Revenue Bump in School Budget Draft

Budget proposal estimates $1 million for extra enrollments

At the first of four budget forums held by the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) on Thursday night, the 2010-2011 draft budget plan circulated to attendees included over $16 million in proposed cuts, to deal with the district’s projected $20.9 million deficit. But it also included more than $1 million in additional revenue.

Information sign outside Skyline High School Ann Arbor Michigan

The second AAPS district budget forum will be held at Skyline High School on Tuesday, Jan. 12, starting at 6:30 p.m. (Photo by The Chronicle)

Several participants at the forum urged district administrators to look even more aggressively at how to generate additional revenue, whether through philanthropy, partnering with businesses, or other approaches.

So how does AAPS hope to generate extra dollars?

The line items in the budget draft list an additional 150 students in the Targeted Schools of Choice program plus an increase in Options Magnet enrollment of 20 students. Those 170 additional students would generate an additional $1.23 million in revenue, through the per-student allocation to school districts by the state.

At the AAPS Board of Education (BOE) meeting held the night before Thursday’s budget forum, several ways to increase school funding were discussed. Strategies include bringing out-of-district students into AAPS, as well as increasing the number of in-district students who are not currently enrolled in AAPS. BOE trustees heard a presentation Wednesday night on the Options Magnet program as part of that strategy.

Other strategies to increase revenue that were discussed at Wednesday’s board meeting include new partnerships with local community-based organizations, plus a statewide effort to compete for additional federal funding through the Race to the Top program.

Here, The Chronicle takes a closer look at these revenue-generating options outlined at the board’s Wednesday meeting.

Options Magnet Program

A featured item on Wednesday’s BOE agenda was a presentation by Susette Jaquette, coordinator of the Options Magnet program. The program is based out of two of Ann Arbor’s alternative high schools: Community High School, and Stone High School, and provides a menu of alternatives for earning high school credit beyond the traditional face-to-face classroom. It’s open to students residing within the AAPS district, as well as students throughout Washtenaw County who enter the Options Magnet program as a School of Choice.

Though the Options Magnet program was formalized just recently, in 2008, some components of the program have been around a long time, such as the Community Resource (CR) classes popular at Community High.

A CR class is described on the Community High website as “a contracted learning experience taught by an ‘expert’ member of the community.” The instruction is monitored by certified teachers, which ensures that students receive official high school credit for the experience. Examples of CR classes include: a wide variety of non-English language classes, silkscreening, public speaking, food science, African studies, ballroom dancing, fencing, history of jazz, sports literature, and internships in skeletal tissue engineering, counseling, and technology education.

A description of CR classes is provided in the 2009-10 Student Services Guide & Program of Studies, and they’re available to students districtwide. But trustee Susan Baskett remarked at Wednesday’s board meeting that the relative invisibility of CR classes to students outside of Community High makes them “the best kept secret in our community.”

Another element of the options program is dual enrollment. In 1996, Michigan passed a law that created the opportunity for high school students to take classes at local public or private colleges or universities if certain conditions are met.

On Wednesday night, a parent of an Options Magnet student who was previously exclusively homeschooled was invited to the podium by Jaquette to speak to the board. Her daughter has now taken classes at Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, and the University of Michigan, and she reported: “There are so many rich resources in the community for learning … From a parent’s point of view, [the Options Magnet] is an empowering experience; I am empowered to help my daughter.” Another parent who spoke called the program a “godsend,” saying, “My son has the best of both worlds!”

In her presentation, Jaquette said that the Options Magnet will provide new efficiencies throughout AAPS as it continues to grow, particularly in the area of online classes. She reported that additional professional training undertaken last summer would allow many teachers now to offer some kind of online classes – either completely online classes, or “blended classes,” which combine some classroom time with an online component.

AAPS-developed online classes currently include self-paced math classes via a proprietary online software called Aleks, health classes using a technology called Moodle (an interactive website and collaborative content management system), and Michigan Virtual High School classes. One blended class is an American government class out of Huron High School, which primarily uses Moodle to interface with students, but requires some face-to-face attendance.

Other online initiatives at AAPS include “Evening Online at Stone” from 4-7 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, at Stone High School. These online courses are aligned with AAPS curriculum and required for graduation, but are delivered via proprietary online software called E2020.

Sheila Brown, principal of Stone High School, gave a snapshot Wednesday night of some of the 24 students enrolled in the Options Magnet through her school. One of them is in a rehabilitation facility following a closed-head injury; several students have delivered babies and take online classes while home with their infants; one student is incarcerated; and a subset of students have day jobs to support their families, but take online classes in the evening. E2020 classes are also offered during regularly scheduled sections at three of the district’s high schools throughout the day, for students who have failed or withdrawn from a required class and need to recover the credit.

In addition to supporting elements of the AAPS strategic plan, such as creating individualized learning plans, and making efficient use of teachers’ time, Jaquette said that at least half of the 60 students currently enrolled in the Options Magnet would not be enrolled in AAPS at all if not for the program.

This additional enrollment is a benefit to AAPS, as public schools receive a specific dollar amount of state funding per pupil. Later in the Wednesday meeting, during his superintendent’s report, Todd Roberts stated that AAPS is currently receiving $9,723 per pupil from the state. (Though he also stated a new funding scenario will likely reduce that amount down to around $9,100.) So, adding 30 students to AAPS this year – even students who have never set foot in a district classroom – has translated to an extra $278,190 for AAPS.

Though the individual components of the Options Magnet program are currently available to all AAPS high school students, Jaquette’s goal over the next five to six years is to formally embed the program at each high school to streamline access to the full range of choices for high school course delivery. Jaquette closed her presentation by saying that while other districts are scrambling to create similar programs, AAPS should be proud of the vision it has shown, and the hard work it has put in to developing the many elements of the Options Magnet program over the years.

Board secretary Glenn Nelson commented that it’s inspiring to see such collaboration among students, parents, and schools. He also commended the BOE executive committee for including this presentation on the meeting agenda, saying “I hope our agenda continues to have room to celebrate.” Trustee Adam Hollier commended the Options Magnet program, and suggested that it could be used to close the achievement gap. Trustee Baskett and board president Deb Mexicotte both expressed their support for the program. Irene Patalan, the board’s vice president, praised the staff’s dedication to empowering students through this program.

2009-10 Grant Awards

Also on the meeting’s agenda was a report of the grants for the 2009-2010 school year, which totaled over $8 million. Linda Doernte, director of purchasing and business support services and grants for AAPS, made the presentation on grants.

Glenn Nelson listed some additional examples of grant-funded programs in the district. He said he hopes that people concerned with the salary costs of maintaining non-teaching staff in the district see the value in this type of work. Irene Patalan mentioned that the scope of these grants is huge, and appreciated the work of the grant writing staff.

Sharman Spieser, AAPS director of adult education (AE), then submitted her report, which highlighted the collaborative aspect of current AE programs, including $65,000 in new funding this year. Spieser asked AE’s community partners to introduce themselves, and talk about the ways they were collaborating with AE. Those partners included representatives from the Ann Arbor District Library, University of Michigan Hospital & Health Centers, Washtenaw County Jail, and Washtenaw Literacy. Spieser concluded her report with an invitation to “Come visit [AE classes] when you’re feeling down!”

Race to the Top

To provide some additional understanding on the BOE action taken on Wednesday in a bid to win federal dollars for AAPS, here is first a bit of background.

In February of 2009, the federal government passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the “economic stimulus bill.” Within ARRA were a set of provisions for one-time infusions of federal money into education, intended to meet four main goals:

  1. Standardize curriculum and assessments;
  2. Establish statewide data systems that track students from pre-kindergarten through college, and link students to teachers;
  3. Revamp the teacher certification and evaluation processes, including tying student academic growth to teacher compensation; and
  4. Intervene swiftly and effectively to either improve or close the lowest-achieving schools.

The main vehicle for these new infusions of funding is the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) – $53.6 billion intended primarily to shore up state education funding and prevent budget cuts for all levels, from kindergarten through higher education. Of the total amount funded, $48.6 billion is already being distributed among all states whose governors applied, and the remaining $5 billion is to be awarded through competitive grant processes.

Of that $5 billion, states are currently competing against each other for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund (RTTT), intended to “encourage and reward states that are implementing significant reforms in the four education areas described in the ARRA,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. The final $650 million will be competitively awarded directly to school districts or nonprofits with a strong record of results in improving education, as part of the federal Investing in Innovation Fund.

The second half of Wednesday’s BOE meeting was dominated by a discussion of AAPS’ role in the RTTT grant application being submitted by the state of Michigan. State grant applications to RTTT are due in Washington D.C. by Jan. 19, 2010. Superintendent Todd Roberts gave a brief description of the state’s education reform plan as it now stands.

He then explained that individual school districts have until this Friday to decide whether or not they will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signaling local district support by AAPS for the reform plan outlined in the state’s grant application.

Signing the MOU has implications affecting whether a local district gets a share of Michigan’s RTTT money, if it’s awarded to the state. Signing the MOU also affects Michigan’s chances of getting an RTTT award.

Should Michigan be granted RTTT funds, only those districts that have signed an MOU would receive any of the money, and they’d need to spend the money within four years. Roberts estimated the AAPS share of the funds to be approximately $780,000, but that could change depending on the number of states awarded money and the size of the grants.

The federal scoring rubric for a state’s RTTT application includes a total of 500 points. Forty-five of those points depend on local support for a state’s reform plans. Those 45 local support points depend on inclusion of “as many as possible” signatures on the MOU from the president of the school board, the district superintendent, and the president of the teacher’s union.

Besides local support, the scoring rubric tries to measure a state’s efforts at reform to date. The RTTT application states:

It is important to emphasize that over half the points that reviewers may award to States are based on States’ accomplishments prior to applying – [including] … enlisting strong statewide support and commitment to their proposed plans, and creating legal conditions conducive to education reform and innovation.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Roberts explained that waiting for the supportive legislation to pass, among other factors, has caused a delay in finalizing the state reform plan that’s a part of the RTTT application. This has led to somewhat of a timeline bottleneck during which districts are being asked to sign an MOU before having the final draft of the text to which they would be bound.

To mitigate concerns over this situation, Roberts explained, the state superintendent of schools had issued a statement assuring districts that they could terminate their MOUs at any point after signing, if they determine that participation is not in their best interest. For example, if a district determined that it was costing more to implement the RTTT initiatives than the funding it received, that district would be able to opt out.

As an action item at the BOE meeting, Roberts described two courses of action that could be followed. One would be to authorize district representatives (himself as the superintendent, and Deb Mexicotte as the BOE president) to sign the MOU immediately and forward it to the state. The second option would be to call a special meeting of the BOE by Jan. 12 to draft a “Letter of Intent” to sign the MOU once the state plan is finalized and the district has a chance to review it.

This Letter of Intent would still meet the state’s needs in terms of the grant application process, and would relieve the district of the burden of having to undo its MOU if it was later determined to be detrimental. Roberts stated that both options – the MOU, or the Letter of Intent – had legal support from district attorneys. He recommended passing a resolution to sign the MOU, with the rationale that it could be nullified in the future if necessary.

During a brief break in the meeting, Brit Satchwell, of the Ann Arbor Education Association, the local teachers’ union, talked with Roberts. Satchwell expressed his support for the Letter of Intent to sign the MOU – as opposed to signing the MOU before the text of the plan was finalized.

When the meeting resumed, Roberts elaborated for the board on the issue of the scoring metric. He outlined what was required for a district to be counted in a state’s tally of supporting districts, for purposes of its RTTT application. Roberts clarified for the board that the state of Michigan has decided it would accept MOUs from its districts without signatures from union leadership – MOUs needed to be signed only by the superintendent and the president of the school board.

Roberts also clarified that the flurry of legislation enacted by the Michigan legislature at the end of 2009 commits the state to engaging in this reform even if it is not federally funded. That legislation includes three House bills and two Senate bills, tie-barred collectively as “Race to the Top Education Reform.”

In brief, this legislation was designed to align Michigan’s education system more directly with the goals outlined in the ARRA. It calls for the creation of new “cyberschools,” and additional charter schools. It allows the state to more easily take over failing schools, even if that alters collective bargaining agreements. And it creates a statewide data system that ties student academic growth directly to teacher evaluation and compensation.

Trustee Simone Lightfoot expressed some concerns about RTTT, but stated that the opt-out option – described by the state superintendent of schools – made supporting the state plan more palatable. Mexicotte confirmed that an individual district can opt out, not only a countywide intermediate school district (ISD). Baskett asked for clarification on the timeline of implementing the elements of reform contained in the state plan, and Roberts clarified that the grant winners will be announced by the spring. Implementation work would happen over the next school year.

Hollier expressed support for RTTT, saying that the competition was “near to [his] heart” and that he believed AAPS and the state of Michigan to be well-positioned as an applicant. Nelson expressed support, but was wary of changes to the curriculum it would entail, and was concerned about the effect that ranking schools (in order to determine those “lowest-achieving”) could have within the district. Patalan supported the opportunity to bring a new infusion of money to the district, but expressed concern as well. She cited the Options Magnet program described at the beginning of the meeting as an innovation she hoped would not be “undone.”

Mexicotte asked if board treasurer Randy Friedman had any comments, and Friedman “called the question” – a procedural move intended to end discussion and bring the issue to a vote. Mexicotte asked him to withdraw his call of the question until the board could clarify which alternative was being moved – signing the MOU or drafting a Letter of Intent to sign the MOU. Friedman agreed to withdraw his motion to call the question, and Mexicotte prompted the board for a motion. Hollier made a motion to sign the MOU, seconded by Baskett. With no further discussion, the motion passed unanimously, with the votes of all seven trustees.

Upcoming Budget Forums

The superintendent’s report that concluded the main body of the meeting outlined the format for the January district budget meetings. Roberts noted that while he is hopeful that the budget shortfall won’t be as dire as initially projected, the AAPS is still planning cuts in the $18-$20 million range: “It’s a very unfortunate situation that we’re faced with this level of reduction.”

During his Ann Arbor Education Association report earlier in the meeting, Satchwell also pleaded with the community to get involved in the budgeting process:

Our school district is about to host what could be the most important meetings in the history of the district … The days of smaller, incremental compromises are past; we now need the public to climb the learning curve and provide guidance … We need you to tell us what matters most to you and your children, to make your priorities known, and to weigh them against what is now possible, to advise us as to what new directions we might take.

The slide presentation from the first budget forum, which took place on Thursday, Jan. 7 at Huron High School, is also available online. Remaining budget meetings are on Jan. 12 (Skyline High School), Jan. 14 (Scarlett Middle School), and Jan. 19 (Pioneer High School), each beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Present: Deb Mexicotte, Irene Patalan, Glenn Nelson, Randy Friedman, Susan Baskett, Adam Hollier, and Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Todd Roberts, AAPS superintendent.

Next regular meeting: Jan. 20, 2010, 7 p.m., at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library’s fourth floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]