AAPS Weighs Schools of Choice Program

New trustee Christine Stead sworn in

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education meeting (March 10, 2010): Christine Stead, a business management consultant in the health care industry, was sworn in as a member of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education Wednesday after receiving a four-vote majority in the first and only round of consideration.

Stead Ann Arbor Public Schools

Christine Stead is sworn in after being appointed to fill the opening on the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of trustees left by Adam Hollier's resignation. (Photos by the writer.)

Her first vote as a board member was to support the meeting’s consent agenda, including a bid to outsource $135,000 in low-voltage electrical work to a local company.

Also at the meeting, the board heard a recommendation from AAPS superintendent Todd Roberts to open the district to students from all of Washtenaw County. If approved at the next board meeting, this “Schools of Choice” program could result in 170 new students being added to AAPS kindergarten, first, and sixth grade classes, bringing with them an additional $1.1 million in revenue for the upcoming school year.

Bus drivers and custodial/maintenance workers again held signs outside the meeting at the downtown Ann Arbor library, as they have for the last few months. They collected signatures to petition the board not to privatize any AAPS services. They were joined during public commentary by a University of Michigan research scientist, who likened the district’s contention that outsourcing has saved AAPS money to “a rooster getting credit for the sunrise.” Public commentary also included representatives of opposing positions in the local debate over school funding, and both sides called on the board to make fully transparent the decision-making process used to set the upcoming budget.

And, as numerous educators were commended for their service to public education at the meeting, both the board and PTO Council took steps to increase their advocacy efforts at the state level to ensure that funding that level of service can continue.

Selection of New Board of Education Trustee

In the wake of trustee Adam Hollier’s resignation, which he announced at the board’s Feb. 3, 2010 meeting, the board set in motion a process to fill the vacancy. The board’s Wednesday decision to appoint Christine Stead began with a review of the process, was followed by presentations from all eight candidates, and wound up with the board’s vote.

Selection and Voting Process

Board president Deb Mexicotte reviewed the selection process for filling the board seat vacated by Adam Hollier. She described how all candidates had already sent letters of interest, resumes, and recommendations to the board, and that they had each been interviewed on Monday evening, March 8.

AAPS replacement candidates

AAPS board candidates from left to right: Christine Stead, Andy Thomas, Victoria Haviland, Jack Panitch, Margy Long, Jeff Sabatini, James Corey, and Susan Collet.

At that night’s meeting, she said, each candidate would have an opportunity to make a presentation to the board and public in which they shared their perception of the district’s strengths and weaknesses in student achievement.

Mexicotte then spoke briefly to the voting process, saying the board had changed it a bit since the recent appointment of another board member – Simone Lightfoot – last December. [Chronicle coverage "AAPS Board Interviews Go Back and Forth"] However, she clarified that the new process  would have resulted in the same outcome during Lightfoot’s selection to the board last December. She explained, with clarification added by board secretary Glenn Nelson, that the board would vote without eliminating any candidates in the first two rounds [.pdf of the AAPS summary of the voting process].

If trustees became deadlocked, Mexicotte said, there might be a short recess during which trustees’ behavior would conform to Open Meeting Act rules. If necessary, Mexicotte would break the deadlock as board president. Lastly, Mexicotte reminded everyone that the voting would end at any point when a candidate received four votes, and at that time, the new trustee would be sworn in, seated at the table, and have full voting privileges for the remainder of the meeting.

Candidate Presentations

Candidates made their presentations in the same randomly selected order in which they had been interviewed – Victoria Haviland, Jeff Sabatini, James Corey, Susan Collet, Andy Thomas, Jack Panitch, Christine Stead, and Margy Long. The assigned presentation prompt was this:

Although the board spends a great deal of time on financial, policy, and other business issues, the center of our work is focused on student achievement. Could you split your presentation evenly between speaking about what, in your opinion, we do well in the district from the standpoint of student achievement, and what areas we need to work toward improving.

Victoria Haviland began by saying that she was glad to have a chance to talk about student achievement, as it was a daily focus for her in her professional life. She praised AAPS for maintaining its vast array of flexible and innovative academic programs despite pressure from the state, meeting the needs of students with all learning styles, and supporting outstanding teachers and support staff at every level with a strong curriculum. Haviland credited these successes as resulting in high graduation and college enrollment rates for AAPS students.

She named the acknowledgment of the achievement gap among students as a strength, and the gap’s existence as an opportunity for improvement. Haviland suggested that to eliminate the achievement gap, “we need to move this work into the classroom.” She gave the example of Dicken Elementary providing mini-grants to its teachers to address the achievement gap at the classroom level.  Then, Haviland suggested, AAPS should redistribute funds it spends on outside vendors to teachers, and document the success of such a move in order to inspire and enable other districts to do the same.

A second improvement Haviland suggested was for AAPS to focus its communication and public message. In particular, she said, the district could do a better job of helping concerned parents know the full range of options available to help their students who are struggling or unchallenged.

Jeff Sabatini began by referring to a comment made earlier in the meeting by Rob Lillie – who was being honored at the meeting with the naming of Tappan Middle School gym after him. Lillie had likened his anxiety about speaking to the board to feeling like “the tin man, scarecrow, and lion combined.” Sabatini said, “If Rob Lillie felt like [those characters in The Wizard of Oz], I feel like Toto right now – in the tornado.”

Sabatini allowed, “I don’t really know what [the board] does well,” saying he had not yet joined the PTO or volunteered in the classroom. He offered, “I’m not going to pretend I have solutions or miraculous fixes … Many other candidates are better qualified … I wish whichever one gets picked tonight the best of luck.”

However, Sabatini stated, “I do think I’m representative of your typical taxpayer,” and described his vision for the future of AAPS as not just weathering this budget crisis, but seeing it as an opportunity to make the district even better. Sabatini argued for even more alternative education programs, and pointed out that current programs such as Ann Arbor Open @ Mack and Community High School are “oversubscribed.” He suggested that the board encourage the development of pilot programs in areas such as year-round schooling, “theme schools,” and multi-age programs, and evaluate them according to two metrics: (i) Do the students do as well? and (ii) Does the program cost less than traditional education programs?

Sabatini closed with a call to reexamine public education at its core: “Let’s get together and figure out how to do this.”

James Corey named elementary school teachers, a community that is involved in the education of its children, and diversity of programs as strengths of AAPS. On the flip side, he focused mainly on communication in the district, saying teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-parent and parent-to-board communication could all be improved. Also, regarding the speed of communication in the district, Corey contended that the district should “adapt before we need to adapt.”

Corey then presented a humorous, analogy-laden, slideshow highlighting key political and cultural events over the last 18 years as a way of characterizing today’s student body. As students of days past are to today’s students, Corey argued, mixed tapes are to iTunes, photo albums are to Picasa, and Christmas cards are to Twitter, “because if you can’t say it in 140 characters, is it really worth saying?”

Therefore, Corey continued, this is the time to invest in technology, and to use technology to increase communication within all subsets of AAPS. He quoted Rupurt Murdoch, who said, “Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow.” Corey then closed with, “I am part of the information age, and I hope this is why you’ll allow me to serve on the school board.”

Susan Collet listed principal leadership, motivating teachers, extracurricular offerings, incredible parent involvement, safety, discipline, and the diversity in types of classes offered as “what the district does well.” She also mentioned the 2008 graduation rate of 88%, and that Huron and Pioneer high schools were rated in the top 6% of schools in the nation.

In terms of what the district could improve, Collet said it should deal better with struggling kids, and suggested that perhaps creating individualized learning plans, as outlined in the district’s strategic plan, could help. She pointed out the achievement gap in Michigan Merit Exam scores, called for more guidance counselors, and advocated for “restoring excitement” for studying math and science, saying that students needed to be shown how science and math can be used to solve human problems and create a better world.

Andy Thomas listed four areas in which AAPS is excellent and four clear challenges. He named high student achievement, the many electives available at every level, the rejection of a “one size fits all” program of education, and teachers – especially those at the elementary level – as areas in which AAPS excels. In addition, Thomas credited superintendent Todd Roberts with fostering parent involvement, and pointed out that it’s the tremendous dedication of the elementary level teachers that makes achievement at the secondary level possible.

As challenges, Thomas began by naming the “serious gap” in achievement between whites and African-Americans in the district. He argued that too many interventions are evaluated by what Carolyn Hoxby, a Stanford economics professor, calls “the cardiac test.” That refers to well-meaning reformers who “just know in their hearts” that an intervention will work. Thomas called instead for data-driven solutions to the achievement gap.

Next, he joked that his middle-school-aged son may hate him for saying so, but that AAPS needs to “insist on greater rigor at the middle school level,” including meeting the needs of struggling students, those who are proficient and bored, and those in the middle who meet only the minimum requirements. Thomas also pushed for the development of individualized learning plans for each student, and acknowledged that, while this idea was already in the district’s strategic plan, “we need to move this to the fast track.”

Lastly, Thomas mentioned his support for alignment with the standards of the International Baccalaureate (which he noted is also part of the district’s strategic plan), sharper math and science curricula, and additional world languages. He argued that AAPS needs to “do a better job of preparing for the future.”

Jack Panitch stated that student achievement throughout AAPS was “awesome,” beginning in early childhood and continuing though high school. Panitch praised the district’s website, pointed out that achievement data were “all there on the [AAPS] website for all to see.” He cited several district achievements from the district’s in-house newspaper, AAPS News. Panitch showed articles about the Tappan law club, the homebuilding program, and the Community High School journalism award as examples of high achievement in the district. He concluded, “No one can say there is no transparency. All the data anyone could need is in the [AAPS] annual report.”

Panitch then listed three issues to focus on: the achievement gap among AAPS students; what he called the “global achievement gap;” and the current attempts to link student achievement to teacher evaluation stemming from the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative.

He did not elaborate on the achievement gap issues, pointing to the district’s website for information on those issues. He stated: “We need to graduate kids capable of critical thinking.” Regarding the RTTT legislation, Panitch supported recent comments made by Brit Satchwell, president of the district’s teachers’ union. Panitch noted Satchwell’s concern for the idea of annual teacher evaluations that are part of as-yet unfunded new state legislation – passed to support Michigan’s RTTT application – saying that it was not a good use of principals’ time. Instead, Panitch suggested, AAPS should institute a peer review system of evaluation, though he acknowledged there would be costs involved in hiring substitutes to cover for teachers while they were evaluating their colleagues.

Panitch closed with a few personal slides of himself, and asked that the board consider him based on his sensitivity, courage, and willingness to deal with the equity issue.

Christine Stead began her presentation with a Powerpoint slide containing two images: a red apple and a globe with data swirling around it. She pointed out how both images speak to how AAPS is operating right now: Even while the positive image and day-to-day work of educators (represented by the apple) continues, the district is caught up in the chaos of the larger funding issues beyond its control (represented by the swirling globe).

Christine Stead

Christine Stead, newly appointed member of the AAPS board.

Stead noted four categories in which the district is doing well. First, she praised AAPS administrative leadership – citing superintendent Roberts and deputy superintendent Robert Allen as particularly responsive to the community. Stead also pointed out Roberts’ large role in developing the district’s strategic plan, which she called “ambitious” and “inspiring.”

Like other candidates, Stead then argued that the district’s strength in part came from its incredible number of varied program offerings, as well as the systemic diversity in types of schools. Naming Ann Arbor Open @ Mack as an example, she noted, “It’s profound to be able to offer that when our resources are challenged.”

And, Stead pointed out, AAPS is still outperforming the state in terms of achievement, “even at a time when we are constantly doing more with less.” She showed charts of MEAP data, percentage of students taking the ACT, and graduation rates, expressing her interest in keeping data in the forefront: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Lastly, Stead mentioned that AAPS could improve by decreasing achievement disparities among ethnic groups, and by following through on what she named as two key elements of the district’s strategic plan: aligning AAPS curriculum with international standards, and creating personalized learning plans for all students, including those who are high-achieving.

Margy Long gave the final candidate presentation, and she began by saying she felt “somewhat inadequate” and “unqualified” to evaluate student achievement, and that what she was about to say was just her opinion as one parent.

She pointed out that the achievement gap has “been on the radar” for a while, and noted that in her work on school improvement teams (SITs), she has seen a shift. That shift was from each building having its own goals to the district taking a lead in coordinating among building-level SITs to create a district-wide plan – within which each building then develops specific strategies.

Long also expressed pride at the district’s commitment to improving education for all students through an evidence-based Equity Initiative, and at the continuous expansion of program offerings. She listed the preschool, the inclusion of World Languages, and Project Healthy Schools as excellent programs that have been expanded since her kids began school.

Long then cited a recent New York Times feature entitled “How to Build a Better Teacher” in arguing for investment in the professional development of teachers. She said that teaching is a highly specialized skill, and that it needs to be supported as such.

In closing, Long warned that in the midst of the budget cuts that will come, AAPS needs to remain focused on leadership, equity, and increasing teacher effectiveness.

Break Following Candidate Presentations

After the candidate presentations, Deb Mexicotte called for a brief break, and reminded trustees “not to discuss in groups” what was an open issue on the table. The eight candidates, who had been sitting front and center in a row behind the speaker’s podium, began talking among themselves. A few of them gestured to the camera pointed at them – the meeting was broadcast live on Community Television Network (CTN) – and then the eight of them moved to the side of the room, off-camera. Meanwhile, individual trustees milled in and out of the room, mingling with each other and with AAPS administrative staff attending the meeting.

Trustees Remarks to Candidates

After the break, there was no public discussion regarding specific candidates, but before voting, all six trustees offered encouraging comments to the candidates as a group.

Susan Baskett said, “You are all wonderful – truly … Please do not take it personally if you do not rise to the top.” Baskett thanked them all for coming and appealed to the candidates who would not be selected to stay involved: “Don’t hate us.”

Irene Patalan offered that she hoped the candidates had felt welcomed by the board and that the process was “not too frightening.” She said she absolutely appreciated the eight candidates and that they proved to her once again that there is a lot of talent in this community.

Glenn Nelson said that the work of the next 18-24 months was not just the work of the board, but of the whole community: “You are all extremely capable people – try to figure out how to make the best use of your talents in the district.”

Randy Friedman appreciated the efforts of the candidates, and asserted that “the enormous contribution [they] had already made by coming forward at this difficult time … is a message to the community that the best days still lie ahead … It’s a call to action to the whole community.”

Simone Lightfoot pointed out to the candidates that she had sat where they were less than 90 days ago: “We need you … Please be sure your perspective stays in the mix.”

Mexicotte closed with, “We are embarking on Phase II of our strategic planning process … [which] is where we’d like to see you.”

Voting and Trustee Assignments

Board secretary Amy Osinski passed out lavender-colored ballots for the first round of voting. Mexicotte instructed the trustees to write their names on the ballot as well as the name of the candidate for whom they were voting. Osinski collected the ballots, and read them aloud.

Stead received four votes – from the four board officers: president Deb Mexicotte, vice-president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, and treasurer Randy Friedman.

Haviland received a vote from Simone Lightfoot. Corey received a vote from Susan Baskett.

Mexicotte announced, “Trustees, we are about to welcome trustee Christine Stead.” Stead hugged her fellow candidates, moved to the board table, and was sworn in by Osinski. The board took another brief recess, during which many of the trustees said goodbye to the other candidates, Stead’s husband congratulated her, and the many friends and family of the candidates filed out. When the board reconvened to a much emptier room, Mexicotte quipped, “The lateness of the hour will give our new trustee a true taste of boardsmanship.”

Later, Mexicotte requested that Stead join the planning committee, and she accepted. Mexicotte also requested that Lightfoot take over former trustee Hollier’s role as parliamentarian, saying that her attention to detail and interest in process made her an excellent candidate for the role. Lightfoot accepted.

Schools of Choice Proposal Introduced

A proposal to open up AAPS to 170 out-of-district students was presented to the board as a first briefing item by superintendent Todd Roberts and Jane Landefeld, director of student accounting.

Schools of Choice Program Description

Roberts began by reminding the board that one of the areas being considered as a potential revenue generator for the upcoming year was implementing a targeted Schools of Choice program in the district. The 170 seats he proposed opening to students from Washtenaw County would bring the district an additional $1.1 million in revenue. This, Roberts pointed out, was a conservative estimate, based on the lowest per-pupil foundation allowance in the county. If an out-of-district student transferred to AAPS, he explained, AAPS would receive the state per-pupil allotment of that student’s home district, not the amount an AAPS student receives.

Roberts noted that the reason he was bringing this recommendation to the board ahead of the rest of the draft budget plan was because of the tight timeline the district would have in order to set staffing levels for next school year. [The draft budget will come before the board at the next meeting on March 24.]

In order for the Schools of Choice program to be possible, Roberts said, the board would need to approve it this month, so that applications could be received in April, and students could be notified of their admission to AAPS by mid-May.

Landefeld then spoke, giving a brief overview of how the Schools of Choice program would be implemented in AAPS [.pdf of AAPS Schools of Choice description]. Landefeld explained that the State School Aid Act allows for this type of program. The part of the act pertaining to the district’s plan is Section 105, which permits local school districts to enroll students who reside in the same intermediate school district.

The proposed district plan would open 60 kindergarten seats, 60 1st grade seats, and 50 middle school seats, explained Landefeld. Other program characteristics are set by state requirements, Landefeld said, such as: the enrollment period must be between 15 and 30 days long; the district is required to notify students of admission decisions within 15 days of the closing window; and the district must accept all students who apply (unless they’ve been suspended or expelled), up to the number of students that was published.

If the district receives more applications than it has seats available, seats will be assigned by random drawing, and a wait list will be started. Once a student has been accepted, they can stay within AAPS for the remainder of their K-12 education, even if the district decides not to continue to enroll new students through Schools of Choice in the future.

Ten elementary schools, each with 4-8 anticipated available seats, are: Abbot, Bryant, Carpenter, Dicken, Eberwhite, Lakewood, Logan, Northside, Pittsfield, and Wines. Roberts clarified that these schools were chosen based on enrollment projections, and stressed that no additional staff would need to be hired. Each of the five middle schools would be expected to take 10 students.

Questions from the Board on Schools of Choice

Susan Baskett asked about the priority of placing Schools of Choice students over in-district transfers, and about wait list procedures. Roberts mentioned that there will be a second round of in-district transfer applications accepted during the same window as the Schools of Choice applications, and clarified, “We will seat in-district students first.”

Landefeld confirmed that the original wait list would expire one week into the start of the school year, parents with children who were selected could not defer admission, and any students who were not selected initially could reapply for the second semester.

Randy Friedman asked what happened if the seats in the schools mentioned are filled with in-district transfer students, leaving spaces in other buildings that are not listed on the Schools of Choice application. Roberts explained that the administration’s projections lead them to anticipate that these schools will have spaces available even after the in-district transfers. Later, Roberts clarified further that AAPS legal obligations would be met once it had seated 170 students as advertised; it would not be legally bound to seat Schools of Choice students in particular schools, even if they were listed on the application.

Many of the trustees asked for confirmation of their understanding of the foundation allowance AAPS would receive from out-of-district transfer students. Roberts confirmed that state per-pupil funding is different for each district, and that Schools of Choice students would come to AAPS with their districts’ allocations. As long as students attend AAPS, Roberts continued, they would continue to bring whatever per-pupil funding they would have brought to their home districts, even if it goes up or down. He also acknowledged that the gap between the AAPS foundation allowance and that of other nearby districts is narrowing.

Friedman questioned whether there were long-term risks: “In all fairness, those metrics could change on us and be to our disadvantage. Isn’t it fair to say this is intended to address an immediate concern, but [that there could be] long-term risks?” Roberts responded that it was possible the program would not make financial sense in future years, but that AAPS can decide how many students to take each year. He stressed that even if the district eventually had to hire an additional teacher to cover the increase in student enrollment, there would still be savings overall: “It’s all revenue-generating.”

Irene Patalan questioned a provision in the State School Aid Act giving admission priority to siblings of School of Choice students in future years: “So, if we decide not to do it next year, the door to siblings would not open?” Landefeld confirmed that the provision for siblings would only apply if the district continues to offer the School of Choice program in general.

Simone Lightfoot asked why the number of proposed Schools of Choice students had increased since the budget forums, from 150 up to 170. Roberts explained that the 170 number came directly from revised enrollment projections. Christine Stead asked what the impact on student-teacher ratio would be in the participating schools, and Roberts answered that the ratio would be the same as across the district. As an example, he noted that the current districtwide student-teacher ratio for kindergarten was 22:1, and that would be the same in Schools of Choice schools. Roberts added that, overall, AAPS student-teacher ratios may need to increase, but that that they would remain standardized throughout the district.

Patalan asked which other districts in the county have Schools of Choice programs. Roberts listed six districts as having some version of Schools of Choice: Milan, Lincoln, Willow Run, Ypsilanti, Saline, and Whitmore Lake. Earlier in the meeting, Landefeld had noted that roughly 150 students living within AAPS boundaries attend a public school in a surrounding district.

Patalan asked whether the administration thought AAPS would receive enough applications to fill the seats. Landefeld confirmed that the district gets many calls seeking admission, and has received even more since the community budget forums – when the idea of instituting a Schools of Choice program was first mentioned as a possible revenue-builder. When Baskett asked how the program would be advertised, Nelson suggested getting the news to the AAPS parent network. Landefeld suggested only the AAPS website and regular media outlets, noting, “Schools in other districts will probably not put up our flyers.”

The board had a few questions about the program’s timetable. Baskett asked if a date had been set when parents would need to accept their children’s offer of admission. Landefeld said no, but that administration could get that for the board. Roberts suggested that the response window would be similar to the one used in the Skyline High School admission process, in which parents would have “about a week” to decide whether or not to accept, if their child was offered admission. There is urgency, Landefeld reiterated, because buildings are beginning to look at fall staffing.

Nelson asked if there were any concerns about the way the Schools of Choice timetable and the budget timetable did or didn’t “mesh.” Roberts replied that the Schools of Choice timeline had been set with the budget process in mind. Mexicotte followed up, asking, “If we take action at the next meeting, is that sufficient time?” Roberts confirmed that everything was “ready to go,” and pointed out that AAPS administration has already prepared the application paperwork, as well as a resolution for the board to approve, should it decide to move forward.

Outcome: The board does not vote on first briefing items. The first briefing is a mechanism for alerting the public that the matter will be coming before the board for a vote – at the second briefing.

Public Commentary

In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s board meeting, bus drivers and custodial/maintenance workers again lined Fifth Avenue as they have before previous board meetings. [The AAPS board holds its meetings on the fourth floor of the Ann Arbor District Library building.] In addition, two longtime bus drivers were collecting signatures on a petition urging the board not to privatize any of its employees.

Demonstrators outside the AAPS board meeting

Demonstrators against privatizing services outside the AAPS board meeting on March 10, 2010.

Four speakers at Wednesday’s meeting spoke directly against privatization – a labor researcher at the University of Michigan and three bus drivers.

In addition, there were calls for transparency in the budget process.

Public Commentary: Privatization of AAPS Food Service

Rolland Zullo spoke first, introducing himself as a researcher at the University of Michigan, and a parent of two kids at Ann Arbor Open School @ Mack. Zullo explained that he has studied the district’s privatization of food service to Chartwells, and has drafted a report which he has sent to AAPS administration for review before sending to the board. He stated that his report contains three major findings.

First, the food service expenditures have decreased, but not because of outsourcing workers. Zullo said that AAPS is spending less on food service because of increased revenue being sent from the federal government via the school lunch program. He likened the district’s claim that the privatization has saved money to “a rooster getting credit for the sunrise.”

Next, Zullo said, his study showed that the sales of food are in decline because people are not finding value in the food offered. He listed food service offerings as including corndogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets, “essentially fast food fare,” and contended that when districts privatize, they lose control over the quality of service.

Finally, Zullo stressed that it is “important to disabuse the board of the notion that the … workers were not harmed” by contracting with Chartwells. He said the jobs had been “seriously degraded,” that new hires were paid at $9 per hour, and that none of the workers could afford to use the health care offered to them – due to an increase in co-pays to $3,000 annually.

Zullo closed by saying that he was happy to be hearing the board use the word “community,” and argued that the community would be damaged if pieces of it were “peeled away” and given to people without a stake in it.

Public Commentary: Privatization of AAPS Transportation

The next speaker was Richard Miller, an AAPS bus driver with 18 years of service to district. He used his four minutes to discuss problems with each of the two companies being considered to take over district transportation services – First Student and Durham. Quoting from headlines and other news sources, Miller said that the board had not “done its homework” regarding these companies, and listed the following infractions, all of which have occurred, he said, since January 2007.

Regarding First Student and its drivers, Miller listed the following incidents of concern:

  • cocaine-filled syringes were found on a school bus;
  • a bus driver stopped at a liquor store and tried to encourage a student to help her cover it up;
  • a drunk bus driver hit a student at a crosswalk;
  • a bus driver was charged with first degree sexual harassment;
  • a bus driver hit and killed a young girl;
  • a driver was charged with possession of child pornography on the internet;
  • First Student was put on probation for failing to do background checks on its employees;
  • a student was dragged by a bus;
  • a 13-year-old was lost, got frostbitten, and required hospitalization after a driver dropped her off at the wrong stop;
  • and a driver with alcohol on his breath was allowed to transport a student before being arrested later that day for driving while intoxicated.

About Durham and its drivers, Miller contended:

  • a bus driver was charged with three counts of raping a teenager;
  • a bus driver rolled over the legs of a 7-year-old after failing to engage the parking brake;
  • and a driver showed children sexually-explicit video clips on a cell phone.

Miller asserted that the things he shared were not by any means an exhaustive list, and closed telling the board, “If you want to save money, find another way. Here’s a clue: try justifying the salaries paid to the management of transportation.”

Public Commentary: Lack of Community Support for Privatization

Two other bus drivers spoke, each citing a handful of online comments they described as “blog posts” to show that many community members are opposed to privatization.

Thomas Wesoloski summarized comments he had collected: there is no way of getting around the cost of excellent employees; kids spend a lot of time with bus drivers; people would pay more in taxes to support schools; the services AAPS already has are excellent – why not keep them; and parents want to know who takes their kids to school. Wesoloski stated that, other than reducing overhead and cutting frivolous expenses, the only real solution to these budget problems is increased state funding.

Then, John Riedisser, a 21-year veteran of AAPS and an Ann Arbor homeowner, picked up on the string of “blog posts,” citing the following comments: in the long run, privatization sends the wrong message to our community; we need reputable and consistent service employees; privatization in other districts still causes divisions within the community 10 years later.

Riedisser also mentioned that he was 51 years old, and would like to continue working until he can retire.

Public Commentary: Demand for Transparency in Budget Process

Representatives from both ends of the school spending spectrum spoke during public commentary – Harold Miller from Ann Arbor Citizens for Responsible School Spending (A2CRSS), and Steven Norton, executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools. Though the two men offered different lines of rationale, their comments led to the same demand – that the board ensure complete transparency as it sets the budget for the upcoming school year.

Miller contended that at best the board was ill-informed, and at worst, it was actively hiding information from the public. He began with, “Here is the information schools are not presenting to the public,” and gestured to a chart on a poster held by Kathy Griswold, also of A2CRSS, who stood next to him.

The information on the poster was taken, Miller said, from a Michigan Department of Education finance survey, and showed the amount of per-pupil spending in Ann Arbor, compared to other local districts. Miller said that when A2CRSS began to ask questions about school spending, it was not looking for predetermined answers. It began by choosing to compare Ann Arbor’s school district to those in Plymouth-Canton, which is roughly the same size, and East Lansing, which is also situated near a large university. Then, they added 11 districts geographically close to Ann Arbor to the comparison.

Miller said his research showed that the other districts’ per-pupil spending averaged about $10,000, while Ann Arbor spends over $13,000 per student, and he questioned why that is. He encouraged the board and the public to verify the data he presented and requested that the board provide more of such background data to the public, so that it is clear what data was used in decision-making.

Steven Norton described himself as a parent, a voter, and someone who is dedicating his time to finding answers. He said the board meeting up to that point had showed him what can be achieved when the community commits the needed resources, and how this is threatened by the consequences of decisions which are “mostly not made locally.”

Norton urged the board to be as transparent as possible in explaining to the community how it makes the hard choices ahead in the 2011 budget: “The choices must be made openly, and in an environment of goodwill.” He stressed the importance of being sure the community understands both the rationale behind the choices made, and the reasons other options were passed over.

Norton warned that the legitimacy of the school leadership was in the balance, and said it would be “extremely dangerous” if people in the community were left with the notion that all the options were not considered. He warned the board against moving too quickly, and cautioned that “the process must not be short-circuited.”

Electrical Maintenance Contract, Consent Agenda

One second briefing item came to the board for action at Wednesday’s meeting. That was the approval of a bid for outsourcing the maintenance of low-voltage control systems. Examples of such systems, given by executive director of physical properties Randy Trent, are fire alarms and heating and cooling systems. Maintenance of these systems, Trent said, required “a specific type of work that no one on staff can address.”

Trent reviewed how the recommended contractor, Wiltec Technologies, did not submit the lowest bid. However, Trent said, the two lowest bidders either did not respond to the district’s follow-up questions, or were not able to have their experience with low-voltage systems confirmed. Trustee Irene Patalan mentioned that she had just found a letter from Wiltec in her old board files, in which it introduced itself to the board as a local company.

Susan Baskett commented that she loved the two-stage process the board used – a first and second briefing – as it allows for public comment on all issues before they are voted on. On this issue, she said, she had received questions from the community about whether AAPS really needs this service, and why these electricians cost so much more than the district’s in-house electricians. [The contracted electricians would be paid $67.50 per hour, compared to the highest paid in-house electrician, who is paid $21.90 an hour.]

Trent answered that the pay difference was justified because the contractor rate includes their own tools and trucks, and a true comparison would need to take into account the benefits paid to district electricians. He also confirmed that AAPS does need this service, reiterating, “Our folks are not trained to do low-voltage work.”

When questioned by Simone Lightfoot, Trent confirmed that the total amount of the contract would be the hourly rate of $67.50 multiplied by the 2,000 hours listed in the bid. Lightfoot also asked whether in-house electricians could be trained to do this work, and Trent replied, “We would need to work that out with the union, and we have not been able to do that.”

Outcome: The electrical maintenance bid – along with meeting minutes, trustee conference reimbursements, and gift offers – was approved unanimously as part of the meeting’s consent agenda.

Race to the Top Legislation = Unfunded Mandates?

The Michigan legislature passed a flurry of legislation to reform education in December, in order to increase its competitive edge in competing for the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) dollars. [See previous Chronicle coverage: "Revenue Bump in School Budget Draft"] Forty states applied for the first round of funding, and Michigan was not among the 16 states announced as finalists this month.

Now, Michigan is in the position of re-applying for the funding in the second round, which begins in June. The federal Department of Education will be making the scores and comments of all grant reviewers public, with the expressed intention of helping states who did not win to strengthen their applications for the second go-around.

During the “items from the board” part of Wednesday’s agenda, Simone Lightfoot shared “troubling feelings” about the federal RTTT initiative. She stated that “Race to the Top is not in the long-term best interest of public education,” and said that it was the opt-out language that had allowed her to vote in support of the district’s signing onto the application submitted by the state of Michigan.

Lightfoot listed “unfunded and underfunded mandates” as her main concern with the RTTT legislation, but also took issue with its emphasis on testing and its support of charter schools. The memo that superintendent Todd Roberts included in the board’s information packet for Wednesday’s meeting also expressed concern about these mandates: “Although the state was not selected, the legislation passed related to the application will still be in effect for districts.”

Lightfoot continued, saying that after spending all day in Lansing on Wednesday, she believed that the Michigan legislature was planning to enact additional laws regarding Michigan’s languishing RTTT application. “The legislators were talking about how much more they can add into the laws,” with no additional funding being considered, Lightfoot said.

She added that, while some of the vision and goals of RTTT are admirable, the process feels rushed. [The Lansing conference attended by Lightfoot, as well as by Susan Baskett, was the Michigan Association of School Administrators/Michigan Association of School Boards legislative conference.]

AAPS Board and PTO Council Increase Pressure on State

There was a notably political overtone to Wednesday’s meeting as speakers, administration, and board members alike all expressed frustration directed at Michigan legislators for failing to ensure sustainable funding for education statewide. The board’s planning committee, as well as the PTO council, reported out on their activities to increase the pressure on state elected officials to address funding problems. The planning committee’s proposed resolution was passed by the board, and the PTO’s newly-formed advocacy committee called on parents and staff to contact their legislators.

Resolution to Expand Allowable Sinking Fund Expenditures

Irene Patalan’s report on activities of the planning committee included a review of graduation requirements of foreign exchange students, and examination of the inclement weather policy in more detail. But the main focus of the committee’s last meeting, she said, was to brainstorm ways to build revenue. Patalan explained that, in addition to considering how the board could better support the work of the AAPS Educational Foundation to increase private giving, her committee asked, “How can we better partner with our representatives from this county who are in Lansing?”

This question led the planning committee to draft a resolution in support of funding for education, which was unanimously supported by the board. The resolution “encourages the Michigan Senate to approve Senate Bill #1059 which expands the use of sinking fund dollars to include all currently allowable bond expenditures.” Patalan explained that the Michigan House of Representatives had passed a bill approving this more generous allowable spending of the sinking fund, but that the Senate needed to pass its “sister bill” in order for it to be enacted into law.

Glenn Nelson and Deb Mexicotte both thanked the planning committee for its initiative and leadership in drafting the resolution. Mexicotte added, “The Senate has been sitting on this bill for far too long.”

Outcome: The resolution in support of SB #1059 was passed unanimously.

PTO Council Establishes Advocacy Committee

Martine Perreault, chair of the AAPS PTO Council, an umbrella organization representing the parent-teacher and parent-teacher-student organizations from all AAPS schools, began by reporting that Anne Brod was stepping down as the PTOC’s board representative, and that the seat would be filled on a rotating basis by other PTOC council members until a new representative was assigned.

After giving a brief recap of current PTOC activities, including offering training to PTO officers and reviewing their own bylaws, Perreault announced that the PTOC had established an advocacy committee to voice the concerns of AAPS parents on state-level school financing issues.

She described the work of the new committee as “active advocacy with Washtenaw County elected representatives … to express our desire for stable school funding and the high priority of education funding in the face of difficult budget decisions.” Perreault noted that the committee would not support specific bills or candidates, but that its goal was to ensure an adequate funding stream. She invited all parents and staff to join the committee.

To join, Perreault said, the contact person is Donna Lasinski, who can be reached at lasinski@mac.com or 734-997-7265. She also asked the community to email legislators about the importance of stable school funding. She showed the board a slide with instructions on how to “find your legislator,” and suggested a simple script.

Mexicotte thanked the PTOC, saying the board “appreciate[d] the work of the PTOC to educate the community” about funding issues faced by the schools.

MASA/MASB Legislative Conference

Susan Baskett reported on the Michigan Association of School Administrators/Michigan Association of School Boards legislative conference that she and Simone Lightfoot had attended earlier that day. In addition to an RTTT funding session, Baskett said she had attended a session on communication, which walked participants through how to get more politically active.

The session on communication, Baskett said, led her to question how well the board has done on this front, and how it could do better. She then reflected on advice given to her by state Sen. Liz Brater, who suggested that school boards would be stronger if they joined together in advocacy. Baskett suggested that the board might want to move in this direction, by talking to fellow school board members from other Michigan districts: “Perhaps we can motivate ourselves to encourage people to see how they can reach out to each other.”

Performance Committee, Association Reports

Susan Baskett, the chair of the board’s performance committee, announced that in all of the hub-bub surrounding that night’s meeting, she had left her notes at home, and had no report. She invited the public to attend the committee’s meeting the next day, which she described as being focused on “policy review.”

Noting that the Youth Senate and Ann Arbor Education Association representatives had left the meeting – which Deb Mexicotte surmised was likely due to the length of the meeting up to that point – she invited the remaining associations to give their reports. A Youth Senate report was submitted in writing, and is available on the board’s website.

The report of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education (AAPAC) was given as follows: AAPAC reported that it had met with Yolanda Bell, AAPS transition coordinator, who had explained how students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) – and plans developed under Section 504 – transition into high school. They also thanked administrator Larry Simpson and superintendent Todd Roberts, who met with them to discuss the current budget issues and how they might affect student intervention and support services. They also said that AAPAC is advocating for a special education millage in 2011. Lastly, the group invited everyone to its upcoming disability awareness workshops, and mentioned that the goal of this work was to “spread the message that disability is a natural part of the diversity of all communities.”

Awards and Accolades

There has not been a regular board meeting in a month, and there were many special awards, honors, and recognitions included on Wednesday’s agenda.

Riot Youth

Glenn Nelson and Susan Baskett presented a plaque they received from the Neutral Zone Riot Youth program. Nelson described Riot Youth as “encouraging people to celebrate diversity of sexual orientation and increasing respect for different lifestyles.” The award – received by the board on behalf of AAPS –  thanked AAPS for its “dedication to improving the school climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQQ) students.”

Nelson said he was honored and touched to be part of the awards program, and Baskett added that the students were “very smart” to include action items in the event: “They put us to work and challenged us to think about how we could make things better.” Nelson added that in addition to the entertainment, the event included “… painful, sorrowful stories about what still happens in our schools.” He then vowed, “For all those listening, we’re proud of what we’ve done, but we realize there is still a lot to do. We’ll look forward to [the work], and we’ll do it with enthusiasm.”

Celebration of excellence Beth Bernacki

At the podium is trustee Susan Baskett, right, who presented Beth Bernacki, left, with a celebration of excellence award.

Celebration of Excellence

Beth Bernacki, a history teacher at Skyline High School, was awarded a celebration of excellence award for outstanding customer service.

She was nominated by Katie LaCroix, her sister and 4th grade teacher at Logan, who said she has witnessed firsthand Bernacki’s commitment to her work, and her desire to engage and challenge her students to their utmost potential.

Bernacki thanked her sister, and said it meant a lot to be honored by someone who she respects as a professional, too.

Also given an outstanding customer service award through the celebration of excellence program was Pat Dombroski, a para-educator at Forsythe Middle School.

Pat Dombroski

Pat Dombroski, "Mr. D," right, received a celebration of excellence award.

He was nominated by his co-workers, who stated that he “gives all of his heart and his energy to his job,” and that they had “yet to encounter a student who has not felt that ‘Mr. D’ made a difference in their lives.”

Kennedy Center Award Nomination and Burns Park Award

Robin Bailey, the district’s fine arts coordinator, shared that AAPS had been selected by ArtServe Alliance of Michigan to be considered for a Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network Award, an annual award recognizing a local school board “for outstanding support in the arts in education.” Bailey had sought the nomination from the state Alliance organization, and used the opportunity to thank the board for supporting the AAPS partnership with the University Musical Society, resulting in an “absolutely impressive fine arts experience in this district.”

If selected by the Kennedy Center as the award recipient, AAPS would receive $10,000 for use in its fine arts program. The application submitted by Bailey was included in the information packet for Wednesday’s meeting, and included a list of the district’s fine arts achievements, as well as superlative letters of recommendations, from the AAPS board and administration, current and past Ann Arbor mayors, and local and state music associations.

Omari Rush, education manager for the University Musical Society (UMS), then spoke, announcing that Burns Park was being awarded its 2010 School of the Year. Burns Park’s principal, Kathy Morhous, as well as its art and music teachers were invited to a gala to accept the award. Morhous thanked UMS for being a wonderful resource, and gave examples of how her fine arts staff had integrated the society’s recent focus on Arabic music and culture into their curricula.

Nelson asked the board to take a moment to reflect on the leadership shown by Bailey and Rush. Patalan added that being appreciated for the arts experiences that AAPS provides is “something you have to burst with pride about,” adding, “We have a wonderful history and a future also of the arts being important in this community – I am proud.”

Rob Lillie Recognition

Superintendent Todd Roberts pointed out the Rob Lillie had been out of town when the Tappan Middle School gym was named in his honor. Tappan assistant principal Rick Weiler, who nominated Lillie, said he had “finally talked him into coming” to the board meeting to be honored, and called him a role model for many students, staff, and parents.

Rob Lillie

Rob Lillie was recognized at the board meeting for an earlier renaming of the Tappan Middle School gym in his honor.

Lillie came to the podium, recalling the time he had to come before the board 30 years ago to explain how it would work to have a co-ed gym class, and saying that he felt like the Wizard of Oz’s lion, tin man, and scarecrow all at once. He thanked the board for the “awesome” award they had given him, and joked that after 40 years of teaching over 30,000 students, all he asked from his former students was “don’t play the name game with me – just tell me who you are.”

Susan Kielb, a math and science teacher at Tappan, then spoke on behalf of her colleague, describing how Lillie had started a program called “Division I” to help students who wanted to someday play in Division I sports, but whose academic standing and attitude challenged that dream. Kielb described Lillie as “firm, loving, and serious,” and said that if students were confused about an assignment, Lillie would sit down and figure it out with them. “Many people grew up with this steady guidance from [Lillie],” she said. Even now that he is retired, Kielb said you can’t help but feel Lillie’s influence on Tappan, making it a place where “kids are championed and honored.”

Lillie thanked his wife, who he said, “was only jealous of one thing in all her years and that’s Tappan.” Simone Lightfoot congratulated Lillie, who had been her teacher as well as her daughter’s, as looking “phenomenal. Where’s the gray?” she asked. Lillie quipped, “That’s why I had to leave Florida (where he had been when the gym was named in his honor) – I wasn’t old enough.”

Glenn Nelson added that it was wonderful to have this moment of recognition. Nelson said that, though the emphasis was on Rob Lillie tonight, this is really a community of excellence.

Deb Mexicotte led all present in a round of applause in honor of Lillie.

Other Items from the Board

Susan Baskett reported that she attended National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID) Night at Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, and praised the school for significantly increasing some students’ GPAs over the course of 12 weeks. She mentioned she was excited to attend the upcoming Robotics competition at Skyline High School.

Glenn Nelson recognized the contributions of the Dispute Resolution Center, which he said does a very good job helping to mediate conflict over a broad array of issues, including periodic conflicts within AAPS involving parents or students. He also mentioned participating once again in a great book club discussion co-hosted by the AAPS, the Ann Arbor District Library, and the UMS, in which the role of the arts in education was discussed. Nelson then pointed out that a recent gala and silent auction at Pioneer High School was an example of the very important private support the district possesses.

Nelson shared his enjoyment of the recent Orchestra Night and Choral Cavalcade events. Of Orchestra Night, he said, “you get this sense of growth over time … Those larger instruments are an investment of our community, and these kids are enabled to develop their talent. Hurray to the community for paying for this!” He went on to describe the choral concerts as “an emotional experience that really touches your heart,” and said he “felt really thrilled and blessed to be able to be there.”

Irene Patalan mentioned that she was proud of Forsythe Middle School, having attended its recent science fair: “There’s nothing like middle schoolers – they’re not quite little and they’re not quite big … The work is honest.” Patalan also gave a “shout out” to the young artists at Haisley Elementary, and mentioned that some of their work would be on display as part of youth art month.

Superintendent’s Report

Wednesday’s report from AAPS superintendent Todd Roberts was a cavalcade of achievements, outreach, and improvements made by AAPS students and staff.

At the high school level, Roberts congratulated the district’s national merit scholars; U.S. Physics Team nominees; Community High School (CHS) for receipt of the Perfect 36 award; Pioneer students who received awards in the arts; a CHS counselor; Skyline’s forensics team; homebuilding students who competed at Washtenaw Community College; members of the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team who had attended AAPS; and a class at Huron High School, which participated in and won awards at the Michigan Special Olympics winter games.

Roberts praised the Clague Middle School student who was awarded Middle School Student of the Year, as well as the district’s middle schools that placed in the Michigan Chess Association competition, and the recent Mathcounts competition. He also congratulated Forsythe for participating in Project Healthy Schools, a wellness program to create a healthier school environment, and named numerous band awards, as well as awards received by teachers from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Many students at several schools have continued to support relief efforts in Haiti, raising thousands of dollars in aid, Roberts said. He thanked the students and staff for all of their great work, particularly those who “care for others and do community service in addition to the academic stuff.”

The meeting was adjourned by president Deb Mexicotte.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice-president Irene Patalan, secretary Glenn Nelson, treasurer Randy Friedman, trustee Susan Baskett, trustee Simone Lightfoot, and newly-seated trustee Christine Stead. Also present as a non-voting member was Todd Roberts, superintendent of AAPS.

Next regular meeting: March 24, 2010, 7 p.m., at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]


  1. March 24, 2010 at 10:46 am | permalink

    When evaluating the cost of the outsources vs insourced food service, did Rolland Zullo include the cost of payments to the state pension fund in the cost of in-sourced food service?

  2. By Roland Zullo
    March 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    Hi Chuck,

    The short answer to your question is yes, I included all costs, including pensions.

    The analysis is a bit more involved, because costs and revenues change over time, and both affect the total budget.

    The study is available at: [link]

    If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.


  3. By Chris
    March 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    Here’s another thing about the privitazation at my kids’ school — because the staff has turned over, some kids are using other kid’s names to charge lunch, and the lunch staffers fall for it. We have unused lunch accounts (because I’m not paying for junk food when they don’t even offer vegetarian junk food every day) that we had to close because SOMEONE was charging lunches to us.

  4. By Liz Brauer
    April 20, 2010 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Actually, when Bach Open School was moved to Mack the Open School community voted on a new name .We wanted one we could take with us if we ever had to move again. The winner was Ann Arbor Open. That is the name of the school. The district wanted to be clear about the building and that we had not renamed the building so they added @Mack which is sometimes used. The word School is not in the name of the school at all. Ann Arbor Open School was one of the names on the list which we voted on, but Ann Arbor Open was the clear winner!