Voters on Nov. 6 will need to decide one seat on the seven-member board of trustees for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The two candidates – incumbent Deb Mexicotte, first elected to the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education in 2002, and Dale Leslie, former local businessman – appeared at an Oct. 9 forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
Leslie is concerned with the leadership on the board and believes his business experience he brings would be a great asset to the board. He worries that today’s teenagers are born in the 21st century, while the people leading them were born in the previous century.
Mexicotte, a three-time board of education president and trustee since 2003, pointed to her track record of leadership and dedication to the students of the district. She highlighted the achievements of the district, while acknowledging she would like to continue with the work of focusing on student achievement.
The candidates answered eight questions selected by a league committee from a pool of questions submitted by league members and the general public. Topics included the role of technology in the classroom, the importance of class size, and customer service. The forum was moderated by Rosemary Austgen, a league officer.
Information about both Leslie and Mexicotte, including brief answers to six questions about their background and approach to the job, can be found on the League of Women Voters Vote 411 website. Both candidates also have campaign websites – daleleslie.org and debmexicotte.com. The school board trustee is elected to a four-year term to serve on the board, which sets policies, adopts district budgets, and approves large expenditures.
The Oct. 9 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and will be available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. The full schedule of candidate forums this week is on the league’s website. The forums are broadcast live on CTN’s Channel 19 starting at 7 p.m.
Information on local elections can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. The league’s Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Each candidate was given one minute to make an opening statement.
Mexicotte: She began by thanking the League of Women Voters for the opportunity to speak. As a life-long Michigander who moved to Ann Arbor in 1980 for graduate school, Mexicotte said she and her husband have raised three children in the Ann Arbor Public Schools who have received an excellent education. She currently is a coordinator for the Arts at Michigan program at the University of Michigan. She has served on the board of education for nine years, and for the past three years, has been the board president, selected by the other trustees, she said.
Leslie: He also thanked the league for the opportunity. He asked where else in the world would there be such a forum than in the United States. Leslie offered up his website for voters who wanted to learn more about his views. The “gauntlet has been thrown,” in Leslie’s opinion. In 2013, for the first time, Leslie said, there will be teenagers who have been born in the 21st century.
What professional experiences led you to run for the board of education and which do you feel have been the most significant in preparing you?
Leslie: Leslie pointed to his qualifications as a business person in the community. His family owned the Leslie Office Supply, which they sold in 1997 after 36 years in business. There needs to be a dialogue between the public schools, area businesses, and the community, Leslie said. If elected, he will bring business ideas to the foreground.
Mexicotte: She has spent 20 years in student development and student affairs at UM. She described her job there as helping students get the most out of their education. In her position at the university, she has managed large budgets, supervised employees, and planned and organized events. Mexicotte’s belief is that one needs to understand the entire student.
How racially and economically balanced are the individual schools with the district? Do you foresee changes through the redrawing of district lines?
Mexicotte: Mexicotte affirmed that the board prided itself on diversity in every school, at every level. To her, that is one of its strengths, and one she considers a benefit to the students and staff. Community diversity is one of the district’s defining aspects, and it is valued. She said that she did not anticipate there to be redrawing of district lines.
Leslie: He acknowledged that diversity was important, then took the opportunity to talk about the disparity in learning achievement among various student groups. He said that while district superintendent Patricia Green has dismissed the findings of the state as “pure poppycock,” he would ask state officials to come down and explain them.
How valuable is a liberal education in today’s technological society? Are these views supported in our curriculum and budget?
Leslie: He cited a recent request to the board to approve replacing biology textbooks and said he was astounded to find out that the books were ten years old [The board approved the Biology textbook request at the Aug. 15 meeting]. He said that his opponent said she had been requesting a list of textbook publication dates, but her request had not been honored. He would demand such a list from the administration.
Mexicotte: A liberal education and the range of education for the district’s students is as important as ever. She has seen through her work at UM that it is important to integrate both liberal arts and technology. She said that the district has kept the arts and humanities programs strong and equipped with resources. Mexicotte said that they have been able to accomplish that with the financial and volunteer support of the community.
Technology in the Schools
What are your thoughts and opinions on the way technology is affecting teaching and learning in the schools? Is it improving student achievement? By what measures?
Mexicotte: Real improvement in student achievement is meeting students where they are and taking them where they need to be, she said. Saying that students today are “technology natives,” Mexicotte said that technology is a tool – and it is important to use it in the best way. She noted that students use their hand-held devices to stay connected with each other and with their mentors at school.
Leslie: He referenced a talk given by former UM president James Duderstadt to the Kiwanis Club, of which Leslie is an active member. Duderstadt was asked to compare the computer revolution to the Industrial Revolution, but he said he would instead compare the computer revolution to the discovery of fire. Leslie said we are in an era where it was necessary to stay one step ahead of technology, especially when it comes to providing for our students. He mentioned a website used for teaching in the classroom of Jeff Bradley, lead teacher of the health and medicine magnet at Skyline, as something to emulate.
What measures can the board take to keep class sizes manageable? How important is class size in your view? In the view of AAPS stakeholders?
Leslie: Class size is very important, Leslie asserted. He said it was common sense that when there class sizes are too large, learning is hampered.
As far as revenue was concerned, he believes that the district has not taken a good enough look at fundraising. He cited the tens of thousands of dollars the Kiwanis Club has been able to generate through fundraising.
Leslie mentioned the possibility of renting out facilities when they are empty.
Mexicotte: About 85% of the AAPS budget is people, Mexicotte said. A few years ago, the board made the decision to downsize personnel to achieve the district’s financial goals. Since then, class sizes rose slightly, Mexicotte said. She said they were sad about that, and they have been monitoring the situation ever since.
When the same kind of reduction to positions was proposed to the board for the 2012-2013 budget, the board did not make those cuts, she said. In fact, she said, at the board’s most recent committee of the whole meeting, trustees talked about adding more positions back.
The governor has said the role of government is customer service. Who do you think the customers of the district are, and how would you grade AAPS at serving its customers?
Mexicotte: Students, staff, the administration, parents are all stakeholders in the district, she said. Mexicotte also included the local business community and every homeowner in the district as the part of the district’s customer base. “Every student’s achievement makes this a better place to live,” she maintained. By keeping schools strong and focusing on student achievement, the district serves the community.
Leslie: While he would give the district an A in customer service, Leslie said the board was dysfunctional and he would give it a “flat F.” The number one board priority, he said, was to get along with each other. There was no mention of students or facilities. He said that kind of goal was the result of private agendas each trustee pushed through and whispers from people in their ear. Voters were only third in the pecking order, Leslie contended.
Looking ahead 10-20 years, explain one or more projects you would like to initiate or support now to make your vision of the AAPS future realizable.
Leslie: He mentioned several things he would like implemented. He would like to focus on fundraising, streamlining board meetings, and being more visible in the community. Citing board meetings that have lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning, Leslie argued for a parliamentarian at meetings to help expedite them. He also said trustees needed to have the attitude that they were there to serve, and therefore, should have a more visible presence in the community.
Mexicotte: If the board continues to adhere to its strategic plan, put in place in 2006, Mexicotte said the district would be in a great position ten years from now. The plan has eight areas focusing on such topics as the advancement of technology and how it’s used in the classroom, cleaving to global standards, maintaining facilities, and keeping the district financially sound.
One Last Question
Kindly ask yourself the one question you wished I had asked today.
Mexicotte: She said she wished she would have been asked about the efforts the district has put forward to close the traditional achievement gaps.
The district has been able to maintain programs and services for all students while helping struggling students make substantial gains. Mexicotte said that in the time she’s been on the board, some areas of achievement have seen 30+ points of growth.
Leslie: Leslie responded that he wished he had been asked about the void in leadership in the district. Again referencing the board’s retreat goal of getting along with each other, he said that he saw a real problem with that. Either Mexicotte as board president did not recognize the problem, or she saw it and chose to do nothing about it. Either way, Leslie said, it was an example of poor leadership.
He also said that when hiring, the district has maintained the “same old traditional means of hiring.” Because AAPS is a prestigious district, it should be conducting a national search for positions such as the Pioneer High School principal position, Leslie said.
Each candidate had the opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
Mexicotte: She spoke about why she would like to return to the board’s service and why she would ask the community for its support. In her nine years as a trustee, the board has focused on student achievement. It has been at the center of all the work done on the board. Trustees have maintained academic excellence and excellent vocational programs, all while doing their best maintaining their fiduciary responsibility with community money, she said.
Mexicotte stated she has a proven track record of leadership. She has been elected three times as president of the board of education by her fellow trustees; she was the founding chair of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education; and she has held numerous leadership positions at Forestbrooke Athletic Club – her neighborhood pool and swim team. She has shown financial stewardship of donations made through the AAPS Educational Foundation, athletic and music boosters, and the technology bond. The passage of the tech bond earlier this year has already allowed the district to begin upgrading the infrastructure. The district maintains a fund balance and maintains excellence, while dealing with the challenging economic times.
Leslie: He said he likes to tell people he’s had 36 years of experience in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system – he attended AAPS K-12, as did his two sons. Looking at the district from the inside out was the best perspective to have, he argued. Leslie also took issue with district contracts being awarded to contractors from outside the district. Those outside contractors have no allegiance to the area, and this type of thing is not dealt with by the board, he contended. He said his business experience would benefit the board and the community.
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