AAPS Budget Forum: Class Size, Equity

May 16 board meeting to focus on FY 2013 budget decisions

AAPS Community Budget Forum (May 14, 2012): The Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) school board continues to solicit community input, as trustees plan for the approval of the district’s fiscal year 2012-13 budget by June 30. The district is facing a $17.8 million deficit, and is considering cuts to teaching staff, busing, music camp supports, and high school programming, among other areas.

Small group work made up a portion of the May 14 budget forum.

Small group work made up a portion of the May 14 budget forum. (Photo by the writer.)

Attendance at the second community budget forum held Monday at Huron high school was lighter than at the first one, held a week earlier. Still, almost 40 community members and about a dozen staff members participated.

The two main themes that came out of the second forum were: (1) a desire to keep the cuts away from the classrooms (i.e. not cutting teaching staff or increasing class sizes); and (2) a concern that the cuts as proposed would disproportionately affect the most educationally vulnerable segments of the district’s population. Many participants also expressed concern that the timing of the proposed budget reductions would not allow for transition planning this late in the year, and that the district was not being sufficiently forthcoming with detailed budget information.

Trustees Glenn Nelson, Irene Patalan, and Christine Stead attended the May 14 budget forum. The board will hold a discussion on the budget during their next committee of the whole meeting to be held on Wednesday, May 16 beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Balas administration building’s main conference room.

Budget Presentation

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green welcomed everyone to the forum, and reviewed the reasons behind the structural deficit that has caused AAPS to need to make over $55 million in cuts in the past five years. Green said that her administration does not want to be suggesting any of these cuts to the board, and that the cumulative effect of these reductions will be painful no matter which decisions the board makes. She then invited AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen to present the proposed budget.

The proposed budget was made in terms of three alternatives – Plans A, B and C – each with progressively bigger cuts. Even Plan A, with the smallest number of cuts and the greatest use of the district’s financial reserves, calls for a reduction in staff by 32 full-time positions, the elimination of some busing services, and the closure or merging of one of the district’s alternative high schools. Plans B and C have progressively greater cuts and less use of reserves.

Allen gave a presentation of the full budget proposal almost identical to the one presented to school board members last month, and then asked participants to break out into small groups to discuss their concerns with the potential budget reductions and brainstorm additional revenue enhancement ideas. An AAPS administrator sat with each of the small groups to serve as the facilitator and recorder.

Community Response

Community members attending the forum were asked to answer the following three questions:

  1. Given the budget realities facing the Ann Arbor Public Schools, what is your main concern with the proposed budget for 2012/2013?
  2. Based on revenue options, do you have any suggestions on how the district could raise revenue, such as private giving or increased marketing?
  3. What other questions to you have that were not answered this evening?

They were then asked to report out to the whole group. Meeting handouts also stated that AAPS would post additional information on the district’s website after the community budget forums to answer questions from participants, and also invited forum attendees to submit their concerns or questions in writing.

Community Response: Concerns

The concern mentioned most often at the May 14 budget forum was that the proposed cuts could negatively affect student learning – due to higher class sizes. Participants expressed the belief that the core curriculum will be what closes the achievement gap, and suggested that keeping class sizes as low as possible should be prioritized above everything else, including all extracurricular activities. “Don’t cut anything related to instruction,” “Cut anything but the basics,” and “Students first – preserve class sizes” were all suggestions made at the forum.

One community member noted that higher class sizes is what caused a lack of success for some students at their comprehensive high schools. And that had created the need for alternative programs such as the one in place at the Roberto Clement Student Development Center.

Another main set of concerns had to do with a perceived lack of equity in the proposed cuts. Participants argued that marginalized students who need the most support will be the most affected by transportation cuts; that “at-risk families are being hit hard across the board with cuts;” and that the cuts are being made “from the bottom up.” Another contention was that students of color would have more trouble getting to school, but the budget cuts will not reduce the academic achievement of whites, thereby widening the racial achievement gap.

Regarding the possible restructuring of Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, a few tables compared the timeline for transition for that alternative high school to a timeline for transition of an athletic program. Participants noted that lacrosse, previously a varsity sport, had been given a year to transition to a club sport, but Clemente could be closed with seven weeks notice – not enough time for the community time to re-group. According to a Clemente student who attended the forum, “Clemente students are starting to freak out.”

Participants also questioned if there was enough time left in the year to enact the budget reductions as proposed, and said that “people should have been given more time to react.” One table requested that the community be given detailed information earlier next year, because it’s projected to be another bad budget cycle.

Finally, it was argued that the district need to be more transparent, and that data should not need to be requested via Freedom of Information Act requests. A participant suggested that the district should also provide more background on the institutional history that had gone into the budget recommendations. Forum attendees also asked to be kept involved in the budget process between the May 14 budget forum and the final budget vote.

Community Response: Revenue Enhancement Suggestions

Community members suggested the following strategies for bringing in additional revenue – which are grouped thematically:

  • Redouble efforts to pass a countywide enhancement millage
  • Support the AAPS educational foundation
  • Help the AAPS educational foundation raise substantial amounts of money
  • Cut middle school athletics
  • Cut all sports
  • Convert more sports teams to club sports [as was done with lacrosse]
  • Cut all extracurricular activities
  • Institute a “pay to ride” plan to cover busing costs, waiving the fee for those who can’t afford it
  • Have the PTOs subsidize busing
  • Use smaller buses for smaller routes
  • Outsource busing
  • Eliminate two of the buses serving Ann Arbor Open
  • Eliminate swimming at Ann Arbor Open [at Mack pool]
  • Allow advertising in district spaces
  • Apply for more grant funding
  • Open more alternative programs in the district to bring in more School of Choice students
  • Fill Clemente to capacity by allowing additional School of Choice students to enroll there
  • Add Arabic language as an elective to attract kids who are attending local charter school
  • Join the Early College Alliance
  • Make sure the district is getting all of its Medicaid reimbursements
  • Redistricting so all students can attend the elementary school closest to their homes
  • Combine elementary schools and sell off unused properties
  • Merge low-enrollment elementary schools
  • Eliminate employees’ dental and vision benefits
  • Outsource the payroll department
  • Take back central administrators’ salary raises
  • Cut administrator’s salaries
  • Prohibit all administrators’ vacations until the budget is resolved

Community Response: Questions

Table groups asked a number of questions that were not answered formally for the whole forum group, though administrators did walk around and answer specific questions individually during the small group discussion and after the forum. The district has said it would post on its website answers to questions asked by forum attendees. Questions asked included:

  • How would cuts to the three dedicated police officers impact the schools?
  • What percentage of the budget needs to be kept in the fund balance?
  • What process was used in coming up with these suggested reductions?
  • Why aren’t there details being offered in the plan to restructure Clemente?
  • What is an estimate of the value of the Clemente building and property?
  • Is there a plan for the alternative schools that could be shared to explain what could be happening and reduce fears?
  • Why aren’t all of the alternative schools on the chopping block?
  • What savings would be realized by eliminating the NWEA assessment?
  • Why were there increases in central administration salaries?
  • Can the district release more details on the proposed cuts?
  • When a proposed cut in listed, are “offset expenses” reflected in that cut?
  • What is the timeline – when will these budget decisions be made?
  • How can people who aren’t present at the budget forum give input?

Green closed the forum by thanking everyone for their input, and saying that everything discussed at the forum would be shared with the board and posted on the district’s website as the budget conversations continue over the next several weeks.

Next board meeting: Committee of the whole, May 16, 2012, 5:30 p.m., at the Balas administration building main conference room, 2555 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104.


  1. By fridgeman
    May 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm | permalink

    I look forward to reading the school administration’s response to one of the questions mentioned in the article: namely, why aren’t the (other) alternative schools on the chopping block?

    I do not know how much money would be saved if Open and Community were closed, and those students were folded back in to the mainstream schools. My lack of knowledge could be either because (1) I have not looked hard enough for the data, or (2) it has not been made available.

    However, what I do know is this: closing those schools would definitely not adversely impact marginalized students who would stand to suffer from many of the cuts which have been put on the table (transportation, athletics, etc.)

    The overwhelming majority of Open and Community students would do absolutely fine in the mainstream schools, but have been enjoying the luxury of an alternative that up until now, we have been able to afford to offer. In my company, we would classify this as “nice to have” rather than a “necessity”. I would suggest that the school administration take a very hard look at this.

  2. By TJ
    May 16, 2012 at 12:47 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor Open did a survey of parents a few years ago and found that a sizable number would have put their children in charter schools if they’d not gotten in at Open. I’m surprised those results haven’t been more widely shared this time around.

    We are one of those families. Three children, 9 years each at Open, that’s 27 student-years of money that would not be in AAPS. And had

  3. By Rod Johnson
    May 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm | permalink

    As a parent who has had two (excellent) students in AAPS, one at Community and one at Skyline, my take is that Community is a much, much better school. My son would definitely not have done as well at Skyline.

  4. May 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    Perhaps this can help partly answer your question, Fridgeman. As far as the population of Ann Arbor Open goes, a good chunk (maybe 40% or more?) live in the 48103 zip code. Hypothetically, if AAO were to close, a huge number of those kids would be going to Wines and Bach. For instance, on my street of 11 homes, there are 3 kids in the kindergarten through eighth grade age range, and all of them go to Ann Arbor Open, but we are districted to Wines–a school which, if memory serves, is essentially operating now at 100% capacity. In other words, the space would still be needed at the Mack School building, or major redistricting would need to ensue to close that building. (Mack has close to 500 kids now.) So essentially, what you are talking about is closing the “magnet” focus of the school, not the school itself. Why would you want to do that when there are 3x as many kids wanting to get in as can get in? Ann Arbor Open does not cost more to operate than other schools, and every other elementary and middle school in the district is also served by busing.

  5. By fridgeman
    May 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm | permalink

    Schoolsmuse makes a good point regarding Open, but I don’t think the same thing can be said about Community.

    Let me be clear that I am not against any of the alternative-school programs. However, they are a luxury – especially Community – and I’m surprised that I have not read of serious discussion of the merits of closing them when compared to other cuts being discussed which would disproportionatly affect underprivileged students.

  6. May 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm | permalink

    Actually, Community costs are also comparable to the main high schools. And I was recently told there wasn’t “space” at the other high schools either–they have a lot more kids than Clemente or Ann Arbor Tech. Costs are higher at Clemente, but that’s because they have much smaller class sizes, and there is good reason for that.

    Regardless, I think any discussions of closings–including Clemente, Ann Arbor Tech, or elementary redistricting–needs a much longer timeline for analysis and discussion, and needs to involve

  7. May 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    I meant, I was told there wasn’t space at the other high schools for the volume of Community kids. . .

  8. By Rod Johnson
    May 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    What makes Community “especially” a luxury? What makes it a luxury at all? Why should the lowest common denominator education of the comprehensives be the only option?

    AAPS would be well served, in my opinion, looking at the effect on students of the trimester system at Skyline. Besides not living up to its early claims (full-year courses in two trimesters, etc.), it causes staffing cuts there to disproportionately harm Skyline students, since taking courses at other schools is very difficult. And as long as we’re questioning “boutique” choices, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the cost-effectiveness of the magnet programs there.

  9. By fridgeman
    May 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Schoolsmuse, I would find it hard to believe that Community’s students wouldn’t fit (physically) in the 3 mainstream high schools. And if that was done, costs would definitely go down, because the incremental cost of adding a hundred or so kids to a high school which is already in operation is far less than operating a separate high school. How much would they decrease? I don’t know. It is possible that in practice there would be little savings.

    Rod, I realize that our alternative programs are a sacred cow for many. I have no doubt that they provide a better educational experience for some students. However, my reason for specifically describing Community as a “luxury” is to contrast it with the safety net programs like Clemente or AA Tech. The majority of Community students would thrive at one of the 3 mainstream high schools. Perhaps this was not the case in the early years of Community, when the mainstream schools were, well, more mainstream… and less diverse, tolerant, welcoming, enriching, etc. than Huron, Skyline, and Pioneer are today.

  10. By Chris
    May 16, 2012 at 3:14 pm | permalink

    I think the point you are missing is that not all of those families would elect to stay in AAPS. Our street has a number of families, and as many kids (in four different families) who go/went to AAO and Community over the past six years as kids who go/went to Burns Park/Pioneer. In addition, there are a number of families with children who went to HDS or one of the schools that purportedly cater to gifted and talented kids. Would the all these children have stayed with AAPS?

    The thing that strikes me about all the proposals with even limited data attached are drops in the bucket of the deficit and seem likely to drive families out of AAPS. The loss of even a small percentage of affected students would surely increase the financial shortages more than any of the $60,000 for band camp, $200,000 for transportation proposals would save.

  11. By Letitia Kunselman
    May 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm | permalink

    There are so many other options that should be on the table before we look at cutting alternative education programs that actually *work*, i.e. students are successful, enjoy school (gasp), and bring parents to the District. As we have eliminated bussing and cafeteria workers from the District payroll, have we adjusted the number of Human Resources staff? As all schools move toward the Common Core Curriculum as the federal government is suggesting, then why do we need Curriculum directors over the secondary and elementary curriculum? There are department chairs and highly educated staff that could take this on during one of the professional development days. And while I am on the subject, the District could look at cutting outsided contracts for professional development and have the above mentioned highly educated staff lead some of these professional development days. I also just learned of a school district that uses their rec & ed department to run middle school sports – this may be a model we should also check into, in addition to cutting some freshmen sports. Just some ideas I suggested to the Board – received two responses which directed me to contact the State about funding, which I have done a million times as I am a laid off school teacher.

  12. By Chris
    May 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm | permalink

    And another thing — Pat Lesko’s FOIA requests showed that many schools are over the classroom size limit, and Skyline is underfilled: [link]

    How on earth is cutting student of choice busing to Skyline going make things better?

  13. May 16, 2012 at 8:35 pm | permalink

    The thought of increasing class size scares me and I’m glad to see that folks are putting this issue at the forefront. I work as a teacher consultant (in another county) and go to public schools, charter schools and parochial schools. In my opinion, two things are extremely necessary to have an effective school environment: a) small classes and b) parental involvement. (It helps if you can cherry pick your students, but that is another rant).

    The difference between a class of 25 and a class of over 30 is amazing. Now, there are teachers who can handle and make a class of over 30 work! But, common sense dictates that more one-to-one attention (esp. with more ESL kids, kids with special needs, etc.) will allow a teacher to really get to know her/his kids. I’m lucky being in special ed…I get that luxury. Imagine if every teacher had a small caseload/class and could get to know the kids, know how to motivate them, know the family, etc. (Again, of course, there are plenty of teachers who do this).

    Small classes will not make up for lack of parental involvement/care, but it helps.

  14. By A2person
    May 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm | permalink

    I am dismayed that we always seem to be in a “reactive” position to these ongoing cuts. We have a structural deficit, and massive cuts will happen every year in perpetuity until Lansing fixes our funding structure, including pension funding. Until then, we do this every year. We wait until the spring, then scramble around like crazy trying to find cuts.

    Why are we not being proactive? The alternative and magnet programs in the district attract families and have extremely high success rates. Why are we not increasing these types of options? How about, next fall, we take a look at ADDING a K-8 language magnet (Arabic? Spanish? Chinese?). How many families currently outside the district in charters and private schools might come back for something like this? What if we took a currently under-enrolled and/or under-performing building and transformed it in this way? If we fill up a building, and bring in more students, we make more money. We have happy, satisfied families and students. We have high achieving students. We are not continually behind the eight-ball, thinking about cutting the very programs that are most successful. Someone mentioned that Clemente is not fully enrolled. Is this true? Can we make it a school of choice? It is extremely successful as well.

  15. May 18, 2012 at 11:47 am | permalink

    We do need to get out ahead of things, though we are still hemmed in by the fact that there are strict limits to what we can do to increase resources rather than simply make cuts. Clearly, if we are to make cuts, we need to have a plan and a full understanding of the ramifications, which takes time.

    But part of the problem is the timing of State budget matters. We get our first peek at what kind of money is available for September in mid-January, at the Consensus Revenue Estimation Conference. That, in turn, forms the basis for the Governor’s budget proposal, usually released in early to mid-February. Then each chamber of the Legislature does its own take on the budget, which is where we are now. The May revenue estimation conference just took place, which by law sets the numbers that must be used to calculate a state budget which is not in deficit (cannot be by law). Now the school aid budget bills, which are sitting in conference committee, will be hammered out taking into account the May revenue estimates.

    The point of all this is that schools don’t really have a good idea of what might happen until mid-January at the earliest. Last year, we got taken by surprise as the Governor proposed to use a school aid fund surplus to pay for community colleges and higher education rather than avoid a cut to schools. That happened in February, and it was a while before it was clear that the Legislature was going to go along with it.

    It is past time to look at local options. Other communities, both here and in other states, look to raising significant amounts of money through private giving to their local educational foundations. It’s time we did the same. Second, a county-wide enhancement millage is the only path we have to raise operating funds without begging Lansing. We need to seriously consider giving this another shot. We are running out of options.

  16. By A2person
    May 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm | permalink

    Steve, I agree with everything you said. But i still think we can do both. If, for example a K-8 language immersion magnet is good for the district, pulls in families, creates high achieving students, appeals to gifted kids, any number of benefits ultimately financially good for the AAPS, then why not just do it regardless of what Lansing does?

  17. May 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm | permalink

    A2Person, I agree in principle. I’m not sure if that one solution would win out over others, but I do like the idea of pushing with innovative programming. But we can’t ignore what Lansing does – what they do determines our entire operating budget here. Bold initiatives of the kind you describe would have been easier to pull off a couple of years ago, before we were this close to the wall. It’s hard to sell people on the idea of a new magnet program when we’re eliminating transportation and cutting yet more teachers.

    They’re anticipating a $13 million deficit for next year, based mainly on expected retirement rates and projections in health care costs. Every penny we don’t cut now (and cover from the reserve fund) will be added to that deficit next year. If we take $5 million from fund equity this year to close the gap, that means we have burned the reserve down to $9 million and will have an $18 million gap to fill next year. There is absolutely no reason to believe that school aid payments will be going up significantly anytime soon. There is also a practical limit to how many students we can attract from other districts.

    We need to buy ourselves some time, and some room to maneuver. We can do that with drastic and permanent cuts to basic programming, or we can do that by providing more resources locally to our schools. Effectively, that means either or both massive private giving and/or a county enhancement millage. As I said, we are running out of options.

  18. May 19, 2012 at 8:53 am | permalink

    Thanks for all the additional info, Steve. Big ups to Jennifer Coffman who has been tirelessly reporting the facts on this evolving story.

    Some of us who have met over the past couple of weeks (parents, students, community activists from across the alternative and comprehensive schools in A2) are trying to coordinate for next steps like the ones about which Steve and others have mentioned.

    Contact me if you want to help build this. We need to meet and coordinate in-person so we can better hear each others’ positions, issues and concerns.

  19. May 20, 2012 at 7:16 pm | permalink

    I agree, big “ups” to Jennifer Coffman.

    Steve, can you explain how the retirement bill that I understand our legislature is currently discussing would affect next year’s budget? (If I understand correctly, it’s making new teachers get a 401(k) type plan, instead of a vested retirement plan.)

  20. By cosmonıcan
    May 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm | permalink

    re 19: [link]

    Not “currently discussing,” matter is decided.

  21. By Jennifer Coffman
    May 20, 2012 at 8:17 pm | permalink

    A clarification re 20: The MPSERS reform bill, SB1040, has passed in the Senate, but still needs to be evaluated by the House before receiving final legislative approval.

  22. May 20, 2012 at 9:07 pm | permalink

    I think there is a public hearing tomorrow. I got this on Facebook:

    “The House Appropriations Committee is holding a rare Monday meeting to take testimony on House Bill 1040. Committees don’t usually meet on a day when the Legislature is not in town. They must really want to move this. The meeting is set for 9 a.m. Monday May 21 in Room 352 on the 3rd Floor of the Capitol. The meeting is open to the public.”

  23. May 21, 2012 at 10:11 am | permalink

    Yes, House Appropriations is holding hearings on SB 1040 as I write. I don’t know if the House has any plans to make significant alterations.

    The big changes from the original version (on which we testified: [link]) is that they did not increase the age to qualify for health benefits, but they did change all new employees to a fully DC (401k/403b-style) plan rather than a hybrid plan that has been in effect since 2010. What is perhaps most notable is that the DC plan would include a 4% employer contribution plus up to 3% matching contribution (for a total of 7% employer and 3% employee contributions. These amounts would be MAXIMUMS, with lower amounts apparently permissible. (Compare that to the 2:1 matching, 10%-5%, offered to UM staff members.) Employers will also make up to a further 2% contribution in lieu of retirement health care coverage (which will end).

    On the one hand, the immediate effect would be to reduce required school district contributions by 3.5%, or a bit more than it was expected to increase for next year. However, in the year after (FY2013-14), the required contributions would INCREASE by 4% because new employees would not be paying into the existing pension plan.

    So, for AAPS, while I don’t have hard figures, I imagine that SB 1040 in its current form would save the district about $2 million for the next year. However, that savings would disappear for some time starting in FY2014. It’s possible that the legislature would absorb the additional costs of closing-out the DB pension plan, but I’m not holding my breath.

    On the other hand, this is based on the Senate-passed version, and I’m hearing that the House has already proposed important changes. So, we’ll have to see.

  24. By A2Person
    May 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm | permalink

    Look! I just read this article: [link]

    Lincoln schools are adding a language immersion magnet. In this environment of cuts. Because it will be good for the district, bring families in, increase achievement. AAPS could totally do this, it would be a great idea.