AAPS Set for Six Superintendent Interviews

Also: Stone School rebranded as “Ann Arbor Tech”

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Feb. 9, 2011): At its Wednesday meeting, the AAPS board announced six semi-finalists for the district’s open superintendent position. In alphabetical order, the candidates and the school districts in which they are currently working are: William DeFrance (Eaton Rapids Public Schools, Michigan); Patricia Green (North Allegheny School District, Pennsylvania.); Paul Long (Pennsbury School District, Pennsylvania); Michael Muñoz (Des Moines Public Schools, Iowa); Shelley Redinger (Oregon Trail School District, Oregon); and Manuel Rodriguez (Baltimore County Public Schools, Maryland).

Christine Stead, Andy Thomas, Ann Arbor Public Schools

Trustee Andy Thomas, makes a point during the AAPS board discussion on interview questions for superintendent candidates. Seated to his right at the board table is trustee Christine Stead. (Photo by the writer.)

Candidate bios and photos, along with detailed information about when and where candidate interviews will be held next week, are available on the AAPS website. The public is invited to attend, but not participate in, this first round of interviews. The board decided on more than 20 questions to be asked during a two-hour interview of each candidate, and plans to select two or three finalists for the position immediate following the last interview on Friday, Feb. 18.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Stone High School successfully won board approval to change its name to Ann Arbor Technological High School, and Skyline High School principal Sulura Jackson was honored for being named principal of the year by the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. Jackson will now move on to compete nationally.

Superintendent Candidate Selection

At its evening meeting, board president Deb Mexicotte explained that the board had met in closed session during the afternoon that day to review a set of 10 candidates recommended by Ray & Associates, the search firm hired to help the district find a new superintendent. Later in the afternoon, after the closed session meeting, the board shifted to an open session to narrow down the 10 suggested candidates to a list of six semi-finalists.

Superintendent Candidate Selection: Feb. 9 Afternoon Meeting

During the open session on the afternoon of Feb. 9, board members and consultants referred to the candidates by number. A matrix provided by the search firm aided the deliberation process by asking trustees to compare each pair of candidates (1 vs. 2, 1 vs. 3, etc.) to determine the stronger candidate in each pair. After tallying board members’ choices, the firm announced that six candidates had risen to the top.

Trustees noted that the six semi-finalists represented a strong diversity of experiences, gender, and ethnicity. Ray & Associates staff pointed out that two of the six candidates are participating in searches in other districts as well, and that AAPS may lose one or both of them from the search.

Trustee Glenn Nelson said he would like to keep the pool of six rather than try to narrow the field further without interviews. Trustee Susan Baskett expressed concern that the sizes of some of the candidates’ current school districts are much smaller than AAPS, and said she was disappointed that the pool did not contain more candidates from districts of comparable size.

At the Feb. 9 afternoon meeting, the board agreed to postpone some items on the agenda of the Feb. 9 regular evening meeting in order to discuss further the superintendent candidate selection, and finalize the set of interview questions.

Superintendent Candidate Selection: Feb. 9 Evening Meeting

Bill Newman, Al Johnson, and Marlene Davis from Ray & Associates announced that they had contacted all six semi-finalists in the hour and a half between the earlier meeting and the regular evening meeting, and that all six remained interested in the position, and were available to be interviewed during the week of Feb. 14.

Newman then read the names of the six candidates, and Mexicotte asked if the board needed to do anything formally to accept the names. Newman suggested a vote.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously in a roll call vote to accept the six candidates as presented by Newman for interviews next week. Mexicotte expressed appreciation of the search firm, saying, “Thanks for bringing us to this point, and thanks in advance for bringing us through the rest of this process.”

Superintendent Candidate Interviews

Ray & Associates representatives remained at the podium in order to help the board set the interview schedule, and offer advice about the interview process, site visits, and community forums. Following that, the board took a brief break and then resumed discussion on its own in order to hammer out the interview questions.

Superintendent Candidate Interviews: Schedule

Johnson suggested conducting interviews from Tuesday through Friday so as not to pull candidates away from their spouses on Valentine’s Day. He requested that the board identify six two-hour time slots to hold interviews, and said that the firm would then fit the candidates into the slots, depending on their availability. Johnson also cautioned the board not to conduct more than three interviews in one day.

Nelson noted that the board needed to be sure to leave time after the final interview to deliberate and choose the list of finalists.

Trustee Christine Stead suggested that a regular schedule of some sort, perhaps four hours a day, would best accommodate the public’s ability to attend, but trustee Irene Patalan pointed out that the public would have a chance to participate in the second round of interviews. Trustee Simone Lightfoot countered, “I want the public to feel like they can weigh in on these six.” She encouraged the public to reach out to the board with opinions on the semi-finalists via e-mail or phone.

After sorting through candidates’ and trustees’ availability over the four suggested days, the board settled on the following schedule:

  • Tues. Feb. 15, 1-3 p.m.
  • Wed. Feb. 16, 1-3 p.m.
  • Wed. Feb. 16, 3:15-5:15 p.m.
  • Wed. Feb. 16, 6-8 p.m.
  • Fri. Feb. 18, 1-3 p.m.
  • Fri. Feb. 18, 3:15-5:15 p.m.

Board deliberation on the candidates will follow the final interview on Friday.

Superintendent Candidate Interviews: Location

Mexicotte noted that the firm had suggested holding interviews at a location off-site, but still local, such as a hotel. Trustee Andy Thomas questioned why there would be an advantage to holding interviews off-site as opposed to at the Balas administration building on South State Street.

Johnson noted that the “natural curiosity of people … can get disruptive.” Mexicotte agreed that holding interviews at Balas could be a disruption to employees’ workday.

Newman added that the main reason for suggesting a hotel is for the candidates’ ease. Hotels simply make it easy for candidates to be where they need to be, he said.

Patalan added that during the previous superintendent search, the board met at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD), and that she found it valuable to “get out of [her] element.” Lightfoot expressed concern that getting to the WISD was “a little nuanced” and that it may be difficult for candidates to find. Mexicotte agreed that while holding interviews at WISD might save some money, because there would be no charge to use the rooms, any savings might be offset by having to pay for transportation to bring candidates to the site.

Nelson and Stead each recommended the Campus Inn, since it could allow candidates to see more of downtown Ann Arbor during their brief visits. Mexicotte expressed concern about parking, and suggested the Sheraton, which is near Balas and often used by the district. Lightfoot agreed with Mexicotte, again saying that it was important to encourage the community to attend, and that choosing a site with ample public parking would facilitate that.

Board secretary Amy Osinski said it might be difficult to get rooms at the WISD during business hours, and suggested Weber’s Inn, which has more parking, but is still local.

The board requested that Osinski try to book rooms for the interviews in the following order: the Campus Inn, the Sheraton, and then the WISD. [In a follow-up call with Osinski, she explained to The Chronicle that all three options were either unavailable or under construction, leading to the outcome of holding the interviews at the Courtyard Marriott, located at 3205 Boardwalk.]

Johnson suggested setting up the interview room with the board seated in a U-shape, with the candidate facing the board and space for the public behind the board.

Newman noted that Osinski should also reserve rooms at a hotel for the candidates, and that rooms should be scattered rather than in a block.

Superintendent Candidate Interviews: Process

Regarding the interview process, Newman suggested assigning questions so that each trustee asks the same questions of each candidate, and having Mexicotte keep time and advise candidates of how they are using their time. He suggested asking 20-25 questions over two hours, beginning with an icebreaker. He also reminded the board that it was illegal to ask about candidates’ personal lives, families, etc.

Mexicotte asked if the firm would recommend having candidates make a presentation on a topic, and Johnson suggested that a presentation might be better placed in the second round of interviews. Newman added that in this first round, it’s important to ask the same questions of each candidate, but that in the second round, questions should be tailored to each candidate.

Thomas asked if it was okay to ask follow-up questions, and Johnson suggested that any follow-up questions needed to relate directly to the original question instead of going off into new territory. However, Newman added that board members should not feel so rigidly bound that they feel unsatisfied with an interview. Mexicotte expressed confidence that she could ascertain when a follow-up question was warranted and would facilitate it.

Ray & Associates staff provided the board with a list of 25 sample questions, stressing that they could use all or none of them. Johnson suggested asking questions that were more generic than specific.

Trustees debated about inserting a question regarding the district’s strategic plan, and Davis advised, “The candidates you have asked for have done their due diligence … If you leave it open, you will be surprised where they weave it in.”

Before the search firm departed, Mexicotte asked for confirmation of her understanding of the way visits to candidates’ current workplaces and community forums would be handled.

About the site visits, Newman noted that about half of the boards they work with do them, and that they “can scare candidates off.” He suggested that the board tell Ray & Associates who they want to meet so that the firm can help structure the visit. “You can still do some of the wandering around, but you run the risk of talking to ‘Mike the mechanic’ or ‘Floyd the barber’ whose kid didn’t get enough playing time in the field.”

Lightfoot responded that she was interested in talking to “Mike the mechanic,” and she would be leery of only talking to people who love the candidate. Mexicotte noted that during the last superintendent search, trustees toured facilities and were able to talk to the custodians, lunch room supervisors, and anyone else they ran into on the tour.

Regarding community forums, Newman confirmed that they will take place after the board conducts second interviews, also in open session, with the two or three finalists.  Community members who attend the forums will be able to suggest questions by filling out notecards when they arrive.  Each finalist will meet with the community independently for the same amount of time, and Ray and Associates will ask them the community’s questions one by one.  The same list of questions, asked in the same order, will be used at each community forum.  Community members will then fill out “impression sheets,” rather than recommending one candidate over another.

After the forums, community input will be immediately passed on to board members, who will deliberate in open session until they can recommend a candidate with whom they will enter into negotiations.

Mexicotte thanked Newman, Johnson, and Davis for their assistance with setting the process.

Superintendent Candidate Interviews: Interview Questions

After a brief break, the board reconvened on their own without their search firm consultants in order to select the questions they would use during the first round of interviews.

The board debated setting questions together as a whole, or having a smaller subset of trustees compile them after individual trustees submitted ideas. Mexicotte suggested working for a half hour to complete the question selection. Board members agreed, and though the half hour expanded to over 90 minutes, they did agree on a set of roughly 25 questions.

They began by reviewing the questions suggested by Ray & Associates, and trying to eliminate those they did not like. After considering the first few questions, they reversed gears, trying instead to choose the questions from the suggested list they really liked. Their goal was to start with a shorter list, leaving more room to add questions suggested by the community, as well as their own questions.

Trustees worked to word questions so that candidates would not be encouraged to use buzzwords, but that would allow candidates opportunities to give examples, and to elaborate in a natural way.

In the end, questions were included that addressed:

  • candidates’ strengths and weaknesses
  • relationship-building between the superintendent and the board
  • the definition of “quality education”
  • partnering with higher education
  • delegating authority while managing accountability
  • budget innovations
  • working with diverse communities
  • student achievement
  • leadership style influences
  • building consensus
  • the role of the superintendent in public advocacy
  • handling decisions unpopular with the public
  • approaches to labor negotiations
  • diversity of academic program offerings
  • hiring decisions
  • meshing the incoming superintendent’s vision with the district’s strategic plan already in place

Mexicotte agreed to collect all of the agreed-upon wording changes, order the questions appropriately, and send out a final list to board members for review.

Stone School to Become “Ann Arbor Tech”

At the first briefing of the Stone High School name change at the most recent regular board meeting on Jan. 26, 2011, the board suggested that the Stone community consider the name “Ann Arbor Technological High School” instead of the name originally suggested – “Ann Arbor Technical High School.”

At the second briefing on Feb. 9, AAPS assistant superintendent for secondary education, Joyce Hunter, reported that Stone principal Sheila Brown took the board’s suggestion back to her stakeholders, and was now recommending the name Ann Arbor Technological High School, the colors black and gold, and The Knights as the mascot.

The board asked Brown if there was a high level of support for the revised name. Brown responded that the students, staff and community are excited about the name change either way, since the working name will be the same – Ann Arbor Tech, or A2T. She thanked her principal’s advisory team, and said they are already working on preparations for the roll-out celebration, should the new name be approved.

Mexicotte thanked Brown for coming out to the second briefing.

Outcome: The proposal to rename Stone School “Ann Arbor Technological High School,” abbreviated as “Ann Arbor Tech” was approved unanimously as part of the consent agenda, which also included the approval of minutes, and a policy update to align the process of setting graduation requirements with current practice in the district. During the short second briefing on the policy update, Nelson explained, “The spirit of this is to make it clear that the board is the body that sets graduation requirements and the superintendent is the person responsible for implementing those requirements.”

Skyline’s Sulura Jackson Named Principal of the Year

Interim superintendent Robert Allen introduced Skyline principal Sulura Jackson, who was recently named principal of the year by the Michigan Association of Secondary Schools Principals (MASSP).

Sulura Jackson

Sulura Jackson, principal, Skyline High School

The MASSP representative on hand to present the award explained that Jackson rose to the top of the candidate pool instantly. She will now compete for national principal of the year.

Jackson accepted the award, saying that while it was a cliché to say so, this was one of the high points of her life. She thanked her staff, as well as Skyline’s students and parents, MASSP, and the award’s sponsor, MetLife.

Board members uniformly praised Jackson, saying that the district was fortunate to have her, and that she modeled excellent leadership. Mexicotte thanked Jackson for her service to the district, and Allen added – “We’re expecting even bigger things from you.”

Board Committee Reports

The board has two standing committees. The planning committee consists of: Christine Stead (chair), Susan Baskett, and Irene Patalan; the performance committee consists of: Glenn Nelson (chair), Simone Lightfoot, and Andy Thomas. Board president Deb Mexicotte sits on neither committee.

Performance Committee

Trustee Glenn Nelson briefed the board on the Feb. 4, 2011 meeting of the performance committee. He began by describing the report delivered to the committee by the district’s communications department. It covers the most recent draft of the student achievement report and a presentation on the new positions within the communications department.

According to Nelson, a significant amount of progress has been made on the achievement report. The basic structure – a three-tiered approach, with each tier containing more detail – has been agreed upon. The biggest question remaining is what to include in the second tier – a multi-page brochure with a wide range of statistics that could be included.

“This is like writing a speech – we’re having to talk through what, among all the valid points at our disposal, we include in the second tier,” Nelson said. “For one page, we can agree on what to include, and with the whole website at our disposal, we can agree, now we’re working on the second tier.”

Nelson thanked several staff members for their work on the report: Liz Margolis, AAPS director of communications; Chris Berry Barry, grant and volunteer coordinator; Casey Hans, director of AAPS News; Annette Ferguson, director of business partnerships; and Allie Van Doren, the district webmaster. At the Feb. 4 meeting attended by Chronicle staff, Margolis, Barry, Ferguson and Van Doren discussed their new roles, which Nelson praised at the Feb. 9 meeting.

“We had updates on new efforts working to obtain grants, working to recruit more volunteers, working on partnerships, and an update on AAPS News, which has turned into a very important way of getting information out, and an update on the new website,” Nelson said.

Nelson also reported on the presentation that committee members heard from representatives of the AAPS Student Intervention and Support Services (SISS). The report touched on the special education millage – which will be on the May 3, 2011 ballot for renewal– as well as new programs and software acquisitions made by the SISS department that will improve the district’s special education programs. The report was scheduled to be delivered again at the Feb. 9 board meeting, but was postponed in order to allow for more discussion regarding the superintendent search. Nelson said it was important to keep the millage on people’s minds, and that the report should be presented soon.

Lastly, Nelson talked about the committee’s discussion of the district’s volunteer policy. Recent miscommunications have raised some ire over which volunteers are required to undergo background checks. Nelson said that discussion on this topic will be ongoing, and he encouraged public input at the committee’s next meeting at 9 a.m. on March 1 at the Balas administration building.

Planning Committee

Trustee Christine Stead addressed the board on behalf of the planning committee, which met on Feb. 3, 2011. Stead began by adding to Nelson’s remarks about the communications department, tying Margolis’ efforts back to the district’s need for revenue targets to combat the structural deficit.

“Liz did an excellent job updating us on what the communications department has been up to and outlining the roles we had envisioned,” she said. “In our study session on revenue enhancement, we talked about showing return for investing, so we’re very excited about that team and we have high expectations for that team.”

Stead also mentioned a brief update the committee received on special education from interim superintendent Robert Allen. She emphasized the importance of having plans prepared in case voters don’t approve the upcoming special education millage, as well as having specific campaign strategies for the AAPS district.

Finally, Stead mentioned a Feb. 1 breakfast hosting local legislators to discuss the topic of education reform. Stead said the event was attended by all the local legislative representatives and there was a good amount of support for education priorities. According to Stead, maintaining a focus on education funding among legislators will be especially important when the Michigan Business Tax is repealed, due to the extra $1.5 billion that will be added to the state’s deficit.

Association Reports

At each meeting, the board invites reports from six associations: the Youth Senate, the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee on Special Education (AAPAC), the Parent-Teacher-Organization Council (PTOC), the Black Parents Student Support Group (BPSSG), the Ann Arbor Administrators Association (AAAA), and the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA). At the Feb. 9 meeting, the board heard reports from the Youth Senate, the AAPAC, and the PTOC.

Association Reports: Youth Senate

The Youth Senate report was delivered by Nikila Lakshmanan, a junior from Community High School, and Felipe Riano, a junior from Huron High School. Riano, who moved to the area from Bogota, Columbia about a year ago, shared his disappointment that Latino students in the district did not identify with their heritage. Furthermore, Riano felt there was a predominance of negative stereotypes about Latinos being lazy or uneducated.

The report by Riano and Lakshmanan centered on efforts to change the perception of Latinos in AAPS by writing articles on important Latin American figures. They hope these articles will be published during the school year to dispel stereotypes. “After we establish a positive understanding of Latinos,” Riano said, “we can start to share the struggles Latinos face without reinforcing negative stereotypes, and better engage Latino students via the cross-cultural relationships we have built.”

Association Reports: AAPAC

Eric Macks of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee on Special Education addressed the board on the progress of his six-year-old son, Evan Macks, at Lawton Elementary School. Evan was born with a genetic disorder affecting muscle tone and energy level, but Eric said he was pleased to report that Evan was making a smooth transition to a full-day schedule. “Evan continues to make strides and develop social skills,” he said. “These friendships create a foundation for success.”

Macks also reported on the beginning of disability awareness workshops for fourth-grade students in the district. So far, workshops have been held at Allen, Abbot and Carpenter elementary schools, with 14 more workshops planned for the coming months. The workshops teach students about living with disabilities or impairments, and encourage students to make suggestions to their principals about how to make their schools more accessible for those living with disabilities. Macks thanked the many parent and community volunteers who helped make the workshops possible.

Macks stressed the importance of the upcoming special education millage, which was originally passed in 2004. He emphasized that funding for special education is mandated, and that by passing this millage for another seven years, the district as a whole will benefit. “Passing this millage means more funds will be available for general education students,” he said. “Special education must be funded, and without [its passage], funds would have to come from general operating funds.”

Macks also touched on the possibility of using special education funds to start a Young Adult Program (YAP). The program would provide support for students with learning disabilities through the age of 25. Currently, Saline and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District feature YAPs. Macks felt there is significant parent and community support for a YAP in Ann Arbor. “We can put our brand on young adult programs by designing a program for Ann Arbor students’ needs,” he said. “There are plenty of eligible students to justify and support a program. It’s good for trustees to know there is community and parent support.”

Association Reports: PTOC

Amy Pachera of the Parent-Teacher-Organization Council was on hand to address the board at Wednesday’s meeting. She updated trustees on the PTOC’s upcoming general meeting on March 21 to discuss fundraising strategies. The meeting will bring together district schools in a round-robin-style forum to share best practices for fundraising. Pachera hopes that by sharing information and tactics on a school-to-school basis, the most effective methods can be spread and schools won’t have to “re-invent the wheel” when it comes to fundraising.

She also reported that the recent PTO officer training was very successful.

Superintendent’s Report

Interim superintendent Robert Allen’s report highlighted plans for the upcoming National African-American Parent Involvement Day, which will take place Feb. 14. Allen announced that district schools have set up activities for interested parents during the school day, and encouraged parents to attend school with their children on that day. The annual countywide “NAAPID at Night,” an evening alternative for parents who cannot attend activities during the day, will be held this year at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 14 at the Saline High School Center for the Performing Arts.

Allen also announced the success of local students being nominated for U.S. presidential and high school athletic scholarships. A number of AAPS students were also selected to perform with the Michigan Middle School All-State Orchestra and Band.

District SIT Appointments

Mexicotte appointed Lightfoot and Stead to the district School Improvement Team, which is slated to begin meeting this month.

Agenda Planning

Mexicotte suggested including the postponed SISS presentation on the agenda of the next regular meeting on March 2, since it would tie-in well with the revenue enhancement discussion, which is also on the agenda for that day. She noted that the other postponed items from the Feb. 9 meeting would also come back in March.

Items from the Board

Stead announced that there is a mini-conference sponsored by the Minority Student Action Network on April 14-15 in Farmington, Mich., and interested board members should attend.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, Christine Stead, and Simone Lightfoot. Also present as a non-voting member was Robert Allen, AAPS interim superintendent.

Absent: Vice president Susan Baskett

Next regular meeting: March 2, 2011, 7 p.m., at the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]