Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen good news and bad news coming out of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Good news has come in the form of a new, enthusiastic, positive-energy, forward-looking superintendent in Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift. Her “Listen and Learn” tour was thorough and well-received by the community, followed by some quickly-implemented changes based on feedback from parents, teachers and staff.
Swift also brought forward some longer-term initiatives that required approval from the AAPS board. Those include plans to address underutilized buildings, a new K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program, more language programming, and opening up AAPS to students outside the district through the Schools of Choice program. Those ideas are all positive.
The bad news is process-related, tied to actions by the AAPS board. Mistakes of past years are being made again, as the school board fails to follow its own policies when implementing major changes to the schools. Specifically, the board continues to make important decisions after midnight, with scant information about costs or implementation. Some final votes are rushed through at the same meeting when the items are introduced, not allowing time for sufficient public input.
In this column, I’ll look at both the positive actions by the administration as well as the board’s flawed process. And I’ll ask you to weigh in – letting the board and superintendent know what you think on all of these issues.
Good Intentions, Good Execution
Dr. Swift, who was hired in August of 2013, spent her first semester in the schools on a Listen and Learn tour. I will admit that when I first heard about this idea, I was unconvinced of the benefits. Yet after watching the Listen and Learn tour in action, and realizing what kind of commitment it takes to visit every school in the district – and at each school meet with parents and community members at one meeting, and teachers at another meeting – I changed my mind.
At the meeting I attended, another parent raised her hand and said, “This is the first time in years that I have felt like someone was listening.”
In her Listen and Learn tour, Swift did several things right. At each meeting, she set a tone of welcome and attention. She had copious notes recorded by volunteer recorders, and she engaged University of Michigan School of Education graduate students to do qualitative review and analysis.
Even before the analysis was fully completed, she had identified some key areas that she wanted to address immediately.
In December she tackled cleanliness, in a project she dubbed “Project Sparkle.” (My friend, on hearing this name, commented, “Well, you can tell that she was an elementary school teacher once!”) Swift had apparently heard from enough people who felt that the district had let cleanliness go, and decided to address that immediately.
Project Sparkle was essentially a decision to have the custodians spend more time in the buildings, focusing in particular on “corners and bathrooms.” I haven’t spent much time in any school buildings since winter break, when Project Sparkle began, so I don’t know if people can see a difference – but I’m curious.
Another thing she decided to address immediately was assessment. Assessment, broadly speaking, involves how one evaluates the work of students, teachers, and principals. Many people (including myself) have strong feelings about what kinds of assessment should be used, and for whom. In addition, state law around assessments has been changing and will also have an impact on what the district can do.
Swift and her staff have recruited applicants – parents, teachers, and community members – for an assessment task force. This is very welcome news to me, because over the past two years, a group of parents has repeatedly asked for an open discussion of testing – and the former superintendent, Patricia Green, refused.
In other welcome news, the assessment task force was opened to applicants in a public process. For years, I’ve wanted the district to have more ad hoc or long-term committees that community members could join. Dr. Swift has also created a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel made up of invited members. Full disclosure: I’m on the Blue Ribbon panel. [Here's a .pdf of the full list of members.]
During the first two weeks in February, Swift conducted a series of meetings that shared what the district learned from the Listen and Learn Tour. If you weren’t able to attend one of those meetings, you can watch a video here, or read the summary report. [Here's a link to the written report and summary.]
As if that’s not enough, it turns out that Swift has a whole list of new initiatives waiting in the wings.
She heard parents and teachers complain about underutilized buildings, problem principals, the wish for another K-8 program, and the need for new magnet programs. And she responded with the idea of a K-8 STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) located at Northside Elementary School, which has been losing students.
She heard parents and teachers ask for more language programming, and responded with the idea of having multiple languages taught in elementary schools.
She recognized that Ann Arbor Tech and the Roberto Clemente Center are two distinct – but expensive – programs, and recommended keeping them separate but placing them in the same building.
She heard parents and teachers say that they were tired of cutting, cutting, and cutting from the budget, and that we should be generating income. She responded by proposing that the Ann Arbor schools become Schools of Choice to other students in Washtenaw County. In so doing, Swift implicitly acknowledges that the marginal cost of adding students from outside the district – who bring to the district per-pupil funding that’s less than the per-pupil funding for Ann Arbor resident students – is still worth it to the district.
That’s the good news.
I do think it’s good news.
I’m happy to see the superintendent respond to feedback from the community with plans that will likely add value to the district. I like to see new ideas. I am thrilled to see options for new revenue rather than simply proposals for cuts. I have even proposed some of these ideas in the past.
I’m happy to see the school board excited about new ideas, too. But I’m not happy to see the school board giddy about new ideas. Here’s where things get dicey.
Bad Process, Unclear Execution
I don’t, as it happens, have a major objection to any of these ideas.  I do have an issue with the process, though.
On Jan. 29, 2014, the Ann Arbor Public Schools board unanimously approved a massive array of programmatic changes, including opening a K-8 STEAM magnet program at Northside Elementary; developing new pre-K programs; and ensuring that Roberto Clemente and Ann Arbor Tech high schools are co-located at the Stone School building, where Ann Arbor Tech is currently located.
These approvals came despite the fact that little detail about implementation or costs was available. What was available was an assurance that more information would be forthcoming as staff developed more detailed proposals.
Most disturbing about these actions, however, was the timing. The board held a retreat on Jan. 22, 2014, and the agenda was distributed that morning. According to Amy Biolchini’s report of the retreat in the Ann Arbor News, the board was enthusiastic about these ideas. According to her report: “The board will hear a first briefing on the item at its meeting Jan. 29 and may vote on it in a special meeting Feb. 5.”
Based on that report, and based on board policy, I expected a vote on these items would take place in February. Instead, the vote took place a mere week after the retreat, on Jan. 29. And as has too often been the case in the past, the discussion and vote took place after midnight.
These decisions came fast on the heels of another rushed decision. At the Jan. 15, 2014 board meeting, the board opened the district to many more “School of Choice” (out of district) students. Again, the school board made a hasty decision – which will have sweeping ramifications for the schools – taking a vote on this on the same night that it was presented. The school board voted, despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely clear how the administration developed the proposed numbers for School of Choice students.
That same night, the school board also changed the timelines for in-district transfers and created a situation where those in-district transfer requests are out of sync with kindergarten roundups – a significant outreach point for incoming kindergarten families.
At both board meetings, the votes were unanimous.
Pattern and Practice
I might have overlooked these issues with the process, if it happened once – especially when a new superintendent is involved. But when it happens twice in the space of a month, I start to think about patterns and practice.
Although the superintendent is new, the school board is not. The school board is the exact same board that voted, after midnight on Dec. 14, 2011, to give two administrators raises. Again, at that time, they combined the first and second briefings – initial consideration, then a final vote – into the same meeting.
At the time, the decision to award the raises did not sit well with many members of the public. But what didn’t sit well with me was not the idea of the raises, but rather the idea that the school board would ram through that decision.
In fact, the board itself has recognized this problem. On April 10, 2013, after a series of very long evening meetings, the school board adopted Board Policy 1200, which states, in part [.pdf of full Board Policy 1200]:
Items(s) of particular public interest shall be briefed at least once at a meeting held prior to the meeting at which a vote on the item(s) is to be taken.
No Regular Meeting, Organizational Meeting, Study Session, or Special Meeting will be longer than 5 hours from the official start time. Standing Committee Meetings will strive to be no longer than 2 hours from the official start time. These time limitations are imposed regardless of the posted start time or the actual start time.
All meeting agendas will be arranged to place critical Board decisions and actions at or near the beginning of the agenda to ensure the smooth and timely operation of the District. Any agenda items incomplete at the time limit will be added to a subsequent meeting agenda at the discretion of the President, in consultation with the Superintendent.
Time limits are also addressed in a separate policy – Board Policy 1220. It states, in part [.pdf of full Board Policy 1220]:
When establishing the agenda for Regular Meetings and Study Sessions, the Board President and the Superintendent (the Executive Committee with the Superintendent) will place reasonable time limits on each agenda item to ensure the overall meeting time limit, as indicated in Policy 1200, can be maintained. Agenda items will be assigned a presentation length and a discussion length, and the time limits will be carefully enforced by the meeting chair.
Presentations exceeding the time limit may be granted an additional 5 minutes at the discretion of the Board President.
If Board discussion needs to continue past the set time limit, extension of that time limit may be voted on by the Board through normal voting procedure.
Because board meetings start at 7 p.m., any decisions made after midnight, generally speaking, violate the policy. Voting on items important to the public after midnight, and on the same day as they were proposed, violates the policy. [It's also worth noting that although the AAPS board meetings are broadcast live by Community Television Network on cable TV and rebroadcast periodically, these recordings are not available online – unlike the meetings of most public bodies. So unless you have stamina and a flexible schedule, it's difficult to view the proceedings. That's a major accessibility problem.]
Even worse? The board knew that they were violating their own policies. This was not an oversight.
At the Jan. 29, 2014 meeting, according to the Ann Arbor News report, trustee Glenn Thomas (who then voted for the changes) “advised his fellow board members that by voting on the issue that night, they would be violating their own policy. … As Nelson pointed out, the board follows this policy for routine business items – like purchase agreements and contracts – but not for some of the more major programming changes that affect students. ‘In the School of Choice expansion which was one of the biggest things I’ve voted on in my time as a board, we didn’t follow the policy,’ Nelson said. ‘In this wonderful package, another one of the most major things that I’ve been a part of on this board – we’re not following our policy. … It is somewhat sobering to me that on the most important things we do, we don’t follow it.’”
As I said earlier, I do support most – if not all – of these changes. But that is not really the point. These were not emergencies. The board had the option to schedule a special meeting, or to wait two weeks for the next meeting.
There are people who think that the end justifies the means. Most of the time, I’m not one of them. I don’t really understand the point of undertaking a thoughtful, deliberative process to hear people’s ideas and concerns – like Swift’s Listen and Learn tour – and then implementing major changes without public process. These are perhaps the most major changes I’ve seen since I’ve been writing about the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Yet the changes were enacted without notification to people who might have strong opinions about the changes, and were voted on before the Listen and Learn tour results were shared with the community.
I appreciate that the school board is enthusiastic about a superintendent who is coming in with new ideas, but I’d like to see the board ask for more detail before they give wholesale support to these proposals. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.”
I also believe better decisions are made through a deliberative process that involves the community.
The likelihood is that the school board will continue to make rushed decisions. What might deter that behavior? If the community gives the school board – and the new superintendent – feedback that there is a better way to conduct the school district’s business.
As Dr. Seuss says in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Send your feedback directly to the school board (including the superintendent) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 I do have some questions. For instance, while I’m delighted with the idea of increasing second language education in the district, I am not clear on why might we teach multiple languages in various elementary schools without a clear path to how we will teach them in high school.
Ruth Kraut is an Ann Arbor resident and parent of three children who have all attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She writes at Ann Arbor Schools Musings (a2schoolsmuse.blogspot.com) about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.
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