AAPS Board Opposes State Aid Transfer

Also, Ann Arbor's schools of choice program expanded

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting (March 30, 2011): Wednesday’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Schools board began by welcoming incoming superintendent Patricia Green to the district. Trustees selected Green, who’s been superintendent of schools at North Allegheny School District in Pennsylvania, as the next AAPS superintendent at their March 5 special meeting.

Patricia Green

Patricia Green, incoming superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, spoke during the AAPS board's March 30 meeting. She starts her job in July. (Photo by the writer.)

Green was in town for a brief visit to meet with members of the administration and will start her tenure here in July. Noting that she hopes to make one more visit before then, Green stated her commitment to connecting with the district and encouraging members of the community to reach out.

Wednesday’s meeting was highlighted by talk of how to deal with looming budget issues. The board discussed – then unanimously approved – a resolution opposing the transfer of some state School Aid Fund money, which has traditionally financed K-12 schools, to fund higher education instead. Trustee Andy Thomas called the proposed transfer “a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, done in a very underhanded manner.”

Budget issues were also a key part of a report to the board by Brit Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, the teacher’s union. He said the union’s efforts are focused on educating the public about sacrifices the district would have to make to accommodate proposed cuts, keeping in mind concessions that have already been made.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted to expand the district’s schools of choice program. They got an update about a partnership with the University of Michigan involving Mitchell Elementary and Scarlett Middle schools, and heard a report on efforts to reduce energy costs throughout the district.

Four people spoke during the time set aside for public commentary. Speakers expressed concern over the district’s scheduling of events in conflict with religious holidays, and objected to a proposed expansion of the parking lot at Haisley Elementary School.

Board Opposes Transfer of School Aid Fund

Trustees unanimously supported a resolution opposing the transfer of state School Aid Fund (SAF) money to institutions of higher education. A proposal being considered by the state legislature would divert some of the SAF funds, which are traditionally used to finance K-12 public schools.

The issue had been a rallying point at previous meetings, with trustees expressing their disbelief that the district’s surplus in SAF money could be lost due to the transfer of some of that money to community colleges and other higher education institutions.

The resolution, which has been circulating among public school boards in Michigan, was introduced and read by trustee Irene Patalan. [.pdf file of a draft resolution distributed by the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) and used by the AAPS board] The resolution cited several arguments against the transfer of funds. It noted that funding for public education has failed to keep up with rising costs, and pointed out that institutions of higher education can earn revenue through tuition increases, while K-12 districts can not.

The resolution also touched on how Proposal A, a 1994 statewide ballot initiative that shifted responsibility for K-12 funding to the state, was coupled with the understanding that these funds would be used solely for K-12 education.

Board members hoped that passing this resolution would help serve as a call to action.

“We recognize the need for (higher education) funding, but this is a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, done in a very underhanded manner,” trustee Andy Thomas said.

Board president Deb Mexicotte agreed, adding that this transfer of funds would run contrary to what the public wanted the SAF to be used for.

“While we’re arguing the facts that the SAF was set aside and promised to K-12, this is also contrary to the will of the people as to how this money should be used, and how this is being used as an argument for an erosion of public education,” Mexicotte said. “I am in support of passing this resolution. We should speak out on this at every opportunity we get.”

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution that opposes transferring state School Aid Fund money to fund higher education.

[For background on budget issues, see Chronicle coverage of the board's March 16, 2011 meeting, when interim superintendent Robert Allen gave the board an update on the district's budget.]

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), the teacher’s union.

On March 30, the board heard from the teacher’s union and the BPSSG.

Association Reports: Ann Arbor Education Association

Brit Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor teacher’s union, echoed the same themes that the board expressed in opposing Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposals for reduced education funding. He updated the board on the AAEA’s efforts to fight those funding cuts.

Satchwell said the main thrust of the effort is to educate the public about the sacrifices the district would have to make to accommodate these cuts, keeping in mind the concessions that have already been made.

“We entered this year projecting a $7 million deficit, which was then upped to $15 million after the cuts from Snyder, and if the special education millage fails it will be $22 million,” Satchwell said, referring to a renewal of the 0.985-mill tax that is on the May 3, 2011 ballot. “The worse-case scenario for this year, plus the [$35 million] cuts of the last five years, would total to about one-third of an annual [city of] Ann Arbor budget, which is astounding.”

Satchwell closed by saying that the district would not be able to continue to cope with these cuts, adding that changes at the state level would be necessary for survival.

He argued that if the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards could do at the state level what the local districts are doing, “we’d have a much better state and a brighter future,” Satchwell said. “If there is no success at that level, all our efforts here will be for naught.”

Association Reports: Black Parent Student Support Group

Brian Johnson delivered a report on behalf of the Black Parent Student Support Group. Johnson, a Pioneer High School graduate, told the board that the BPSSG would be making the closing of the achievement gap a top priority.

“We were battling the same issue when I graduated too many years ago,” he said. Johnson added that the organization appreciated the ongoing support of the board.

Schools of Choice Expansion

Jane Landefeld, the AAPS director of student accounting and administrative support, was on hand to discuss a schools of choice (SOC) proposal – board members had raised some questions about it at the previous board meeting, on March 16. Compared to the current school year, the proposal would open up 40 additional spaces for students outside the district – for a total of 190 openings – as a way of increasing enrollment and revenue. Trustees had questions about how the district would consider siblings of SOC students looking to enter the district in different grades or at a later time. [.pdf of schools of choice memorandum]

A year ago, AAPS opened 150 slots for its SOC program, but they were only able to attract 79 students. Administrators attributed this to the district’s limited number of slots in certain grades, which restricted the ability to bring in siblings of children who applied for the schools of choice program.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Landefeld said that state regulations allow siblings of a child enrolled in an SOC program to receive priority for admission. This extra consideration makes it easier for families who want to move all their children into the district, rather than just one child.

The window for applying for the SOC program is April 15 to May 15, with the district opening 60 seats in kindergarten, 60 seats in first grade and 50 seats in sixth grade classrooms. Twenty slots for grades 2-5 will also be opened, with each grade getting five openings.

Outcome: Board members unanimously approved additional schools of choice openings, as part of their action consent agenda, which also included a $5,000 gift from the Pioneer High School Booster Club for a fence near Holloway field, the minutes for the board’s March 16 regular meeting, and minor policy changes discussed at the board’s previous meeting.

Public Commentary: Scheduling, Haisley Parking Lot

Four people spoke during the March 30 meeting’s public commentary session, addressing two areas of concern: (1) scheduling events that conflict with religious holidays; and (2) the expansion of the parking lot at Haisley Elementary School.

Public Commentary: Scheduling Policy

Seth Goldstein, a junior at Skyline High School, and James Toy of Ann Arbor spoke about the district’s scheduling policy. Goldstein began by asking the board for help changing the date of an athletic event that conflicts with Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that this year begins at sunset on Friday, Oct. 7.

The district’s scheduling policy mandates that significant events such as athletic contests or major exams cannot coincide with holidays such as Yom Kippur. Goldstein said his family has been pursuing this since November.

“We should show an awareness of the importance of these policies to foster feelings of inclusion, not discrimination,” he said.

Toy, a well-known community activist, also spoke on the issue of discrimination, taking a broader view of the board’s efforts. He shared a story of his experience as a Chinese-American during World War II. Toy said he had to wear a sign around his neck every day that read “I am not a Jap” to avoid harassment. He went on to commend the board for their efforts to combat harassment and bullying, adding that he hoped they would continue to protect minorities in situations such as Goldstein’s.

“We need to work with each other as we labor for the human worth and dignity of all,” Toy said.

Public Commentary: Haisley Parking Lot

Theresa Schneider and Scott Sproat – two parents with children at Haisley Elementary School – spoke out against a proposal to expand the school’s parking lot. The expansion is intended to alleviate traffic problems.

Schneider and Sprote said that people such as Mary Anne Jaeger, Haisley’s principal, are framing this expansion as necessary in order to meet state requirements, when that is not the case, they said.

“Parking expansion is not a requirement. It is a convenient solution,” Schneider said. “We need to engage people about alternatives.”

Sprote added that Jaeger omitted items from the minutes of a March 21 meeting on the issue, such as not including a student who spoke in support of alternatives to expansion. Because of this, Sprote felt that someone else should take minutes at future meetings.

Both parents expressed their desire for a fact sheet detailing the situation, and their worry that there would be no vote on the issue.

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 is not a member of either committee.

Committee Reports: Performance Committee

All three of the trustees from the performance committee updated the board on items that they had discussed, including the district’s partnership with the University of Michigan, efforts to combat bullying and harassment, and updated policies for facility use.

Trustee Andy Thomas opened by discussing how the district is looking to grow the UM partnership, formerly known as the lab school, which involves Mitchell Elementary School and Scarlett Middle School. Thomas and the performance committee had been briefed on the project by Lee Anne Dickinson-Kelley, interim deputy superintendent for instructional services, and Mitchell Elementary School principle Kathy Scarnecchia.

Thomas reported that the district’s vision for the partnership would include a combined K-8 campus consisting of teachers, interns (the term for students from UM), AAPS students, parents and community members. There will be a continuation of some previously held initiatives, such as the Mighty Mustang math program and the Scarlett Math Assessment project. The partnership would be launched for the 2011-12 school year.

Teachers in both schools will be given the option of transferring if they are not interested in the partnership. Teachers who choose to stay will be asked to affirm that they are committed to the new approach, which includes employing culturally relevant teaching methods, partnering with families, and examining their own practices. Thomas said that an overwhelming majority had expressed interest in being a part of the new set-up, with a large pool of teachers in other schools eager to participate as well.

In addition, Thomas said that a balanced schedule is being considered for use during the 2012-13 school year. The specifics of a balanced schedule are yet to be determined, but the general structure would consist of an extended school year that includes intersessions, which are additional opportunities to take elective courses. A cost analysis will also be done, as well as a report on how the experience of a student at Scarlett or Mitchell will differ from students at other schools. [For additional background on this project, see Chronicle coverage of the AAPS board's Dec. 8, 2010 meeting.]

Thomas closed his portion of the presentation by stating the performance committee’s excitement for growing the UM partnership, giving it their endorsement.

Trustee Glenn Nelson was the next to present from the performance committee, talking about its focus on school climate – bullying and harassment. Some of the efforts he mentioned included district principals traveling to an anti-bullying conference to bring back effective techniques to address this problem, and an update on the progress of surveys being given to AAPS students regarding school climate.

Nelson added that Danny Brown, a youth coordinator from the Neutral Zone, was on hand at the performance committee meeting to give his input on effective ways to combat bullying through methods such as including elements of diversity in a student’s everyday curriculum.

Nelson concluded his update by praising the discussion they had, adding that they would continue to work on improving school climate. “We can look forward to more progress from surveys and our efforts,” he said.

Trustee Simone Lightfoot was the last member of the performance committee to make comments, giving a brief update on changes made to the district’s policy on facility use. Lightfoot said all the changes were being finalized and will be made public when that process is complete.

Committee Reports: Planning Committee

Trustee Christine Stead gave a brief report on behalf of the planning committee, which had also received a presentation on the UM partnership at Mitchell and Scarlett schools. Stead said she and other planning committee members were excited about the partnership and were looking to schedule community meetings to discuss a balanced schedule.

The planning committee was also visited by members of the community who are concerned about the Haisley parking lot expansion, she said. Stead reported that committee members – along with Randy Trent, AAPS executive director of physical properties – had discussed the issue at their meeting.

Interim Superintendent’s Report

Interim superintendent Robert Allen gave a report that focused on accomplishments by AAPS students. The update was highlighted by comments about the Bands in Review event, which had taken place on March 25-26. Allen said the performances were “wonderful as usual,” and he thanked the volunteers who helped make the event possible.

Allen also wished everyone a peaceful and restful spring break, which runs from the end of the school day on Friday, April 1 through Sunday, April 10.

Facilities Report: Energy, Forsythe Easement

Randy Trent, AAPS executive director of physical properties, delivered two reports to the board at Wednesday’s meeting: An update on the district’s energy and sustainability efforts, and a briefing on an easement request for property at Forsythe Middle School.

Facilities Reports: EASE Program

Trent began by updating the board on the district’s energy and sustainability efforts. The update centered on the Environmental Awareness and Sustainability Education (EASE) program.

The EASE program was approved in 2010 and will be slightly expanded this year. The goal is to reduce energy consumption at AAPS facilities by 4% per year over a four-year period. Reducing energy at that level would cut the district’s energy expenses by $324,000 per year.

Trent – assisted by Johnson Controls, which partnered with the district on this initiative – will be continuing to gather information about the district’s utilities usage. This information will be displayed on a soon-to-be-launched website and used to look for areas where costs can be reduced.

“We know every fan heater and fish tank – everything that’s plugged in,” Trent said.

To expand on these efforts, Trent said the district will now look to educate AAPS students about energy-conscious behaviors through a number of initiatives.

The new website, which will be available through the AAPS main website, will contain information collected by the EASE program. An educational booth will also be used, moving from school to school teaching students about the EASE program and a number of other sustainability measures.

Trustee Simone Lightfoot felt that educating students was a good idea, adding that students themselves could be consulted for insight about where costs could be cut.

Trent agreed, saying that there will be a phone number for people to call if they want to make suggestions, as well as a way to submit ideas online. Surveys will be provided to measure utility usage and awareness of the EASE program.

Trent said the efforts will not focus only on education. There will also be a report on how much money the district is saving thanks to these initiatives. Trent estimated the amount to be at least $324,000, continuing efforts of maintaining cost-effective utility service.

“To give you a perspective of where we are, when I started in 1984 we had a budget of $5.4 million,” he said. “We still have that today [despite increases in utility costs] and we’re looking to reduce it.”

Trent concluded by talking about how the many energy-friendly measures they could adopt would save the district money.

“The best energy is energy you don’t use,” he said. And that results in “more dollars to put toward the education of students.”

Facilities Reports: Forsythe Easement Request

Following his presentation on sustainability efforts, Trent – along with trustee Andy Thomas – gave a brief report on an easement request from a resident near Forsythe Middle School.

Mark and Elizabeth Perry live on Hillridge Boulevard, a property next to Forsythe, which is located at 1655 Newport Road. The Perrys are requesting that AAPS grant a temporary easement so that they can install and connect a drain line to an existing storm drain on the school’s property. An easement gives an individual or entity the right to use property that they don’t own.

In addition, the Perrys are asking for a permanent easement that would allow them to operate, maintain, repair or replace the drain line, if necessary. [.pdf file of easement request]

Trent and Thomas reported that the storm sewer near Forsythe occasionally has drainage difficulties, due to its surrounding topography.

The request will be back for more discussion and a vote at the next regular board meeting, on April 20.

Misc. Communications

Trustee Christine Stead had one update during the board’s agenda planning section, providing information on the work being done to organize a roundtable for state legislators. Stead said that some good ideas for how to combat the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder had been brainstormed, and the next step would be to find a date that would work for legislators to meet with school officials.

Wednesday’s meeting concluded with board members sharing their experiences at recent district events. Trustees lauded the performances at Bands in Review. They also expressed praise for the Neutral Zone‘s Wine, Word and Song event, Tappan Middle School’s performance of “Grease,” and the FIRST robotics district competition held at Skyline High School.

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Glenn Nelson, Simone Lightfoot and Christine Stead.

Absent: Vice president Susan Baskett.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, April 20, 2011, at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

About the writer: Eric Anderson is an intern for The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Jennifer Coffman, who usually covers AAPS board meetings for The Chronicle, is taking a maternity break.