AAPS Mulls Redistricting to Save Costs

School board discusses working group report on busing options

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting (Dec. 19, 2012): The board opened its final meeting of 2012 with a reflection offered by board president Deb Mexicotte on the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and a moment of silence to honor the families and community affected by that tragedy.

Robert Allen, deputy superintendent Ann Arbor Public Schools

Before the meeting started, Robert Allen, deputy superintendent Ann Arbor Public Schools, distributed spiral bound copies of the report from a transportation working group.

The board received two informational reports — one from a cross-governmental working group charged with assessing the viability of continuing to provide non-mandated school transportation, and another one on the district’s partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center (UMDC).

The transportation report generated significant discussion, as the board examined the working group’s recommendations and considered the impact of making significant reductions to transportation. Even if the district were to eliminate all except mandated transportation for students, that would save only about $5.5 million of the roughly $17 million gap projected in next year’s budget.

A key element of the transportation discussion was a suggestion to consider redistricting – that is, reassigning some students to different school buildings based on where they live. Trustees discussed redistricting in the context of possible steps like eliminating some or all busing and closing schools.

The board directed administration to begin looking into a redistricting process.

Transportation Working Group Report and Discussion

AAPS Superintendent Patricia Green introduced the transportation report by saying that the working group was formed as a result of a significant fiscal crisis. She described it as a broad-based group including representatives from the city government, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA), AAPS administration, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), and community activists. She said it had been a huge undertaking, and that the group had done a lot of research and information-gathering in a short amount of time.

AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen presented a summary of the working group’s conclusions, and noted that a full report of their work had also been presented in spiral-bound form to each board member, including maps of each bus route by school and the set of laws applicable to transportation. [.pdf of working group report] Allen said the overall goal of the working group was to study and report on the financial sustainability of student transportation. The group’s objectives were to identify and analyze the options.

Allen reported that total transportation costs for the district are $6.96 million. But that amount falls to $5.59 million after subsidies for special education are applied. He noted that the law requires AAPS to transport special education students as well as homeless students.

Allen reported that the working group had evaluated nine main options:

  1. contracting or privatizing transportation;
  2. improving pedestrian infrastructure;
  3. re-routing;
  4. changing school start times to consolidate levels on buses;
  5. using more common stops;
  6. using more AATA routes;
  7. increasing walk zones;
  8. eliminating all choice busing;
  9. eliminating all transportation except that which is legally required.

Allen reported that the group had concluded that privatization would not save much – because contract rates are rising, as more and more districts outsource transportation services.  Walk zones could not be increased due to state law, Allen said.

But parts of all other options were recommended, except for complete elimination of all busing, an option the working group recommended keeping open for the next five years.

Transportation: Working Group Recommendations

Ultimately, Allen reported, the transportation working group suggested the following:

  • Requesting that the city improve sidewalks, and place additional crossing guards in order to reduce required safety busing of students who live within the 1.5-mile walk zones;
  • Re-routing buses, possibly as part of increased common stops;
  • Increasing use of AATA bus routes;
  • Eliminating all 60 routes of choice busing, including those for Ann Arbor Open, Skyline lottery students, and Roberto Clemente.

Allen added that other options that had been reviewed but considered not feasible were: using University of Michigan buses (would not match with student needs); creating vanpools (would not be less expensive); and facilitating subscriptions for private transportation services (would need to be organized by parents, since the district is legally prohibited from charging for transportation).

Finally, Allen closed the presentation of the working group’s recommendations by noting that the working group members felt that substantial savings could not be gained by eliminating just pieces of the school transportation system, but that transportation in its entirety may need to be gradually eliminated. At the same time, they acknowledged that eliminating transportation is not good for education, and could increase the achievement gap. They also felt the process would require open communication with the community regardless of what the board decided.

Transportation: Clarifying Questions

Trustee Irene Patalan asked whether the committee had considered combining students from different levels (elementary, middle, and high school) on the same bus. Allen explained that the working group had not considered that, because it would require purchasing more buses. Lightfoot added that the committee also considered the safety issues that might arise if six-year-olds and 16-year-olds rode the same bus. Lightfoot also mentioned as a concern the reduction in the number of hours driven per day, saying it would affect the quality of the available drivers, because a schedule with fewer working hours provides lower benefits.

Allen noted that an important factor to consider – for any reduction in transportation service – is the possibility the district would lose students to other schools. The district would lose the state funding associated with those students, so it’s important to weigh the costs savings in transportation against the potential loss in revenue.

AAPS trustee Simone Lightfoot

AAPS trustee Simone Lightfoot

The board requested more information on how the elimination of busing could impact student achievement and attendance. Trustees asked what the experience of other districts had been. Trustees also asked if AAPS had studied the effect of the transportation changes the district had implemented two years ago (such as enforcing walk zones, increasing common stops, etc.).

Allen explained that other districts reviewed by the working group had reversed their decisions to eliminate transportation. Green added that in other jurisdictions where a private group had tried to contract buses, the approach didn’t tend to be feasible in the end, and also raised equity issues regarding affordability of the service.

Lightfoot questioned whether buildings in AAPS had adequate infrastructure to handle additional traffic if busing in the district is eliminated.

Transportation: Board Discussion — Redistricting

Baskett asked if the working group had considered redistricting, which means changing the schools to which some students are assigned. She noted that children from west of Clark road are bused past four closer elementary schools to attend Burns Park elementary. She suggested that redistricting could increase efficiency, and thereby decrease costs.

Allen said that redistricting was outside the purview of the working group. But Green responded that the topic was “skirted all around as a reasonable option” and that “the words rerouting and redistricting were being used somewhat interchangeably.” Green said redistricting would need to be approached with caution. She noted the importance of looking at the history of past choices about how school boundaries have been set. She said any redistricting would need to be done in a committee specifically charged with that purpose, and would need much longer than the six months the transportation group had taken to do its work.

Nelson and Lightfoot, who had served on the transportation working group, weighed in with their opinions on the working group’s view of redistricting. Nelson said, “If the committee had gone into redistricting, it might have been a case of the tail wagging the dog.” Lightfoot stated: “There was a willingness to look at redistricting on the committee.” Baskett responded that she was pleased to have the route maps provided, and that there was no loud opposition to redistricting.

Mexicotte asked if redistricting would be done for transportation savings, or for other goals as well. Green responded that school closures and transportation could both be part of the redistricting process, and that she recommended the board look at opening a discussion on redistricting sooner rather than later.

Transportation: Board Discussion — General

Allen thanked the trustees who were part of the working group — Nelson and Lightfoot. Nelson thanked the other participants, and encouraged everyone to look at the appendices of the full report, which he said contained a lot of useful information that could inform the trade-offs between different options. Lightfoot said the process of working with the group had been phenomenal. She noted that this process could be used to engage community members on other issues as well.

Board vice president Christine Stead responded to the idea that eliminating transportation is not consistent with the district’s educational goals. She pointed out that none of the cuts the district has had to make are consistent with educational goals. That’s because education in the state of Michigan is not viable right now, she said. “We have been talking about this item [transportation] for three years, not because we want to, but because we have really horrible tradeoffs that we have to make,” she said.

Trustee Andy Thomas expressed his appreciation to the committee for their hard work, but also indicated lack of complete satisfaction with the results. He stated two concerns. First, he said that the recommendations were not very creative, and seemed to dismiss some items he saw as worthy of more consideration (i.e. contractual busing and vanpools). Second, the report does not address the primary question of whether transportation is financially sustainable. Thomas asked, “Are we saying we would rather spend $5 million on transportation rather than have 50 teachers?”

Nelson took issue with the question, saying that it was not within the scope of the working group to compare transportation to other budget elements. Nelson said the question of which jurisdiction pays for crossing guards came up during the working group meetings. Currently, the city does, but they would like to move it out of their budget, he said.

Lightfoot stressed how the working group’s conversation about sidewalk improvements was a great example of working cross-governmentally for solutions.

A few board members expressed interest in the idea that the AAPS Educational Foundation could be used as an entity to help secure funding for transportation. Allen responded that he would consult with AAPS deputy superintendent for human resources and legal services Dave Comsa regarding the possibility of working through the foundation on transportation.

Mexicotte asked, “What if we just decide to do something that violates state law because we think it’s best for kids?” She expressed frustration at the legal constraints that would prevent the district from charging for transportation offset by a scholarship fund, or from providing transportation only to areas of the district most in need. Thomas responded that he assumed Mexicotte had “her tongue at least partially in her cheek,” and pointed out that being sued by even one parent would cost the district too much in legal fees.

Transportation: Next Steps

Board members wondered what next steps they should take and what the timeframe for those steps should be. Thomas told his board colleagues that his interpretation of the report is that the board basically needs to choose between the status quo and eliminating all transportation. Nelson disagreed, saying that there were intermediate steps that could be taken to save the district significant chunks of money – such as eliminating choice busing and working with the city to reduce the need for safety busing. Mexicotte suggested bringing a list of necessary sidewalk replacements and locations for crossing guards to the transportation safety committee, a joint committee of school and city officials that already meets quarterly.

Mexicotte pointed out that everything is interconnected — high school transportation, choice busing, redistricting — and that everything is on the table as the board moves to plug the $17 million budget deficit it faces for next year. She suggested that the administration should come up with their best thinking on the issues and questions raised by trustees during this discussion by mid-winter, including the redistricting possibility.

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green

Green agreed that AAPS administration should continue internally the research of the larger working group, so that the board’s remaining questions could be answered, but noted that “this is only one piece of a jigsaw.”

Redistricting, Green said, will take time — at least a year, if not more — to do it justice. That would include outsourcing a feasibility and demography study to a third party, and ensuring significant community involvement. Though the recommendation for how to redistrict can come quickly, she said, it’s a hugely emotional issue for those who are affected. To illustrate her point, Green noted how many people had addressed the board regarding the possible movement of the Roberto Clemente program into another building last year. “The community has to come along with it — it cannot just be by fiat,” she said.

Stead argued that the fiscal realities facing AAPS might mean the district has to make decisions about redistricting faster than it would like. Mexicotte agreed that many of the budget decisions will need to be made quicker than the board feels comfortable with, but that redistricting cannot be rushed. “I would like to see us do this, but we are looking at a year and a half cycle,” she said. “It can’t be done for fall 2013.”

Stead countered that allowing the redistricting process to take a year and a half would cause unappealing consequences. Doing it faster, she said, could help save class sizes and programs. Mexicotte pointed out that the question is ancillary costs. For example, she said, “If we stop transportation to an area, do we lose enrollment? … There are things we can do, but thinking of the unforeseen costs is also very important.”

Mexicotte closed the discussion by thanking the transportation working group for putting the presentation together, saying it had given the board a lot to think about.

UM Depression Center Partnership Report and Discussion

Green introduced this report, by saying that AAPS has a very significant partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center (UMDC) that helps with recognizing depression in adolescents.

Trustees Susan Baskett and Andy Thomas share a laugh before the meeting started.

Trustees Susan Baskett and Andy Thomas share a laugh before the meeting started.

Assistant superintendent for secondary education Robyne Thompson reviewed the history and scope of the partnership, explaining that it began in 2007 to provide training systematically to AAPS administration and staff  –  to raise awareness of depression and prevent suicide among adolescents. Since the program’s inception, Thompson said, over 750 administration and staff members have been trained, and 150 students have become peer-to-peer mentors.

Thompson explained that the peer-to-peer work focuses on students referring peers to school counselors, not providing any sort of counseling themselves. She reviewed some of the slogans used in anti-depression campaigns at each of the high schools, and introduced three students who had worked as peer mentors in the program to speak. The students who addressed the board shared how their focus is to reduce the stigma of depression, educate their peers, and be a resource to peers in need.

Trish Meier of the UMDC then thanked the board for the district’s continued support. After this first five years of successful training, she said the partnership is now looking at how to improve in the future.

Trustee Andy Thomas thanked the presenters, and the peer-to-peer mentors especially, saying their role was very valuable in the schools. He also noted how the presentation was very timely given the recent events in Sandy Hook, which have created an awareness and concern about how mental health is handled in our schools. He asked how the district is ensuring that students identified by the program as possibly experiencing depression are connected with appropriate resources, and what follow up there is to be sure they are receiving the services they need. Thompson told Thomas that longitudinal tracking of students’ interactions with school counselors is done in Power School, a student information management computer software system.

Nelson noted that the UMDC programs are important to families as well as students.

Patalan asked how the peer-to-peer element of the program keeps going. The students explained that their health teacher was the staff person who coordinated it, and that so far, peer mentors have simply volunteered.

Mexicotte asked the students what they have learned by volunteering as peer-to-peer mentors. They said they have learned about depression, and have found a way to give back for the help they have received in their own lives. Mexicotte thanked them for stepping up to the plate and for the work they have done in their schools.

Sound Field Purchase

AAPS executive director of physical properties Randy Trent presented a proposal to purchase 35 mobile sound field amplification systems through REMC, a regional purchasing consortium. The total cost of the purchase would be $27,405, just over the limit requiring board approval, Trent explained. He added that these systems will replace systems purchased as part of the 2004 Comprehensive School Improvement Program, which are now failing to maintain their battery charge. Sound amplification, Trent said, helps teachers not to lose their voices, and allows any child in the room to hear in the same way.

Baskett requested to see the REMC bid as part of the second briefing. Thomas asked how the systems that would be purchased differ from those used by teachers in the classroom, and what the expected life of the equipment would be. Trent clarified that these systems would be mobile rather than having speakers in the ceiling, and could be expected to last from three to five years, depending on the battery life.

The purchase of the sound systems will be brought back to the board for a second briefing and vote at the board’s next regular meeting.

Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings

Mexicotte began by saying that there are no words that will adequately address the Sandy Hook shootings, but that the incident deserves reflection.

AAPS board president Deb Mexicotte

AAPS board president Deb Mexicotte

On behalf of the district, she expressed deep and abiding sorrow for the loss of the 20 young students and six dedicated educators, and said that none of us will ever be the same. Mexicotte then said when hearing the news coming out of Connecticut, she was struck by the stories of bravery among teachers and first responders. “The teacher-student bond is foundation to who we are as a people and as a species,” she said. “I want to thank those teachers who lost their lives protecting their students … Their heroism is an affirmation of what we know in our hearts — every one of our teachers would do the same … It is my hope that they will never have to.”

During her superintendent’s report, Green also reflected on the Sandy Hook shootings, saying it was hard to witness, but also acknowledging the acts of bravery during the crisis by fellow educators and first responders. Green said she also wanted to acknowledge the very dedicated staff here in Ann Arbor, who supported AAPS students as they came back to school on Monday while grappling with their own emotions about the tragedy. She also expressed gratitude to Ann Arbor’s police chief John Seto for reaching out to her and meeting with the AAPS cabinet to continue planning jointly for the safety and security of all AAPS schools.

During the agenda planning section of the Dec. 19 meeting, Christine Stead requested a review of the district’s emergency plans. Green said that she has already embarked on that process, and that Seto had been involved. Green explained that the plans have been reviewed and practiced, and that some amendments were made. She invited Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications and head of the district’s crisis team, to speak to the issue.

Margolis explained that the AAPS had secured two REMS (Readiness Emergency Management for Schools) grants over the past ten years, allowing the district to perform risk assessments of all buildings, and train hundreds of staff. She expressed confidence in the district’s preparedness, but said there are always ways to improve. Stead asked if the district should consider video surveillance or keeping the front doors of all buildings locked. Green indicated that AAPS executive director of physical properties Randy Trent has already been authorized to study the cost of such improvements. She also said that there are opportunities being considered for additional AAPS staff to be trained in incident management systems. Seto had pointed out that having everyone using the same terminology is very helpful.

Communication and Comment

Board meetings include a number of agenda slots when trustees can highlight issues they feel are important. Every meeting also invites public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the formal agenda or that are not covered elsewhere in The Chronicle’s meeting report.

Comm/Comm: Celebration of Excellence

The board honored Katie Lewit, a physical education teacher at Allen Elementary School.

Katie Lewitt, AAPS celebration of excellence

Katie Lewit received an award for her work as  a physical education teacher at Allen Elementary School.

Trustee Irene Patalan introduced the award, noting that Lewit had been nominated by one of Patalan’s own former students, Shawn Ricoy, who is now a district parent herself. Ricoy and her husband Mark nominated Lewit for her significant influence on the development of Allen Elementary students’ physical, emotional, and social well-being.

Lewit thanked the Ricoy family, her nephews, and her students, for making every day special. She also expressed appreciation for her former principal Jeanette Jackson and her current principal Joan Fitzgibbon, who she said have been amazingly helpful in steering her to be the best teacher she can be.

Comm/Comm: Association Report – AAPAC

The board invites regular reports from a set of community and school groups, but only one was present to speak to the board at the Dec 19 meeting. The co-chair of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee (AAPAC) read a statement written by an AAPAC member who could not attend the meeting. The statement spoke to the transition from preschool to kindergarten for special education students, and suggested that parents could benefit from receiving more information about elementary school options for their students. The letter also thanked Green and her cabinet for the time they have spent addressing special education issues. Finally, the report asked that the district educate the public regarding the budget offsets to special education made by the federal government and the county, as well as publishing the actual number of students who receive special education services rather than the Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) calculation often presented in budget documents.

Comm/Comm: Superintendent’s Report

In addition to her comments on the Sandy Hook shootings noted above, Green’s superintendent report included several examples of successes achieved by students, staff, and schools across the district.

She included accolades for students who received perfect ACT scores, successful music programs, Skyline High School’s design, technology, and environmental planning magnet program, the student building industries program, Forsythe’s knowledge master open participants, and various elementary programs and fundraisers.

Comm/Comm: Board President’s Report

Mexicotte reviewed the board’s work at its recent committee of the whole meeting. She noted the board’s discussion about potential budget reductions, community outreach, and a series of items unique to the high school environment. She said that the board would continue dialogue on these issues. About the board’s goals, Mexicotte said the trustees have been moving forward on their financial goal. But for its trust-building goal, the board is still looking for avenues other than a facilitated dialogue to achieve better trust among board members. Finally, she noted that the board’s next meeting on Jan. 16 would be its organizational meeting, and will be used to set up the board’s work for the next year.

Comm/Comm: Consent Agenda and Canvassing Votes Approved

With no discussion, trustees unanimously approved conference reimbursements, meeting minutes, and donations. The board also voted unanimously to accept the board of canvassers report of the Nov. 6, 2012 election, certifying that Deb Mexicotte won re-election to the board.

Comm/Comm: Agenda Planning

Glenn Nelson requested trustees’ input on topics that he and Christine Stead should take to the Washtenaw Alliance for Education to consider. He suggested the School Aid Act rewrite and preschool programming throughout the county as possible topics for countywide networking. Trustees suggested superintendent evaluation, teacher evaluation, transportation, and upcoming legislation as well as the ramifications of what gets signed into law as possible topics for the WAE to address. Nelson added that at recent WAE meetings, Stead was mentioned explicitly as someone who has provided very constructive leadership, and the entire county was very grateful for the that work.

Comm/Comm: Items from the Board

Stead thanked her colleagues from across the county who worked with AAPS during the lame duck session to advocate against the expansion of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA). She complimented the hard work that people did to review materials and put their name on them quickly, and said she anticipated the WAE would continue to build on that.

Lightfoot thanked Nelson and Stead for their leadership on the advocacy work being done, and added that it has been challenging to separate her hats as a trustee from someone who does public policy. She urged her colleagues to be ready to “hit the ground running back up to Lansing as soon as the school year begins again.”

Patalan said she hoped district families would take the winter break as an opportunity to slow down, take a breath, and connect with each other.

Nelson and Baskett complimented the teachers’ union on holding a very nice holiday luncheon. Baskett also reported on her recent trip to a rap session at Roberto Clemente Student Development Center about student profiles. She said Clemente principal Ben Edmondson “really gave it to students” about how these profiles were a reflection of who they are, and staff talked about what it meant to earn high school and college degrees. Baskett called her visit to Clemente “food for the soul,” and noted how all Clemente students have all their teachers’ phone numbers in case they have a stressful period over the holidays.

Thomas thanked Governor Snyder for doing the right thing and vetoing the law passed by Michigan legislators last week which would have allowed concealed weapons to be carried in schools, among other currently prohibited locations. Thomas said the veto required “a good deal of courage and integrity to go against the mainstream of [the Republican] party in doing that.” He also thanked the thousands of people across the state who let the governor know what they thought.

Mexicotte closed the meeting by wishing the AAPS community a happy, healthy, and safe holiday. She also thanked voters again for her re-election to the board.

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

Absent: None.

Next meeting (the AAPS board’s annual organizational meeting): Jan. 16, 2013, at 7 p.m. at the fourth-floor boardroom of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

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  1. By Robert LaJeunesse
    December 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm | permalink

    Last time my car battery died, I replaced the battery, not the car. Over $27,000 for 35 new “sound field” systems just because the batteries in the old ones need replacing? We have a battery store in town that rebuilds / replaces just about any battery at a fair price. Why not use them?

    No wonder the AAPS budget is out of whack.

  2. By A2person
    December 24, 2012 at 8:54 am | permalink

    That’s the main take-away message you got from this article??? The board works really, really hard, for very little reward. And the school district is in serious trouble due not to any fault of their own, but due to Lansings de-funding of schools, and a structural deficit created by the pension system that legally only Lansing can fix, but refuses to. It’s really sad, for Ann Arbor and for all our communities and kids.

  3. By Herb
    December 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm | permalink

    Some decades ago GM was Michigan’s largest employer and taxes on its plants and tooling and its workers’ pay and houses produced a lot of money for local school districts and the State of Michigan. Now GM has shriveled into a shadow of its former self and the biggest employer is Walmart. Their serfs do pay taxes but not enough to support the existing school systems. Pay and benefits for administrators, teachers and other employees all need a big cut or the system will collapse. It is childish to blame this on Lansing or Snyder like they are a bunch of ogres. The state government does not have the money. Unlike the federal government it cannot print it.

  4. By James Jefferson
    December 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm | permalink

    Is food for the soul the same thing as soul food? I agree we should go for battery rebuilds, bring that to the table next time. At least with the school board they are almost always all in attendance, unlike the city council members. So… What is the source of this projected budget shortfall of $17 million? Have we been told that the state will be decreasing our funding next year by that amount? If so, it is fair to place at least some of the blame for this fiscal crisis on the state. I have heard that money that is normally given to the school districts is being given instead to charter and private schools, so that is again a problem at the state level. I for one would like to thank the school board for doing what must be a serious pain in the butt job. I don’t always agree with their decisions, especially when it comes to the sanctity of administrative pay, but, having served on corporate and non-profit boards myself, I know how hard it can be to get things done.

  5. By a2person
    December 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | permalink

    Snyder fundamentally changed the rules last year. Proposal A specifies that while local districts cannot raise operational money to run their districts, the state would allocate all the money from the School Aid Fund (which is funded through a formula of taxes etc state-wide) to K-12 Education. Last year, Snyder loopholed that money away, giving a bunch of it to Higher Education, so that he could fund his business tax cuts. Last year, there was actually enough money in the School Aid fund to INCREASE per-pupil allocation for the first time in forever, but instead he decreased it dramatically. So the argument that the money just wasn’t there is totally false. And yes, for-profit charter schools (which have recently been un-capped and de-regulated) get public school funding, even if they are only online schools. They don’t have to pay for busing, and tend to push away kids with special needs. That leaves a very unfair playing field, and increasing deficits in the public schools. This IS the fault of Lansing, plain and simple. And the structural deficit that will require something like a 10% cut every year in perpetuity (as has been happening already for something like 5-6 years) is due to the pension system. It is unsustainable due to fewer people paying in. Lansing and Snyder are the only folks that can fix it (legally) and they do nothing.