AAPS Sets Stage for Budget Talks

Also: district looks at allowing in-district transfers, schools of choice at high schools; trust among board members still an issue

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education committee of the whole meeting (Dec. 12, 2012): Faced with another looming budget deficit, the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) school board used their committee of the whole meeting to review a list of potential budget reductions.  The board tried to get a handle on the estimated savings that each reduction would bring the district.

Ann Arbor Public School trustees, Glenn Nelson and Susan Baskett

Ann Arbor Public Schools trustees Glenn Nelson and Susan Baskett. (Photo by the writer.)

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green stressed that the list brought by administration for review was in no way a list of recommendations – it was just a list of savings estimates, which trustees had requested at a previous meeting. The estimates totaled nearly $26 million in potential reductions. They included: reducing teaching staff; reorganizing human resources; eliminating funding for some extracurricular activities; and closing buildings.

As part of the budget discussion, trustees also reviewed their plans to begin a series of one-on-one and small group meetings with key community leaders, school groups, and other partners. Trustee Glenn Nelson described the plans as first sharing information about the funding situation currently faced by AAPS, and then engaging in an open discussion with a lot of listening. Trustees then plan to bring back the information gleaned from their discussions, and use it, as trustee Andy Thomas put it, “to put together a message and a campaign on how to keep these schools excellent – a message that will resonate with people … and will respond to their hopes and their fears.”

The bulk of the Dec. 12 meeting was spent discussing some preliminary recommendations on high school start times. The recommendations were made to the board by an administrative committee charged originally to look at that issue. Green explained how the scope of the committee had broadened beyond start times to include review of high school scheduling. The committee had also looked at the possibility of opening up the district’s comprehensive high schools (Pioneer, Huron, and Skyline) to in-district transfers and school-of-choice students.

The board also weighed the issue of semesters versus trimesters at Skyline High School, and seemed favorably inclined to consider a shift to semesters. No decision was made at the meeting on that topic.

Cost Estimates of Potential Budget Reductions

AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen introduced a list of potential budget reductions to the board, highlighting the cost savings the district could reap from each one, if it were enacted. He stressed that this was not a list of recommendations, but simply a list of cost estimates for the board’s review.

On the list provided, Allen said, the items are mutually exclusive – meaning that each estimate can stand alone, and is not dependent on any other estimate. The presentation included an estimate of the number of staff reductions that would accompany each reduction, and a short description of the implications associated with that reduction. The bulk of the reductions discussed by the board were potential cuts to instructional services and staff wages and benefits.

Cost Estimates: Instructional Services

Of the items presented as potential cuts to instructional services, the board engaged in the most discussion over the possible reduction of 32 FTEs (full-time equivalent) of teaching staff for a savings of $3.2 million. Allen noted that reducing teachers by 32 FTEs would equate to essentially one teacher per building, and would cause class sizes to increase.

Trustee Christine Stead and board president Deb Mexicotte each expressed concern about the idea that staff reductions, if any, would be implemented in an across-the-board approach such as one per building. Instead they indicated that they would be in favor of delivering instruction differently. Mexicotte suggested that some classes could have larger enrollments – as many as 70 students – or that Skype could be used to connect students and teachers across locations. Stead said she was looking for a “substantive overhaul” that allowed AAPS to compete on choice and innovation.

Board members didn’t understand specifically how some of the items on Allen’s list would save money. They questioned how moving Roberto Clemente program into Pioneer High School (savings: $200,000), or closing individual school buildings (savings: $500,000 to $3 million per building) would result in the projected savings. Allen explained that in all cases of building closures, the savings comes from a reduction in utilities costs and building personnel – such as principals, custodians, and secretaries. Allen also clarified that closing a building takes more than a year – in order to re-configure the attendance boundaries and communicate the change to the public.

About the list item for principal-sharing at the elementary level (savings: $1 million), Nelson pointed out that the idea had not gone over well with the community when it’s been suggested previously. He suggested going the opposite route – by assigning some administrative tasks to building principals at lower attendance buildings.

Trustee Susan Baskett asked how teaching staff or principals would be reduced. Allen explained that there is contract language that determines how reductions are made. Mexicotte added that while AAPS has generally been a district that does not lay off staff, the board could choose to do so. “The strategy for getting there [to the target number of reductions] could be multi-level,” Mexicotte said.

Thomas suggested that two of the suggested cuts on the list of possibilities – suspending the purchase of library materials (savings: $100,000) and eliminating fifth grade instrumental music (savings: $500,000) – could be offset by community donations made via the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation (AAPSEF). Green added that AAPS fine arts coordinator Robin Bailey had just been selected to be on an advisory committee at the Kennedy Center. Green reiterated that the cost estimates on the list were not recommendations, and that the impact of making those reductions would need to be studied.

Several board members pointed out that suggested reductions to high school theatre (savings: $200,000) and athletics (savings: $1 million) could hurt the AAPS brand. Stead argued that preserving arts and athletics makes AAPS unique when families are comparing AAPS to “a charter school in a box or just a computer.”

For any reductions that might be made, trustees noted the importance of factoring in the impact of potential student loss in response to the changes. Allen added that while AAPS currently receives just over $9,000 per student in state funding per year, that could change if a re-write of the School Aid Act being considered by the state were to pass. That re-write would allow funding to “follow” students in and out of AAPS on a monthly basis.

Cost Estimates: Wages and Benefits

Baskett questioned asked if the administration had priced out moving to a four-day week with longer school days. Allen said the financial impact had not been calculated, but indicated it would yield savings in transportation and utilities. But Green noted that shutting down all buildings one day a week would reduce the availability of space for extracurricular activities run by the Rec & Ed department. AAPS director of student accounting Jane Landefeld added that the district would be prohibited from moving to a four-day week because the minimum number of school days allowed is 170. AAPS has offered about 175 days of instruction each year, she said.

Thomas asked about the difference between making across-the-board salary reductions and requiring furlough days. Allen stressed that any changes to wages or benefits would need to be collectively bargained. He noted that requiring furlough days would not change the base pay of staff members, which is one factor in calculating retirement pay. Allen clarified that the furlough days could occur at times of the year that would have the least impact on students, such as on snow days or professional development days.

Some trustees expressed interest in having more details provided about the cost estimates. Mexicotte added that the line-item budget being currently developed by the administration could reap savings. She also asked the administration to add more information to the chart that had been provided, such as the percentage of the total that each proposed reduction represents, as well as more specific impacts of each cut. For example, she asked: What would be the practical effect of cutting $1 million from athletics – would it mean cutting football or figure skating?

Community Outreach

The board revisited plans it had discussed at an earlier meeting to engage in more extensive community outreach as part of the budgeting process. Nelson offered to coordinate the trustees’ individual efforts to connect with community leaders. Thomas suggested that trustees also attend PTO/PTSO meetings, and booster club meetings for theater, music, and athletics groups. Other board members were amenable to both suggestions.

Nelson suggested that information gleaned from the meetings with community members would be shared by each trustee with the whole board, and could be used to create a marketing campaign to preserve the excellence of the public schools. Trustee Simone Lightfoot expressed concern that the input of each trustee is not given equal weight in board discussions. Nelson responded that if there is conflict over how to proceed after the information is gathered, the board might need to take formal votes on issues, even though he indicated it would be possible to take a more informal approach.

A few trustees noted the board should still provide traditional community forums for people in the community who would prefer to attend those. Stead said, “What we are really trying to do is create ongoing relationships with our community that say: We value education.”

Trustee Irene Patalan suggested having a liaison from each school meet regularly as a group to discuss the budget, but Mexicotte suggested waiting on that approach. Baskett suggested that trustees should take administrators with them to their assigned community meetings. Mexicotte suggested that everyone should send Nelson a list of those key community leaders with whom they planned to meet. She also requested that the administration also send Nelson a list of those people with whom they feel trustees should meet.

High School Start Times

Green introduced an extensive presentation brought to the board by an ad-hoc administrative committee. She explained that the committee had originally been charged with studying high school start times, but that its scope had been expanded to include a review of high school scheduling options, as well as high school enrollment processes.

AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye reported that research is mixed on whether there’s a positive academic impact that comes from a later start to the high school day. She noted conflicts with athletics, additional transportation costs, and child care issues are possible arguments against moving to a later start time.

The board spent some time discussing the effect of later high school start times on transportation costs. For almost all scenarios where all schools district-wide started 15 minutes later, there was an increase in transportation costs. The board was not supportive of shifting all school start times by 15 minutes.

Given that the committee did not see any compelling research that said it makes a big difference in academic outcomes to have a later start time, Flye said, making the huge adjustment to start times does not seem warranted. She suggested that the district include questions about high school start times in its annual climate survey of students and families. Thomas agreed, pointing out that families’ responses may be affected by the possible reduction or elimination of district-provided transportation. Green noted that any surveys on this issue should include families with students in all levels of instruction, because shifting high school times could affect the other levels.

Lightfoot stated, “We tend to talk about evidence a lot when we agree with it, but find fault with it when we don’t. I believe that evidence is circumspect either way.” She suggested that the high school start times question was important enough to warrant its own survey. Baskett suggested having high schoolers manage the survey as a school project.

The board in general was not inclined to support a survey focused just on high school start times, and ultimately directed administration not to spend the extra resources to do so. Start time preferences will be gathered from families as part of the annual climate survey.

High School Scheduling

The public commentary at the Dec. 12 committee meeting was focused on the issue of trimester scheduling. Four parents spoke, all of whom argued that Skyline was doing students a disservice by operating on a trimester schedule, instead of semesters like the other two comprehensive high schools. In particular, the parents expressed concern about math and foreign language – because students do not receive continuous instruction in these areas all three trimesters of the school year. For some students, the parents pointed out, this means they could go six or even nine months in a row with no math class.

Flye reviewed the scheduling used at each of the high schools: Huron and Pioneer have traditional semester schedules with a 7th hour; Community uses semesters, but has alternate-day block scheduling; A2Tech has semesters with evening class offerings; and Skyline and Clemente run on trimesters.

AAPS director of student accounting Jane Landefeld explained the costs of each scheduling set-up: Teaching 1,600 students in a trimester system requires 80 FTEs, she said, compared to 76.8 FTEs in a semester system, a difference of 3.2 FTEs. However, offering the additional 7th hour class at Pioneer and Huron requires 4.4 FTEs, making the cost difference closer. Finally, Flye summarized pros and cons of semesters versus trimesters, gleaned from the committee’s conversations. She noted that only two other school districts in Washtenaw County  (Chelsea and Saline) use trimesters, whereas two others (Dexter and Whitmore Lake) had previously used trimesters but returned to semester scheduling this school year.

Ultimately, Flye said, the committee’s recommendation was to develop an action plan to move Skyline to a semester schedule.

Trustees who were not members of the AAPS board during the planning and creation of Skyline asked their colleagues to give some insight into the reasons Skyline was set up on a trimester system in the first place.

Mexicotte listed several reasons as keys to the decision to make Skyline a trimester school: cost savings; more elective class options; more flexibility for block scheduling for the magnet programs; and better math remediation. She also noted that when Skyline was conceived, trimesters were seen as the “wave of the future,” and that Skyline was seen as a pilot, which could lead to all district high schools adopting a trimester system.

Nelson echoed the idea that having more flexible scheduling at Skyline was “modern, and fits the 21st century.” He suggested that Skyline’s smaller learning communities and focus on mastery learning were aided by trimester scheduling. Patalan stressed that the set-up of Skyline was aided by the best data available at the time, including extensive community meetings and professional consulting. She also noted that trimester scheduling is not the same thing as block scheduling. Baskett added that the district had been counting on Pioneer and Huron to rework their structures as well, perhaps adding magnets such as humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, which did not happen.

Several board members asked whether a review of academic outcomes had been undertaken, now that Skyline has had its first graduating class. Board members were told that had not been part of the committee’s review.

Lightfoot noted that trimester-format classes are not readily available during summer school. Stead said she was “happy to be convinced” that trimesters were better. But it did not make intuitive sense to Stead that students didn’t have instruction in math for a period of nine months. Thomas suggested that what he was hearing was, “We’re going to be different because we want to be different,” even though there were no metrics that proved trimesters were better in any way.

Nelson and Patalan took exception to Thomas’ “tone” in expressing his thoughts, and Thomas later offered an apology for his tone of voice. “It was not my intention to denigrate the work that went into planning Skyline. My frustration that resulted from that tone has to do with the fact that … I can’t see anything that we definitely accomplished. We have received a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that [trimester scheduling] is not working to the advantage of the students.”

Lightfoot asked if the board had a set of metrics it had planned to use to evaluate Skyline’s scheduling. Nelson said that board wanted to see if the magnets led to better career development, as well as higher achievement and lower dropout rates. Mexicotte noted that the district also has climate survey data.

Stead said she would like to hear from people who do believe trimesters are great, stressing. “We can’t just be different; we have to be different and better.” She suggested that the board adopt the recommendation to move Skyline to semesters by March or April so there would be time to plan for the shift. Patalan said she wanted to be sure any planning to shift Skyline to semesters was done respectfully and in a way that continues to honor Skyline’s uniqueness. Mexicotte and Nelson agreed that Skyline should not have to be the same as the other comprehensive high schools just to be the same.

Thomas asked administration if March or April was enough time to plan for a shift to semesters at Skyline, and Green responded that she would not want to wait that long. The data the board had asked for during the course of this discussion – comparative achievement, discipline, and attendance data, she said, is readily available, and could be brought back to the board soon for its review.

High School Enrollment

Flye suggested that the board open up an in-district transfer option as well as school-of-choice (SOC) enrollment at the high school level. Landefeld added that up to now the district has only allowed in-district transfers and SOC students at the elementary and middle school levels. But Landefeld thought allowing a minimal number of transfers at the high school level would be a good idea, perhaps just 25 students.

Trustees expressed universal support for these recommendations. Thomas pointed out that with the possibility of losing transportation at the high school level, this would offer additional flexibility for families. Nelson said he would be in favor of opening enrollment by up to 30 students, but not many more than that, say as many as 75.

Baskett asked about the rules that would be put in place for lotteries at different schools. Landefeld responded by saying she would follow the same process as in-district transfers and SOC enrollment at the other levels. Landefeld said the new slots would only be available to ninth graders.

Board members expressed some concern with “personalized redistricting” that could result from allowing more in-district transfers. But they acknowledged that this is essentially what is allowed at the elementary and middle school levels already.

Stead said that she thinks opening the high schools to a limited number of SOC students is necessary to meet the district’s revenue expectations. Nelson and Patalan agreed that AAPS should start small.

Mexicotte said that she was eager to allow SOC enrollment earlier than before, and said she has been concerned that the SOC window has been too late to capture the number of students intended. Green said she agreed that the timeline needed to move quickly, and Flye said administration could now draft a timeline according to the board’s recommendations.

Mexicotte said she was thrilled to have had this in-depth conversation about these high school issues, and that the board “considers our high schools to be the crown jewels of our district.”

Board Goals Update

Mexicotte led the board in a brief discussion on the board’s stated goal of engaging in professional development to increase trust among board members. She reported that she had priced out facilitation from the Michigan Association of School Boards. It would cost roughly $3,000 per month for as many months as trustees wanted to work on this issue, she said.

Thomas said he would not support pursuing that kind of professional development for three reasons: (1) time would be better spent on interacting with the community about budget issues; (2) this is not a good use of limited funds; and (3) he is not convinced such work would have a significant positive effect on board interactions.

Stead, Nelson, and Patalan agreed with Thomas. Baskett and Lightfoot disagreed. Baskett suggested that as the board embarks on budgeting, it will do a better job if there’s trust among the board members. Although Lightfoot felt challenged by the cost, the issue was “beyond a top priority” for her, and she wished the board could find a lower-cost alternative. Mexicotte said that the cost pays for neutrality – and without the cost, it was more difficult for her to see how to work on the trust issue.

Thomas said that the trustees are who they are, and reiterated that facilitated discussions would not likely lead to any changes in their interactions. Lightfoot countered that she was more hopeful about the possible effect of facilitated discussions, and said she still found lack of trust to be a barrier to maximizing board effectiveness. “We’ll do the work,” she said, “but under what challenges, conditions, frustrations?”

Patalan felt that the community engagement the board is starting during this budgeting cycle could manifest itself in helpful ways.

Nelson said that “sometimes the best plan is to have important work to do together.” Just doing the work of the board could improve board relations, he felt, rather than “sitting around and talking about it in the abstract.” Stead said she has seen progress in small groups of trustees working on issues, and agreed with Nelson, calling a facilitated discussion to build trust a “forced situation.” Baskett cautioned that she did not think trust would be built naturally, and that although “people like to diminish it … the touchy-feely stuff is really important.”

Mexicotte closed the discussion, confirming that the majority of board members sounded like they want to set aside the possibility of a facilitated discussion for now. “I will continue to think about how we can do this in a cost-neutral way,” Mexicotte said, “and in the meantime, we can see what happens as we continue to work with each other organically.”

Agenda Planning

Mexicotte noted that the board’s January meeting will be the annual organizational meeting, during which the board will vote on officer positions, and can discuss changes to the organization of meetings or board committees. She also announced her desire to serve as board president again; and she invited any other trustees interested in the position to approach her for a collegial conversation.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Glenn Nelson.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at 7 p.m. at the fourth-floor boardroom of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [Check Chronicle event listings to verify time and place.]

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  1. By A2Person
    December 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm | permalink

    I wonder if Rick Snyder reads the Chronicle. How can he NOT fix the structural deficit produced by the pension system? How can he NOT restore adequate K-12 funding, if he has any awareness at all about what his choices have done to our schools? I just don’t understand that man. I know he and his cohorts can afford Greenhills…. but really? That’s it, too bad for everyone else?

  2. By Eric
    December 19, 2012 at 5:13 pm | permalink

    The three main problems facing AAPS are budget deficit, achievement gap and upcoming merger with WypsiRun. All can be dealt with simultaneously by concentrating teacher layoffs at high school level in the university preparation courses. Pink slips for the advanced placement and accelerated sections teachers, as many as needed to balance. A lot of the non-minority high achievers will then leave and the gap will go way down. Tell Tiger Mommy who has to get her turbo charged twerp into Havud before his voice changes that Greenhills is the place, not AAPS. By all means don’t cut back on football or basketball. That’s all they care about at WypsiRun.

  3. By Roger Kuhlman
    December 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm | permalink

    I would like to know the actual spending trends of AAPS for the past several years. Have their total expenditures stayed stable or have they increased.

    The budgeting that AAPS does seems to be designed to confuse the Public and prevent accountability by the managers of the school system.

  4. By Herb
    December 23, 2012 at 11:39 am | permalink

    As I understand it, AAPS is looking at a deficit of about 10% of its budget. This comes after several rounds of cheese paring and a new millage last May. Apparently the administration will not consider cuts in compensation and benefits. One possible outcome is bankruptcy, state control and mergers. Another would be a huge millage increase.

  5. By A2person
    December 24, 2012 at 9:01 am | permalink

    When I attended aaps budget forums last year, it became apparent to me that we could completely eliminate Balas (central administration) and still not come close to solving even one years problem. AAPS has a structural deficit, with a mandate to fund teacher pensions in the setting of fewer and fewer people paying into the pension system. We are not allowed as a district to bargain or fix this… It must come from Lamsing. But they refuse to do so. So we’ve had to cut and cut and cut every year, and it won’t change ever unless Lansing steps up. But they aren’t. So their preferred model of for-profit, corporate run charters and private schools for the wealthy will be the model here, unless something changes really soon. It’s disgusting.