The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Ruth Kraut it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Huron & Chapin Wed, 02 Jul 2014 02:01:21 +0000 Ruth Kraut 8:10 p.m. I press the button for the HAWK signal and when the Voice tells me to walk, I do. As I finish crossing the street (with 10 seconds or so to spare) I hear the cars behind me start moving. Not for the first time. And I wonder: Is the HAWK sign like a stop SIGN, where a car waiting for the person to cross and then going is the right thing to do? Or is it like a stop LIGHT, where it’s not?

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Column: Student Press & the Body Politic Sun, 08 Jun 2014 23:02:35 +0000 Ruth Kraut Over the years, school newspapers have played a critical role in raising issues relevant to schools and their students. Since they are generally under the thumb of the school administration, this can sometimes become a little bit dicey.

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

When I was a student newspaper writer and editor, the newspaper was part of our extra-curricular choices. Now, most high school newspapers are published as part of a class. As these programs move into the classroom, they come even more under the control of school administration.

In this article, I explore the complex issue of censorship, including local examples of school news controversies, past and present. I highlight some student work that has been published – topics that are important to students, even if they might make adults uncomfortable.

I started writing this column in mid-May, impressed by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association (MIPA) awards won in April by Community High School and Dexter High School – and to a lesser extent, Pioneer High School and Saline High School. I was interested in the struggles that high school newspapers have to create a (somewhat) free press.

More recently, two local students – Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld – wrote a column published by the New York Times on May 21. Titled “Depressed but Not Ashamed,” the column explains how Halpert and Rosenfeld discovered at a journalism conference that they were both taking medication for depression. They then decided to interview other students with depression for their school newspaper. In the column, they describe how, ultimately, they were not allowed by the school administration to publish an edition focused on students with depression.

Even though I’d been working on an article about the student press, I hadn’t heard about their situation. That fact highlights two truths about the student press – and the media in general. First, we generally know only about the controversies that are ignited when something is reported on – and not when it is suppressed. That may, in fact, be the best argument for a free press.

Second, the areas of most concern to students are also the areas most likely to be censored by administrators. I think they fall into two general categories: school politics and environment, or the body politic; and issues that are more personal to students – the body politic.

My Own School Newspaper

To give you some context about my own experience, I worked on my high school newspaper – the Garnet & Black. And as a side note, I attended high school with Adam Silver, the new National Basketball Association commissioner who recently banned Donald Sterling from the NBA. At one point, I was the girls’ sports editor and Adam was the boys’ sports editor.

Ruth Kraut, Garnet & Black, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Staff list from a 1979 issue of the Garnet & Black student newspaper for Rye High School. The Rye, N.Y. school was built by workers who were being paid by the Works Progress Administration. The “mascot” of the Garnets is named after the garnet stones found while excavating the school.

Last fall, when I was home, my father had dug up yet another old box of my memorabilia, and in there were some copies of the high school newspaper. Back then, the newspaper was an after-school club, and the newspaper came out monthly during the school year.

Although I was surprised to see a short notice in one of the issues about Planned Parenthood’s services (including the words “birth control”), in general we felt we were fairly limited as to what we could write. All ideas and copy had to be approved by the school principal as well as our newspaper’s adviser, and the principal was perceived as a fairly heavy-handed censor.

That’s not unusual. Because student newspapers are produced in the context of school, they operate under the rules set by the faculty and administration.

The Washtenaw Voice

Yet within those constraints, student newspapers can – and do – break news and shine a light on problems. Sometimes, though, the consequences of doing that can be severe.

Over the past few months, the Washtenaw Voice, the student newspaper for Washtenaw Community College, has highlighted faculty dissatisfaction with the current WCC president, Rose Bellanca. On May 5, 2014, Voice editors felt compelled to post an editorial, “The Voice Will Not Be Silenced.” In part, they write:

We don’t usually print rumors, but a recent widespread rumor hits so close to home that we can’t help but address it: Someone at Washtenaw Community College is intent on shutting down The Voice. Several concerned sources came to us with this information last week. We asked administrators up our chain of command – Vice President of Student and Academic Services Linda Blakey and Director of Student Activities Pete Leshkevich. Both told us that they’ve heard nothing of the sort.

But if this rumor were true it would be done by simply putting a red line through our budget, and we wouldn’t know it had been done until after the trustees approve the budget. So, we would never have a chance to defend ourselves.

By highlighting this rumor, the students were trying to forestall action that the administration might be tempted to take.

School Newspapers and Freedom of the Press

Eliminating the budget for a student publication would be an extreme measure, but school administrators can exercise control in other ways.

According to a survey taken at a recent national high school journalism convention, one-third of respondents reported that they’d had articles censored by administrators. One-third also said they had self-censored because they thought administrators would censor them. This is complicated even more by the fact that often, the means of production – money, classroom space, computers – are controlled by the administration.

So what rights do school newspapers have? The Student Press Law Center provides a clear explanation:

Q: Do high school students have First Amendment rights?

A: Yes. As the United States Supreme Court said in 1969, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” But the First Amendment prohibits only government officials from suppressing speech; it does not prevent school censorship at private schools. A state constitution, statute or school policy could provide private school students with free speech protections.

Q: What about the Hazelwood decision?

A: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they choose to do so. But the ruling doesn’t apply to publications that have been opened as “public forums for student expression.” It also requires school officials to demonstrate some reasonable educational justification before they can censor anything.

A student publication is a public forum for student expression when school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions.

Local High School Publications: Our Bodies, Ourselves

Issues of censorship often arise when students attempt to cover topics that administrators deem inappropriate or controversial. But those are exactly the subjects that are of intense interest to the students – whether they’re working on a publication, or reading it.

Dexter Squall, Dexter High School, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot from the Dexter Squall’s website.

It’s worth looking at how this plays out locally. In a brief survey of six local high schools, I found publications at two high schools – Saline and Huron – that appear to be defunct. The Saline High School lost its school newspaper, the Golden Sting, due to a combination of budget cuts and a lack of interest in the class a few years ago – it needed 25 students to run, and only 21 students enrolled. Before it was cut, it had won a Michigan Interscholastic Press Association Spartan Award for seven years in a row.

The Skyline newspaper  – The Skybox – looks like it’s just getting off the ground. But three high schools have active, well-established student publications: The Pioneer Optimist, Dexter Squall, and Community High’s Communicator.

The Squall and Communicator appear to be the most robust student publications locally, with print and online editions. The newspapers solicit advertising and sell subscriptions. The Communicator is also running an indiegogo campaign to raise funds.

These publications are fertile soil for future journalists. Along the way, students learn writing, photography, and web design.

At Community High School, the current print edition looks and feels more like a magazine, and the web publication is meant more for breaking news. At Dexter High School, the print edition is a 16-page, color publication with a print run of 1,700. Old issues are available online.

Community High School, The Communicator, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot of the student publication for Ann Arbor’s Community High School: The Communicator.

Both papers cover a wide range of topics, including school policies, theater and sports, local news. For instance, the Communicator recently covered the same-sex marriage court decision, including interviewing a CHS student. The Squall covered the Dexter district’s decision to combine the Advanced Placement English and the International Baccalaureate English classes. Dexter students reported on a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives to revise the way teachers are evaluated, while CHS students wrote about the year-end CHS jazz concert.

Students also report on issues of a more personal nature. In February, Lauren Kimmel of the Dexter Squall used humor to tackle a serious topic in her column “Boys, Take the Hint: Relationships Aren’t Like Movies, You Know.” In it, she compares the real world to scenes from romantic movies – and concludes with an anti-stalking message:

Before you even consider scouring the entire kingdom for her,

take the hint.

If you had to scale a Ferris wheel to convince her to go out with you in the first place. If she and her family moved away 364 days ago. If you’ve been writing her a letter a day ever since without so much as a “k” or “:)” response,

take the hint.

Boys, no means no. Girls, you’re welcome. Now hopefully you won’t have 10 unread messages and 16 pending Snapchats when you check your phone. Hopefully you will be able to walk down the street without constantly checking over your shoulder and hopefully there will be no more pebbles hitting your window in the dead of night. 

Over at the Communicator, Hannah Hesseltine recently penned “Skintight Sexism,” about the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ dress code policy.

Community High School student Ada Banks and Pioneer High School student Julia Hale devised a petition on May 8 to the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS), demanding that they review their longstanding, district-wide dress code policy. Banks petition addresses the public shaming AAPS has instated into their protocol; girls at Slauson Middle School are required to wear “ugly t-shirts” when their dress is deemed “inappropriate” by their teachers, a direct shaming tactic and a “blatant attempt at humiliating students for their dress”. While the conflict throughout AAPS is centralized around the length of a girls’ pair of shorts, the cut of her shirt, or the thickness of her tank tops’ straps, the central reasoning behind the dress code policy here and in Evanston remains the same: these garments are “too distracting to boys”.

It is this logic that has the potential to severely damage a girl’s self-image. While a need for appropriate attire in a school environment is understandable, blaming weakened male academic performance on women’s clothing choices—and their changing bodies—is not. 

If you want to read the petition, and/or sign on, you can do that at the website.

Administrators: To Censor, or Not to Censor?

Obviously, these are articles and columns that the administration allowed to be published. In fact, the Dexter Squall has a history of taking on controversial issues, like dance clubs where students “grind,” and teen pregnancy. In 2010, a group of parents did not like what they saw, and created an anonymous blog to try to stop students from focusing on some of these issues. The Dexter High School principal, William “Kit” Moran, stood with the students, and for that he won the MIPA Administrator of the Year award, as well as the Courage In Student Journalism Award from the Student Press Law Center.

Here’s an excerpt from the SPLC press release (emphasis added):

Principal Moran received the administrator award for refusing to censor The Squall despite fierce attacks from community members who claimed the paper was printing content inappropriate for its school-age audience. Unrest over the content resulted in the creation of anonymous blog distorting the content of The Squall as “tabloid journalism,” and calls for the school district to strip the students of autonomy over editorial judgments.

The controversy prompted the Dexter school board to review the publication policies for The Squall, which limit the school’s authority to censor student speech. The board declined to remove the “public forum” designation protecting student publications, a balanced approach that allows students to make editorial content decisions as long as what they publish is not unlawful or substantially disruptive of school.

“I believe that journalism in America is crucial to our democracy,” said Moran, a longtime English teacher and coach who has been principal at Dexter since 2006. “A free society needs a free press. This isn’t new, but allowing this concept to be played out in high school may seem a bit radical. However, if we teach our students sound journalistic methods and ethics and allow them to act as journalists, we provide a rich and robust environment for their education.”

However, there’s a recent example that shows the opposite approach.

Last year, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld were interested in highlighting the struggles that students have with depression. As they write in their New York Times column – “Depressed but Not Ashamed” – untreated depression is a major contributor to suicide. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added):

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.

We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

The students interviewed for this series had signed consent forms, as had their parents. Yet administration was concerned that the students – who would be fully named in the article – would be vulnerable to bullying, or to re-traumatization from reading the articles.

The editors did not want to use pseudonyms, because part of the focus was on de-stigmatizing depression. By saying that this topic needs pseudonyms, they’d be reinforcing the very thing they hoped to dispel – that depression causes so much stigma that one must hide behind a fake name.

The AAPS administration supported the CHS dean’s decision.

One thing that jumps out at me was the idea that a whole edition would be devoted to this topic. Halpert and Rosenfeld write, “By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried – and failed – to start small in the fight against stigma.” But I think that assessment is too modest. Devoting a whole edition to a topic is not starting small. Interviewing lots of students is not starting small.

What’s more, the reaction of Halpert and Rosenfeld to the censorship – writing an op-ed piece for the New York Times – is also not starting small. [Note, though, that neither the town nor the high school is mentioned by name in the column.] Further, getting as far as they got – interviewing students, getting consent from parents regarding publication students’ names, utilizing the advice of the Student Press Law Center – could not have happened without the support of their teacher advisor.

What gets published, gets noticed. If the New York Times column had not been published, most people would never have known about this controversy. This isn’t limited to the classroom, either. In suppressing writing – an act that happens every day in newsrooms across the country – we suppress information. Changes in the news industry have the capacity to suppress many, many topics.

On the other hand, the opportunity to publish in other venues – to self-publish on blogs, Twitter or other online publications – means that the ability to censor students has changed.

Back in February of 2008, Jeff Piku – Dexter Squall’s image editor – vented in an editorial:

Apparently this paper has become somewhat controversial.

It seems like every time we come out with a new issue, there is someone waiting to knock us and “constructively criticize” us.

Well, frankly, I’m getting fed up with this.

The world isn’t perfect. There are such things as drugs, alcohol, sex and strippers that exist out there.

The fact is, most teenagers have had at least minor experiences with these topics and want to read about them. And, given that the Squall’s primary audience is teenagers, we’re going to continue to write about things that might be viewed by parents as controversial.

Students desire to construct meaning through their student newspapers. To me, it’s important to let them.

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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our local reporting and columnists. Check out this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Fourth & William Thu, 29 May 2014 03:54:06 +0000 Ruth Kraut Leaving the school board meeting at 11:30 p.m. (They haven’t gotten to the budget). A cop car has stopped a truck [photo

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Packard & Dalton Fri, 09 May 2014 13:41:06 +0000 Ruth Kraut A school crossing guard holds his stop sign and cars stop. As mom waits on the side, two elementary-school-aged children – an older boy and a younger girl – run across. The girl is wearing a pink tutu.

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Brooks Street Fri, 21 Mar 2014 22:57:40 +0000 Ruth Kraut Spotted on Brooks Street: Black squirrel chasing a grey squirrel.

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Skyline High School Thu, 27 Feb 2014 23:20:27 +0000 Ruth Kraut Ninth grade Skyline-Pioneer basketball. Halftime lead for Skyline 32-21. JV is in the other gym. [photo]

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Brooks Street Sat, 22 Feb 2014 22:24:21 +0000 Ruth Kraut Icy sidewalks – including the sidewalk outside Ann Arbor Open – force pedestrians into the street. A woman passing me says, “I’m not risking my neck on those sidewalks!”

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Column: Good Ideas, Flawed Process at AAPS Sun, 16 Feb 2014 20:33:04 +0000 Ruth Kraut Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen good news and bad news coming out of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

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.]

Jeanice Swift, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Jeanice Swift, superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. (Photo courtesy of AAPS.)

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. [1] 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]:

Regular Meetings

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.

Time Limitations
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]:

Time Limits

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



[1] 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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our local reporting and columnists. Check out this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Red Oak & Mixtwood Fri, 10 Jan 2014 01:41:33 +0000 Ruth Kraut City crews labor into the night at a water main break, one of three in the city right now, according to one of the workers. [photo]

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Column: Is Public Education A Charity Case? Sun, 29 Dec 2013 15:24:28 +0000 Ruth Kraut If you’re like me, then every January you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to spread out my charitable giving over the course of twelve months. It would be so much better for my cash flow, and probably it would be better for the nonprofits as well.”

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ruth Kraut

And then, come November and December, I realize that once again, I failed to spread out my giving – and I had better pull out my checkbook. Writing the bulk of these checks at the end of the year has a benefit, in that it allows me to look at all of my donations at once. But it also means that I’m in a rush and I don’t always take the time to reflect. So this is my opportunity.

Like many of you, we make donations to local, national, and international groups that focus on a wide range of issues. For us, those organizations do work related to health, the environment, politics, women’s issues, Jewish groups, social action, human services, and more.

Although I do give to some groups that, loosely speaking, fit the category of “education,” those entities do not make up a significant proportion of our donations. I confess to a certain ambivalence to giving to such groups – because, in many ways, I’m already a big contributor to public education. And it’s likely that you are, too.

In this column, I discuss the concept of donations – both voluntary (to charitable causes) and involuntary (through taxes). I talk about ways that most of us are already contributing, and provide some information that will help you give even more, if you’re so inclined.

When I sent an early draft of this piece to Steven Norton, an Ann Arbor resident and executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools, he shared this thought: “I’m not sure I agree that we are ‘donating’ to the schools, in the sense that this means an optional charitable contribution. I don’t feel like I’m donating when I help pay for police or fire services, or road maintenance.” He then referred to a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

His comments sent me straight to the dictionary – several dictionaries, in fact – looking for the distinction between donate and contribute. It wasn’t an easy search to find exactly what I was looking for.

For instance, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines donate as a verb that means “to give (money, food, clothes, etc.) in order to help a person or organization,” and “to make a gift of, especially: to contribute to a public or charitable cause.” That certainly implies a voluntary aspect. Yet a synonym for donate is contribute, “to give or supply in common with others.” In other words, contribute may or may not have a voluntary aspect.

Certainly, taxes are not voluntary, but they are contributions to a common cause. So in this column, when I use the term donor, donate or donation, I mean it in the sense of contributing to an important common good – public education.

The Property Tax Conundrum: I’m A Big Donor

I already give thousands of dollars to the vast educational enterprise that is Michigan’s public education system – as do many of you. Most of the sales tax I pay, a portion of my income tax, and the majority of my property taxes go to education. If you live in Ann Arbor, your tax bill includes line items for the State Education Tax, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and Washtenaw Community College.

More than 20 years ago – when I first became a homeowner – the taxes I paid for public schools actually went directly to the Ann Arbor Public Schools. In 1994, though, all of that changed with the passage of Proposal A.

The goal of that 1994 statewide ballot initiative was to create more equitable funding across all districts and to keep property taxes from escalating dramatically. But Proposal A took away most local control over school funding, though districts can still request voter approval to levy local millages for building construction, repairs, and maintenance – not, however, for operating expenses.

The state collects taxes directly from residential and non-residential property owners – 6 mills each, annually – and pools that money into the state’s School Aid Fund (SAF), which also includes revenues from sales and income taxes, state lottery revenue and other sources. Out of this fund, the state pays local school districts a per-pupil allotment – a variable amount set by the state legislature that can increase or decrease each year. In addition, state law controls the amount of taxes that school districts can levy directly – those that are not pooled into the SAF. Beyond the 6 mills that go into the SAF, for example, there’s an additional tax on non-residential property owners, but the state caps that tax at 18 mills.

Both the funding from non-SAF local property taxes and from the total School Aid Fund are factored into an amount called the per-pupil “foundation allowance.” This amount varies by district. Ann Arbor’s per-pupil funding for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, is $9,050 for each student. It accounts for most of the district’s revenues, with other revenues including the district’s share of a countywide special education millage and from federal grants. The per-pupil funding has been stagnant or falling for the last decade.

Michigan school funding, Michigan Parents for Schools, Ruth Kraut, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

State per-pupil funding chart. (Source: Michigan Parents for Schools)

Because of Michigan’s complex system of funding public schools and the fact that Ann Arbor is a relatively affluent community, today Ann Arbor is – as AAPS board member Christine Stead is rightly fond of explaining – a “donor district.” That is, Ann Arbor taxpayers are paying more into the statewide system than the district receives back in state aid. Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools told me that AAPS gets back from the state less than half – about 47% – of what local taxpayers actually pay to the state for education.

I find the “per-pupil” approach to funding to be particularly frustrating. It’s often an unfair way to allocate funding, because although incremental costs change with the addition or subtraction of kids to a school, many of the base costs don’t change. For instance, when Pfizer closed its large research operation in Ann Arbor several years ago, many families moved out of this community. The children in those families left AAPS schools – along with the per-pupil funding for those students. Although funding dropped because of those departures, the fixed costs for educating the thousands of remaining students didn’t decrease proportionately.

When it comes to per-pupil funding, my family has been an exceptionally big contributor. For the past 15-plus years, I’ve had 1, 2, or 3 kids enrolled in the public schools, and each of my kids has brought their per-pupil “foundation” allowance. So my family is a “donor” to public schools in two ways – as part of the larger property-taxed community, and as a family that has chosen to stay in the public school system.

In some ways, I don’t mind being a “donor” to the state’s public school system, which includes supporting districts that are much poorer than AAPS. For example, my taxes are supporting the Kalkaska schools [1] – and really, I don’t mind (too much) paying for that.

But I do mind that Ann Arbor taxpayers can no longer levy additional millages to pay for operating expenses for our own Ann Arbor Public Schools.

And as an aside, I also mind that my taxes are supporting the Education Achievement Authority, an entity that the state uses to take over schools that are designated as failing. For a longer and fairly neutral analysis of the EAA, I’d suggest reading this piece from the Michigan Policy Network. You’ll find a more critical view at the Inside the EAA website – which includes EAA documents obtained through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act by state legislators and others trying to counteract the authority’s secrecy.

The Parent Conundrum: I’m (Still) A Big Donor

But taxes aren’t the only way I contribute to local education. As a parent, I’m constantly being asked to donate to school-related activities. Certain expenses that I pay have directly or indirectly benefited my children. Those costs include paying $500 for my son to play high school basketball ($280 for the district’s registration fee and pay-to-play, plus other team-related costs), field trip expenses, and PTO dues.

I feel like I get milked dry by these costs – and it doesn’t make me want to jump up with donations for other activities. Over the past several years, I have spent thousands of dollars on school-related activities. Luckily, I can afford these expenses – and I understand that many families aren’t so fortunate.

Yes, I know. I signed up for having kids, and my kids are lucky to have these opportunities. So no, I’m not complaining. I’m just explaining why it is that when someone suggests I pay even more, I think: Wait a second – I’m already paying for the essentials, as a taxpayer, and as a parent who sends my kids to these schools. And I’m already paying for the extras – at least, those that involve my children. You want me to pay even more?

Must I Donate Again?

One way that we’re asked to pay even more is through donations to nonprofit foundations. Most of our local school districts, for example, have affiliated nonprofit educational foundations that solicit contributions. Historically, these foundations have been used for enrichment activities – not for core operating expenses.

Locally, that started to change in 2009 when a countywide operating millage – the only kind permitted under Proposal A – was defeated. (It passed in Ann Arbor, but failed in much of the rest of the county.) After that defeat, the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation decided to try to take up the slack with its “A Million Reasons” campaign. The name came from the idea that if everyone who supported the millage just gave the foundation the same amount of money that they would have paid in new taxes, the district would be in good shape. But that didn’t happen – and the campaign fell short of its fundraising goal that was intended to help with the basics of public education.

“Oh no,” my friend Laurie said to me as we discussed this on my annual Thanksgiving trip to my hometown. Laurie is on the board of her local educational foundation. “That doesn’t make any sense. Taxes are meant to fund schools. Local school foundations should focus on the extras.”

Now in fairness to the AAPS Educational Foundation, Laurie lives in a state that funds schools more generously, and in a district that probably gets more than twice as much as Ann Arbor does, per pupil.

But I’ll admit to sharing Laurie’s squeamishness. And the idea of the foundation spending so much social capital to raise only one million dollars – when the Ann Arbor schools budget is around $180 million – was never persuasive to me.

On the other hand, when I shared this perspective with Steve Norton via email, he noted that “personal donations are a last resort when the normal course of public policy has failed completely to meet the needs of our communities.” While he agreed with my friend that education foundations should pay for the “extras,” he also pointed to California, where local education foundations often pay for basics like salaries of whole programs – such as gym, music and art. The cause for California’s situation is similar to Michigan, he noted: a state tax system that was changed to strangulate public services. (In the case of California, their crisis was prompted by Prop 13.) “I hope we never get to that point,” Norton wrote to me, “but we are certainly headed in that direction.”

To me, the idea of asking educational foundations to make up a shortfall in public funding is a tough sell. However, the ideal that schools should be publicly funded is being challenged – and that’s still my ideal, and my values. And charitable giving is all about reflecting your ideals and values.

Multiple Ways to Give Even More

None of this is meant to imply that you shouldn’t donate to public schools, or to the broader educational enterprise. It is possible to donate directly to your local school district, without an educational foundation as an intermediary. The Ann Arbor Public Schools system has a donation policy, and probably most other local school districts do as well.

Many music teachers, for instance, will happily provide a new home for a serviceable instrument. (We donated my husband’s cello, which he stopped playing many, many years ago. His mother had maintained it in meticulous condition, hoping against hope that a grandchild would pick it up. They didn’t.)

The basic rule of thumb is, if you are interested in donating an item to a school, check with the building administrator to make sure it would be useful. And, of course, the schools also will gladly accept direct financial support – last year, for example, the Argus Planetarium at Pioneer High was renovated using a direct donation.

Or if you want to donate to one of the local educational foundations, here are links to several in Washtenaw County: the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation; the Chelsea Education Foundation; the Educational Foundation of Dexter; the Manchester Community Schools Foundation; the Foundation for Saline Area Schools; the Whitmore Lake Foundation for Educational Excellence; and the Ypsilanti Community Schools Foundation.

Nearly every school – maybe every school – has a parent-teacher organization (PTO), and generally they are also 501(c)3 nonprofits. So if you want to support your local school, you can give directly to the PTO. The PTO directs its funds to the programs or activities that the parents and teachers want to support. Some of the PTOs have very elaborate fundraising activities. The Burns Park Run, for example, raises money to support the Burns Park Elementary PTO programs, and Ann Arbor Open has turned Scrip into a high art form. Even if they don’t have organized fundraising efforts, all PTOs can use your support.

Perhaps you have a special place in your heart for the arts, or for environmental issues. Most of the schools have special funds (or a special nonprofit – yes, many of these are auxiliary groups with nonprofit status) to fund music, theater, athletics, and more. And the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation has an environmental education fund that is meant to support the Ann Arbor schools.

Finally, there are many organizations that support kids and families, in ways both academically-related and in fighting poverty. For instance, groups like Peace Neighborhood Center, Avalon Housing, and Community Action Network support low-income families in particular neighborhoods with after-school tutoring. The Student Advocacy Center fights for kids at risk of, or threatened with, suspension and expulsion. And other organizations, like 826 Michigan, bring after-school tutoring to the masses. (A special shout-out to 826 Michigan for pairing up with the Ypsilanti cafe Beezy’s, which is open for breakfast and lunch, and then provides a space for 826 Michigan’s after-school tutoring.)

I don’t mean to give an exhaustive list, but rather to share some examples. Please do add to these ideas in the comments section.

Giving, Getting, and Governing

I’ve explained how I’m already a big contributor to the schools. But it’s not just that we give a lot. We get a lot, too – and so do residents who don’t have kids. I don’t mean that in a high-level, theoretical “we-want-good-schools” way. I mean that in an economic sense. That’s because perceptions of schools are major drivers of property values, and property values affect much more than schools.

So in the next few days, we will give to some school-related causes, and you might too. But remember – the bulk of school funding comes through the state, and that funding has been slashed over and over again in the past decade.

Perhaps the most effective donation you can make is your donation of time and effort to convince legislators to provide more funding to public schools. That’s how public schools get funding, and where reform will need to occur if we want the current situation to improve.

Keeping our public schools both public and nonprofit, at this point, requires a lot of advocacy. In my opinion, two excellent sources of information are Michigan Parents for Schools and the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

I’ve been writing about year-end donations, and when the year ends, a lot of people turn to New Year’s resolutions, too. While you are making your list of resolutions, I hope you’ll make room for one more thing: advocating for public, nonprofit schools. I hope you’ll advocate for schools that are for children, not for corporations or for-profit charter chains. And I hope you’ll advocate for adequate funding.

Whether you’re a donor, an advocate, or both, this I believe: together, we can make a difference.


[1] I’m not picking on the Kalkaska schools. Kalkaska became the poster child for school funding reform when it closed its doors early in the spring of 1993 after the latest of several attempts at passing an operating millage failed. [For more background, read this March 6, 1993 article in the Ludington Daily News.] Proposal A was the product of efforts to equalize school funding regardless of local tax base, coupled with then-Gov. John Engler’s promise to reduce property taxes.

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 ( about education issues in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan.

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