Ann Arbor Public Schools committee of the whole meeting (Jan. 23, 2013): At the board’s committee of the whole (COTW) meeting last week, trustees received an update on the district’s strategic plan from the executive team and other district administrators. Trustees also discussed reviewing the district’s contracting policy.
While trustees received a comprehensive update on the eight points of the strategic plan, they focused their attention on aspects of international standards, personalized learning, and how best to market the district. President Deb Mexicotte argued that the district needed to co-opt the “language of the rhetoric” used by Lansing and demonstrate how the district is a better choice for students than the alternatives.
After hearing from six union-friendly members of the public during public commentary, trustees spent a significant amount of time discussing how, if at all, they wanted to change the district’s contracting policy. Currently, the board tends to accept the lowest qualified bid. But other factors discussed at the meeting included prevailing wages, historically underutilized businesses (HUB), and local contractors.
The conversation led to the creation of an ad-hoc committee to gather more of the information the trustees felt they needed before they could alter the contracting policy. Members of the committee were not yet appointed at the meeting.
Strategic Plan Update
A lengthy update to the district’s strategic plan was introduced by superintendent Patricia Green. She said that when she first came to AAPS, she had great difficulty getting her arms around the district’s strategic plan because it was too scattered. Although the work was being done, not everyone was aware of what was actually in the plan, she said. One of the first things she did as superintendent was to develop an administrative work plan, so all members of the administrative team would be part of the strategic work going forward.
The executive cabinet and other district administrators were on hand. The group included:
- Alesia Flye, deputy superintendent for instructional services;
- Elaine Brown, assistant superintendent for student intervention and support services (SISS);
- Jane Landefeld, director of student accounting and research services;
- Robyne Thompson, assistant superintendent for secondary education and career and technical education (CTE);
- David Comsa, deputy superintendent human resources and general counsel;
- Jenna Bacolor, director of community education and recreation;
- Randy Trent, executive director of physical properties;
- Robert Allen, deputy superintendent for operations;
- Merri Lynn Colligan, director of instructional technology;
- Kevin Karr, district strategy team leader and Mitchell Elementary principal;
- Bill Harris, Eberwhite Elementary principal;
- Arthur Williams, Huron High principal;
- Chuck Hatt, coordinator for literacy and social studies instruction;
- Kevin Hudson, Pioneer High assistant principal;
- Karen Eisley, CTE district chairperson
Flye said that the whole group had participated in the 18-month long collaborative process.
Strategic Plan Update – International Standards
Flye first reflected on the district mission statement. She then walked the trustees through some of the highlights of the district’s first strategy, which centers on creating personalized learning that meets international standards.
Initially, the trustees’ conversation focused on the district’s participation in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. That came after Flye reported that administrators had had some preliminary conversations with Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) to see if WISD could provide different options in AAPS – such as a “school within a school.” One already existing school that might be integrated into other schools is the Washtenaw International High School (WIHI) – an IB-based consortium high school that opened in Ypsilanti in fall of 2011. Trustee Simone Lightfoot asked if students could be pulled out of WIHI to have them come “in house” to an IB program at AAPS. Flye told Lightfoot that was something other districts have done.
Trustee Susan Baskett asked what the advantages were to having an IB program within the district. Flye explained that feedback had been received from families who say they don’t participate because it is outside of the AAPS district. Transportation to the Ypsilanti school has also been cited as a hindrance for Ann Arbor families. So providing an IB option within the district could help bring students into AAPS.
Lightfoot asked if there were any legal issues surrounding the contract AAPS has with WISD and the other participating school districts in the consortium. Green was emphatic that they were not proposing any change, nor were they actively looking at the contract with WISD. AAPS is satisfied with WIHI as it stands – but as part of the strategic plan, they were reviewing options. Green acknowledged the “concept of international standards is huge” and she wants to make sure the district is not overlooking any options.
Trustee Glenn Nelson said the county-wide model was useful, and AAPS should be careful about adopting any kind of “we’re going it alone in Ann Arbor” tone.
Flye also spoke in length about the aligning of district standards to Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The CCSS in English Language Arts (ELA), mathematics, and science have been benchmarked and compare favorably with standards from nations whose educational systems are the highest performing. The district is taking steps towards fully aligning with these standards. While she was not recommending an additional assessment, Flye noted it was important to look at key competencies and skills of international caliber.
Noting that it’s student learning, not curriculum, that ultimately has to meet international standards, Nelson asked how the district was determining that the knowledge gained by a student in AAPS beats a student in Finland or Singapore. He said that until they have that data, they will only know that their curriculum is designed around international standards.
In response, Landefeld said that in 2014, the district will begin administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in place of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). The NAEP is directly connected to the CCSS, which are benchmarked to international standards. Any state that has adopted the CCSS will be using the NAEP to test its students. Their work, Landefeld contended, was to build that rigor into the classroom learning so students are prepared when the NAEP testing begins in a few years.
When asked by Christine Stead how NAEP incorporated the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) standards, Flye said they were still researching that. Because international standards will play a large part, her team was “very deliberate” in benchmarking to PISA standards when designing the district’s curriculum.
Answering a question from Lightfoot about how often standards were changed, Landefeld said that it hasn’t been that many times. The last time was about a decade ago. While the testing has changed, the standards haven’t.
Mexicotte asked that the district look into the amount of time students spend in school, saying that she always appreciated hearing students needed to spend more time in school. Stead said that they were going to have to be “pretty creative” that they ensure adequate learning. American students are in school about 70 days fewer than students in Singapore. While we can map their curriculum, Stead said, our students will still be at a disadvantage compared to students from countries that invest more in education than the United States.
Mexicotte also suggested AAPS look into offering a computer science and technology certification within the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Even though the district is in a “terrible budget crunch,” she believed in cost cutting with a vision, and sees that adding such a certification would only be beneficial.
Strategic Plan Update – Personalized Learning
Introducing the second district strategy – which focuses on personalized learning plans for students – Karr presented the Achievement Team Database, which has been implemented in some schools in the district. The database allows for greater focus on the classroom teacher’s role in identifying, addressing, and monitoring individual needs of students prior to consideration for special education testing. The database information follows students through their school careers, and allows for educators to review all the information they have for the students to create personalized learning plans.
Baskett asked if the database was just for students who have problems in school. Flye explained that for this year, it was only for at-risk students. Ultimately, the district’s goal is for every student to have a personalized learning plan. Now that the administrative team is complete, Flye said, written procedures are being developed, with the intent to have the database in place for every student.
Acknowledging that it was a “huge shift in expectations,” Green said that it was only being used in a few of the district’s schools. And even limited to at-risk students, it takes time to collect and plan for the information. They are trying to jumpstart the process across the district. While every school in the district has access to the database, only some of the schools are really using it. Currently, individual schools have the option of using the database as they see fit. After Flye noted that Skyline uses a paper-based system for tracking student progress, Stead said that she felt it was unacceptable for a school to be using paper, considering the scope of data collecting and reporting that needs to be done.
Mexicotte said it made sense that the district puts struggling students first – because intervention for those students needs to happen early. While trustee Andy Thomas agreed with that priority, he questioned the likelihood of moving from at-risk students to the rest of the student body as a whole.
Given the district’s diminished resources, Thomas asked if having individualized learning plans for each student was aspirational, but not something the district will be able to accomplish in the near future. Green replied that it was the intent to accomplish the goal, but said it would take more resources to get there. As the district works to customize learning for all students, AAPS exceeds what the regular curriculum dictates, she said. Green cited some of the district’s virtual learning opportunities, as well as the technology bond, as steps in the right direction.
Stead expressed worry about growth for all students, not just those who were behind. She worried about what the district loses by not focusing on higher-performing students.
Lightfoot addressed intervention programs by highlighting the need for better staffing of programs like Rising Scholars, to ensure it’s the best program it can be. She also asked what kind of alarm bells go off for educators when students are in Read 180 [a reading intervention program] throughout high school. Flye responded by saying that the district is working to have interventions across the entire K-12 spectrum. If a student is in any one intervention program for a long time, it “may not be the best intervention” for that student.
Hatt explained that when a student reaches a plateau, the focus should be on how a class can be scaffolded for that student to get back into the core curriculum. He noted that the majority of students in the intervention programs exit the programs.
Another aspect of personalized learning is the Personal Curriculums (PC). A PC is a documented process that modifies certain requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Brown said that while special education students use PCs to help give them access to the curriculum so they can graduate, they were also looking at other districts who use PCs for accelerated learners.
Strategic Plan Update – Marketing the District
Stead said she believed the strategic plan had to be a living, breathing document, and therefore, needed to reflect the changing climate of public education. She cited HB 5923 and the proposed Public Education Finance Act (PEFA) as two pieces of potential legislature that the district will need to address. She asked how AAPS was positioning itself to compete for students in such a climate. Parents are going to be bombarded with “choice” if the “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” learning model Governor Synder has extolled becomes the norm in Michigan – so AAPS needs to be clear with what kind of choice it offers and the outcomes it delivers, Stead concluded.
Both Flye and Green pointed to technology as a key component of addressing the changes Stead described. Flye said that the need to be strategic was a reason why the district is exploring the idea of a virtual academy for students at the elementary level. Attracting families who are interested in distance learning was going to be important, she said. She also noted that the collaboration with Toyota International and focus on Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives was part of the district’s response to the changing climate.
Green said that she had asked Trent to re-prioritize the district’s technology implementation in light of impending changes in public education.
Allen agreed that technology was going to be key, especially in light of shrinking resources. Because the technology bond is structured in three phases, he said, the district will be able to adapt – as the market, the software, and the technology change.
Green said the district had been putting its accolades on the website, an earlier recommendation made by Stead. Williams shared several anecdotes about good publicity for AAPS through local organizations, and the success of students such as Huron High School student Lilia Popova, who is a finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search. Williams alluded to the good press that Popova will receive, and said that she will be a representative for the district when she competes on the national level.
Stead argued that “it’s a different time” and the the battles they’re fighting now are to preserve public education, so their efforts needed to be greater. She maintained that the district has to market itself much more aggressively. AAPS has to stay relevant and stay competitive, but “it’s hard to do when we have to cut $20 million out of our budget every year.”
Trustee Irene Patalan noted that there was a “richness” in the district where students can find something to excel in – whether it’s a club, a sport, or an academic concentration: “That’s where we have a leg up on ‘any time, any place’.” Nelson said they needed the courage to describe the good things in the district to make the case of the value of AAPS to the community.
To do that, Mexicotte suggested co-opting the “language of the rhetoric” coming out of Lansing as a way of articulating the district’s strategy to the public: “If they’re talking about choice, here’s choice,” and “here’s why it’s excellent.” Stead added to that, saying they needed to use the word “quality” to describe the choice AAPS offers because that’s not a word Lansing is using to describe the kinds of choices out there.
Strategic Plan Update: Other Discussion – Teacher Evaluation
Stead asked how many teachers were participating in the AAPS framework for teaching evaluation. Flye said that all teachers were using the framework. All teachers have access to the Stages software, which is a data entry tool for teacher performance. Flye also noted that the evaluation system is compliant with state guidelines.
Nelson asked about teacher recruitment procedures, saying he was impressed with the experience the most newly-hired teachers had. He asked how the district actively recruited teachers with previous experience. Comsa said that while the district sends representatives to university job fairs, Ann Arbor was a destination for teachers with experience. They post jobs through the county-wide consortium, which is a tool widely-used by educators looking for jobs.
Trustees applauded the fact that the district will attend recruiting fairs at the more urban campuses of Wayne State University, University of Detroit, and University of Michigan-Flint, in addition to their usual recruiting fairs. The district will also be holding its own job fair in February, to get an early start on recruiting more minority teachers.
Strategic Plan Update: Other Discussion – Student Outcomes
Nelson said he was concerned about standardized testing increasingly driving way student outcomes are measured. He asked if there was a way the district works to encourage “soft skills,” such as grit, resiliency, and perseverance, which are traits that are not tied to grades and test scores. Thompson noted that the Rising Scholars program works to teach students those kinds of skills. Nelson said that it wasn’t only a matter of teaching the skills, but praising the students who have them because they “might be a lot more important than other skills.”
Williams acknowledged the importance of soft skills in addition to content knowledge. He also said that because there was so much content students were expected to learn, sometimes the soft skills were more difficult to work into the curriculum.
Lightfoot said that when she hears “rigor” as a trustee, she loves it. But as a parent, she wonders if the development of the students is considered – as more and more content is being pushed down to students at increasingly younger ages.
Focusing on a student’s social and emotional development is important, said Flye. As they try to be innovative in delivering instruction, they are also trying as much as possible to support students. She gave as an example the fact that middle school students have the opportunity to earn high school credit, but when they talk to parents about this opportunity, they stress that the middle level program is important, as well.
Outcome: This was purely an informational presentation. No action by the board was required.
Contracting Policy – History
By way of background, the board has a contracting policy that guides contract awards. The policy was last revised in May of 2010. The policy currently states that the board of education “recognizes the importance of a fair and effective purchasing regulation.” The policy includes guidelines like: providing honest, impartial treatment to ensure fair and equal opportunity to all interested, qualified vendors; determining uniform guidelines for solicitation of bids and quotations for goods, supplies, and equipment; encouraging, by every legitimate means, active and vigorous competition for school business; and obtaining the most favorable prices possible without sacrificing quality, regardless of purchase amount.
Several of the trustees who have been on the board for a while recalled earlier conversation the board had regarding this policy. Mexicotte noted that it was one of the first conversations she had had as a new trustee, nearly ten years ago. It was also a conversation the board began to have in October of 2012.
Nelson recalled that after voters approved the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan (CSIP) bond and sinking fund in 2004, there was a great deal of focus on contracting, as the district was going to be awarding a lot of contracts. Discussion centered on issues such as prevailing wage, locally sourced contractors, and union contractors. Because the CISP bond was a state-funded bond, it was mandated that prevailing wage be honored. Nelson said that the district hoped that if it did an excellent job of reaching out to contractors, that effort would be reflected in the quality and price of the bids.
Mexicotte noted that in the past, when there were bids that were similar, they looked for “some combination of value and lowest qualified bid.” They didn’t rule out contracting with non-union shops, but the board had the understanding that they would use union contractors, and by and large, they did, she said. She said the break-down of union versus open (non-union) shops was about 88% to 12%. Baskett noted that the board also looked at other factors – like a company’s active presence in the community.
As the budget has tightened, and there has not been the same legal need to pay prevailing wage, the board has most often awarded the contract to the company with lowest qualified bid, according to Patalan.
Mexicotte said that many of the same arguments existed then as now, but now the district is operating within a much tighter financial environment. The board is currently struggling to balance its contracting policies against the need for value and savings, Mexicotte noted – especially as tradeoffs will need to be made in the coming budget cycle.
Contracting Policy – Historically Underutilized Businesses
The trustees discussed their policy on HUBs, which encompasses minority-owned and woman-owned business enterprises.
Thomas said he read through the entire policy and did not see any reference to historically underutilized businesses (HUB) – except for an optional small/minority business survey that is sent out for potential vendors to fill out. He questioned why they were talking about it, if the board had “not seen fit to put into policy or regulation.” Mexicotte said that in previous talks, they had discussed prevailing wage, local contracting, and contracting preferences, but chose not to write a preference for HUBs into the policy.
Mexicotte noted that Baskett was instrumental in bringing in a HUB focus. When the board awarded contracts to larger non-HUBs, the board encouraged those larger businesses to bring in smaller HUB businesses as sub-contractors. Baskett said that the board actively worked to develop partnerships between bigger and smaller companies, majority-owned businesses and HUBs. The district has hosted mixers, which are a chance for contractors to develop relationships with other contractors. Nelson said that during the bidding process, the board was “explicit and emphatic” that efforts should be made to reach out to HUBs, but also decided not to include “extra points” for such factors.
Baskett also explained that a provision on HUBs was not codified into policy language because there was “no way in hell” she was going to be able to get three other board members to join her writing it in. Earlier Andy Thomas had asked why the board was talking about the issue now. Baskett countered: Why not now? She noted that when the board “sold” the bond to the community, part of the discussion focused on local workers – and the superintendent had said the workforce will reflect the community.
While Thomas could see an argument made for how it’s beneficial to the district and the community to use local contractors, he could not see the case for giving preference to HUB vendors. He said that, as the name suggests, historically there were some significant barriers to HUBs getting contracts. But now, he argued, the openness and the transparency of the bidding process means that particular barrier has been solved. Thomas offered as evidence that the district receives back very few of the small/minority business forms they send out. Unless someone could make the argument that there are businesses out there that are being excluded because they are minority or female owned, that focus should be let go, he contended.
Without a change in the data, Lightfoot said, she assumes that barriers still do exist. She was not comfortable making the same assertion Thomas was making without more data. The openness and transparency Thomas referred to was not enough, according to Lightfoot.
Trent said that recently there has been increase in the percentage of HUB vendors the district uses. Because of a mixer the district held, a woman-owned contractor is doing most of the sinking fund work, he reported. Trent said that 31% of the district’s sinking fund contracting dollars now goes to HUB vendors.
Allen said that barriers to HUB contractors had existed in the past, but the district has tried to address those barriers. Some of the smaller businesses were having a difficult time getting bonded for large jobs, he said. When the district learned about that, they broke down the bids into smaller pieces – so the required amount of bonding was less. Lightfoot said she believed there were more barriers out there – and while mixers were fine, she would like to do something different.
Mexicotte disagreed, saying she sees that a lot of the barriers for HUBs have been removed. She commended the administration for doing a good job of identifying and trying to address the barriers. She said she would need more information to have a deeper conversation.
Contracting Policy – Other Issues
Part of the debate, Nelson said, was to define what “local” meant. As Mexicotte explained it, they approached local as being similar to tree rings, with Ann Arbor at the heart, expanding to southeastern Michigan, to the whole state of Michigan, and beyond. To Nelson, it’s not the address of the company – which could have its headquarters somewhere else– but where the workers live that matters most when talking about local businesses.
Saying she had grown up in a union home, Stead said she recognized the value of getting the job done right the first time. She wondered if the district received more value when awarding contracts to union vendors – that even though the cost up front might be higher, they were saving money in the long run by it not having to be remediated down the road. She was interested in looking at the data to see if that was the case.
In the board’s most recent culture, Patalan noted, the board awarded the contract with the lowest qualified bid. And in that culture of lowest-qualified bid, they have been able to do some “fabulous things” while “watching every nickel and dime.” Patalan said she was proud of how they were able to make the money stretch as much as it could.
Nelson echoed that sentiment, adding that it was very important to work on the core mission of schools, which was to get students prepared for the rest of their lives. He questioned if the district was going to be a vehicle for educating students or a vehicle for developing a local economy. They were looking at either money spent to enhance education or money spent to enhance local suppliers. He contended the board’s focus should be on the students and getting the best value for the district’s money.
Contracting Policy – Next Steps
Mexicotte said that because there were arguments for including prevailing wage, HUB vendors, and local impact in the policy, she would like to have more information – before making any kind of decision on revising board policy. She said she would need to see the percentage difference between prevailing wage and non-prevailing wage, for example, and see that it made economic sense, so that argument could be made to the public: “You can’t say the community wouldn’t be bothered by a $100,000 more expensive contract.”
Mexicotte also said she was interested in Trent’s assessment of how much remediation the district was actually doing. She is willing to pay more for value and trained labor, but wants to see information that demonstrates that value. She said that she was inclined to “stay-put” regarding the policies, and asked if there really was a problem the board was trying to solve. Her inclination was to get some answers to the questions they have, without changing the policy.
While she said she very much supported local workers, Patalan concurred with leaving the policy as it is. She asked if the district only hired local contractors and vendors, would that mean the district should only hire local teachers? She saw that the administration had worked to remove barriers and had worked within the spirit of the board’s intentions, without the board having to explicitly change their policy. Patalan thanked the administrative staff who have helped the board spend their money wisely within their framework.
Referring to public commentary the board had heard that night, Baskett noted it had included offers of help with crafting their policy. She asked, “If we’ve had offers to help, why not take them up on it?” Thomas cautioned against using a union to assess the value of exclusively hiring union workers, saying he’s not sure they would get an objective answer back. He said they needed to find someone with an objective viewpoint who doesn’t “have a dog in the fight.” Mexicotte responded by saying that maybe they bring all the dogs to the fight. Baskett agreed and said everyone brings biases, and that part of their job was to discern them, but ultimately, she felt they needed help.
Getting a “well-rounded perspective” from the administration, union workers, teachers, and the community was important to Lightfoot. She felt that it was necessary to get beyond their own people to have a more thorough discussion. Lightfoot suggested an ad-hoc committee to explore the issue more in-depth.
Baskett agreed, saying she would like a board-driven committee to put the issue to rest. She felt it was premature to take a position one way or the other, but also recognized that the board may or may not choose to change its policy.
Stead suggested such a committee could provide an answer over the summer. If they didn’t have a big contract to award anytime soon, she felt that there was not a particular sense of immediate urgency. Trent noted that the first part of the projector bids will be coming up, which is a large contract that includes installation.
Mexicotte proposed setting up a committee to look at the current contracting and gather the information the trustees asked for. The committee would conclude its findings some time before the next academic calendar. She also said that the committee “needs to take into account the range of discussion” from the board.
Outcome: An ad-hoc committee will be set up to gather information on contracting, and will report back to the board some time before the beginning of next academic year.
Contracting Policy – Public Commentary
All six members of the public who spoke during public commentary spoke in favor of having the board look at adopting local preference and prevailing wage provisions in contracting policies.
Ed Haynor, school board member at the Newaygo County Regional Educational Service Agency in Fremont, spoke to the board about the three universal truths he has learned as a board member for over 30 years: (1) If you have any anyone coming in front of you who says they are going to save you money, don’t believe them; (2) If procedures aren’t in place when it come to awarding contracts, you’ll be under the gun to select low bidders; and (3) if you take care of the locals, they’ll take care of you. He also said that he encourages schools to develop a responsible contracting policy and has worked with 60 to 80 boards in getting them to adopt such responsible guidelines.
Mike Crawford, executive director for the Michigan chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, commended the board for having a conversation about contracting policies. He offered his association as a resource to work with the board for the development of policy procurement for contractors. He also spoke on the benefits of hiring local contractors and noted there were ten local contractors who could do AAPS work.
Ronnie Malcolm, from Laborers Local Union 499, suggested the board form a sub-committee of community volunteers who can review and track the efficacy of the contracts awarded by the district. That would help “take some of the burden” off of the district. Malcolm himself was a product of AAPS.
Greg Stephens, secretary-treasurer of the Washtenaw County Skilled Building Trades Council, thanked the board for taking a look at the district’s contracting policy. He encouraged the board to use local workers who pay local taxes. He noted that the council he sat on represented trade workers who have done billions of dollars of work in Washtenaw county.
Mark Woodward, from Roofers Local 70, gave a brief overview of the kinds of training members of his local union go through. They send out skilled and trained members who are encouraged to vote yes on district millages and bonds.
Ron Motsinger, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said if the district chose to use their contractors and their tradespeople, they would get the best value for their dollar. He urged the trustees to let them “stay at the table,” and explain why they were going out of town for their contractors.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Glenn Nelson, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Irene Patalan.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, at 7 p.m. at the fourth–floor boardroom of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
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