realities,” she argued, but clarified, “This is not a slight against the individuals in these positions.”
Nelson asserted that excellent people make an enormous difference in an organization, and that AAPS needs that kind of excellent leadership. He noted that salaries for comparable positions at the University of Michigan are higher, and said that if he had any doubt, it was whether AAPS was offering high enough salaries to the kind of excellent people it has in these positions.
Thomas noted that it would not be fair or appropriate to eliminate the incentive pay section of the contracts without raising the base salaries of the people currently in those positions, since they took their jobs with the expectation of being able to earn that additional money.
Baskett questioned how much AAPS has paid out in incentive pay over the last year, and Mexicotte suggested that could be answered outside the context of the contract question.
Outcome: The ratification of AAPS administrative contracts with deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye and assistant superintendent of elementary education Dawn Linden were removed from the consent agenda, and approved by a 6-1 vote, with trustee Lightfoot dissenting.
Current Administrators: Reconsideration
After the approval of the consent agenda, but before the board action items, Mexicotte made a motion to reconsider the decision the board had already made to treat the ratification of contract amendments for Comsa and Allen as a first briefing item instead of a special briefing item. Her intent was to then bring the contracts to a vote that night, which is possible for special briefing items.
Current Administrators: Reconsideration – First or Special Briefing?
Mexicotte noted that she had voted in favor of Lightfoot’s original motion to change this item from a special briefing to a first briefing item, so she was entitled to make a motion to reconsider the board’s decision on this issue – she had voted with the prevailing side. [Only someone who votes with the prevailing side is allowed to move for reconsideration.]
Nelson seconded Mexicotte’s motion, and the board engaged in a heated discussion about the issue.
Lightfoot argued that this “comes across as a ‘bait and switch’ to me,” and told Mexicotte she was “disappointed that you have opted to maneuver in this manner.”
Thomas noted the time [1:38 a.m.], said he was “a little on the frazzled side” himself, and said he did not believe that moving forward on this proposal at this time would be in anyone’s best interest.
Nelson disagreed, saying he did not sense that there would be any movement around the table on this issue, and that the board might as well vote now “because we’ve got two excellent people who shall receive the word on how this is going to be resolved.”
Patalan added that she often explains her vote to constituents after the fact and that this time it would be no different.
Baskett argued, “I don’t think this is the best move. Perception says a lot. People will question why we waited until almost 2 a.m. to do this. I don’t get a sense of the timeliness of this. I don’t think these two employees are going to leave us any time soon.”
Lightfoot said she wanted to make a last-ditch effort to her colleagues to “walk the talk … We tell people we want them involved and that we care and then pull this at almost 2 in the morning. This is about knowing we are not doing the right thing or we wouldn’t be doing it at 1:45 in the morning.”
Mexicotte noted that this item came late to the Dec 14 agenda, and that many of the other agenda items also required a great deal of time to discuss as well. She then responded to a number of her colleagues comments.
Saying she was a trustee of the district, Mexicotte noted that she values input, but has also been elected to make judgments on any number of things – including contracts. “People expect that I’m going to try to do the right thing,” she said, “I feel pretty strongly about this being the right thing.” She argued that she was acting in the best interest of the district by supporting Green’s recommendation and that her belief was due in part to what she knows of Comsa’s and Allen’s work in the district, how much money they have found and saved for AAPS, and about the stability and excellence required in the district.
She countered Thomas’ earlier assertion that raising salaries for Comsa and Allen “moves the needle in the wrong direction,” saying that even though these are difficult economic times, the district still needs to figure out how to cut $14 million while doing right by their employees. She said she does not support cutting other employee salaries.
Finally, Mexicotte took issue with the suggestion that this action should not be taken because of what it might mean to the community symbolically. “We have a lot of hard decisions to make, and we have to galvanize the community about what’s important, not just what seems symbolically important – our funding model, the retirement rate, that students and teachers are starting to feel the squeeze – what we get so caught up in are these proxy fights.”
Saying she “bristle[d] at the suggestion” that this was any sort of maneuvering on her part, Mexicotte said simply that she had voted earlier, and then reconsidered as she thought about it throughout the meeting.
Outcome: The motion to reconsider the board’s earlier vote passed 4-3, with Nelson, Stead, Patalan, and Mexicotte voting yes, and Baskett, Thomas, and Lightfoot dissenting. When the board reconsidered its earlier decision, the outcome mirrored the vote on reconsideration – the board voted 4-3 (with Baskett, Thomas, and Lightfoot dissenting) to take up the contracts for the two current administrators, Comsa and Allen, as a special briefing action item.
Contract Administrators: Reconsideration – Board Action
After addressing one other piece of business, the board returned for a final time to its discussion on contract amendments for Comsa and Allen – this time as an action item.
Thomas repeated that he felt more comfortable raising Comsa’s salary because his job responsibilities will be increasing. Thomas felt it was less compelling to give Allen a raise to achieve compensation parity among the deputy superintendents.
Lightfoot asserted that she was “quite convinced” that this is not in the best interest of the district. “I think holy heck is going to be raised about the way this has been done, and this will get in the way of the tech bond … We’ve pulled the ‘okie doke’ on this one. It’s bigger than the politics … This is not acceptable to me.”
Nelson said he wanted to encourage his colleagues to use “I statements,” and then argued that he was supporting Green’s recommendations because it’s the best thing for the children and young people of Ann Arbor. He added, “I hope people listen to my ‘I statements’ rather than other statements about me.”
Patalan said she absolutely thought this was the best thing to do for the school district, and that she believed in Green’s vision and experience.
Stead said she also thought it’s the best thing to do for AAPS. She argued that the risk of losing the leadership of Comsa and Allen as the district tries to cut 8% of its budget is a bigger risk than any other cut that needs to be made in terms of balance.
Mexicotte said she voted the way she did early in the meeting so she could think about it, and then she did think about it, and brought a different motion. She said she looked forward to a very robust discussion about board process at the organizational meeting on Jan. 18, 2012.
Outcome: The approval of contract amendments for Comsa and Allen passed 4-3 with Stead, Patalan, Mexicotte, and Nelson voting yes, and Lightfoot, Thomas, and Baskett dissenting. The contract amendments reclassify Comsa as a deputy superintendent, and bring salaries for both Comsa and Allen in line with Flye’s at $140,000.
[This was Part 1 of the Dec. 14, 2011 meeting report. Part 2 of the meeting report is forthcoming.]
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/annual organizational meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, at 7 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
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