Ann Arbor Public Schools committee of the whole meeting (Jan. 25, 2012): At the board of trustees committee of the whole (COTW) meeting on Wednesday, trustees agreed on a strategy to dip into fund equity to offset the anticipated $14 million-$16 million deficit facing the district in fiscal year 2012-13. Trustee Andy Thomas won support from his colleagues to use around $7 million in savings to “buy [AAPS] another year without having to make really draconian budget cuts.” Board president Deb Mexicotte called it a “respite year.”
That led to a vigorous discussion of the district’s immediate and longer-term options to continue to function in a challenging fiscal and political environment beyond 2012-13. “Everything has to be on the table … Education is not going to be the same,” said trustee Susan Baskett.
Mexicotte agreed, saying the time for incremental change has passed, and that the district “might need to make some bold moves.”
As options to consider for the following year, trustees listed the following: redistricting; eliminating 7th hour high school classes; closing schools; sharing principals; passing a countywide enhancement millage; changing high school start times; moving more athletics extracurricular activities to a “club sports” model; increasing the number of online class offerings; changing state law; working with the University of Michigan to allow AAPS students to earn credit hours there at a reduced rate; and moving to a balanced calendar district-wide.
In some detail, the board also evaluated its options for busing – in light of news that the Ypsilanti and Willow Run public schools are considering pulling out of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District’s transportation consortium. That would leave Ann Arbor as the sole participant in the consortium.
Trustees directed administration to examine and make a recommendation on the following transportation options: improving busing within the current framework of the WISD; consolidating busing with Ypsilanti and Willow Run outside the WISD consolidation; bringing busing back into the AAPS budget with bus drivers remaining public employees; bringing busing back into the AAPS budget but privatizing bus drivers; eliminating busing entirely; or collaborating with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) to transport AAPS students.
Several trustees also made plugs for protecting classrooms from the effect of budget cuts, and even suggested lowering class sizes. AAPS superintendent Patricia Green suggested it was also important to relieve some of the pressure and anxiety felt by teachers and other district staff. “We are at the tipping point,” she said, “Five years of budget cuts can take its toll.”
Also at the Jan 25 COTW meeting, trustees heard updates on the AAPS preschool and family center programs, including some discussion of the county’s relinquishing of its management of the federal Head Start grant. And, the board was briefed on the implementation of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a new assessment tool the board approved for purchase last May.
Superintendent Patricia Green introduced the budget update by urging the board to consider a “balanced approach.” Later, she clarified, “We have fund equity for a rainy day – it’s pouring. It is my recommendation that we use fund equity this year.” Robert Allen, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations, said that in his view, the district was “past the tipping point” in terms of acceptable budget reductions. He noted that Gov. Rick Snyder will be proposing his budget on Feb. 9. That will give AAPS an idea of what its foundation allowance will be, but Allen reiterated that AAPS is anticipating the need to reduce the FY 2012-13 budget by $14 to $16 million.
At the Jan. 25 COTW meeting the board discussed the 2012-13 budget mostly in broad strokes, rather than focusing on the evaluation of specific budget reduction suggestions. Trustees aligned themselves philosophically behind the idea of dipping into fund equity, a topic about which they have previously been quite split. They also discussed the budget-creation process – specifically how to engage community members most effectively and to make their input as useful as possible.
Budget Update: Using Fund Equity
Trustee Andy Thomas suggested that the board should try to meet half of its budget reduction target by reducing expenditures and enhancing revenue, but should meet the other half by taking the money out of fund equity. He noted the one-time funding AAPS received from the state to reward state-identified “best practices,” and Medicaid reimbursement as unanticipated sources of revenue that could be used to offset any budget cuts.
Thomas was clear that using fund equity would stave off the more difficult decisions only for one more year – due to the structural funding deficit facing the district. However, he said, that would give the district another year to have the kind of conversations in the community about what major things could be done, and a year to get any of those plans in motion. Optimistically, Thomas also said that there could be a change in the priorities of the governor or state legislature as Michigan’s economy continues to recover.
Trustees each expressed support for Thomas’ proposal, at least in theory. “I don’t know whether I buy into the ‘half’ formula, but I want to be supportive of using fund equity instead of trying to solve it all through revenue enhancement and expenditure cuts,” Nelson said.
Mexicotte agreed philosophically, she said, with using fund equity to give the district a “respite.” She argued, “It’s been hellacious the last couple of years and it’s just too much. Our people don’t deserve it. Our students don’t deserve it.”
Even Stead agreed, whose position on using fund equity has been among the most conservative of her colleagues. “I would be more comfortable using fund equity if we feel like we can get some political change … I’m certainly comfortable being a little more risky.” Lightfoot expressed support at Stead’s evolving position, to which Stead responded, “I’m not proud of myself.”
Budget Update: Budgeting Process
Trustee Christine Stead suggested that the board should spend the next few months working with the community to develop budget solutions specific to the areas most likely to be impacted. She noted that it would be more effective to engage the community sooner in forming partnerships rather than dealing with informing everyone over the summer of the impact of budget changes. “I think we need to fast-track [the process] and help people focus on areas we already know will be impacted,” she suggested.
Mexicotte went a step further, saying, “The community forums are not going to get us where we need to be at this point … I think we need to use to expertise we have.” She suggested that the administration was in a better position than the community to know what cuts have been made over the past few years, and to suggest how to proceed. She also suggested that it might be time to stop making incremental adjustments and instead to “make some bold moves.”
Baskett suggested changing elementary school boundaries [redistricting], or altering start times at high schools. “Everything has to be on the table,” she said. Education is not going to be the same.” Stead suggested making further cuts to athletics, and instituting a balanced calendar district-wide.
Mexicotte said she would be on board with any suggested changes that would provide a budget solution while strengthening educational outcomes. “Let’s be bold. Let’s put it all on the table – whatever it is,” she suggested. “I would like to know the very best thinking of our team … I would like to know what its worth to redistrict, to close a building … I don’t know if that’s what I want to do, but if it [leads to] better outcomes, I want to know the options.”
Mexicotte closed by asking Allen and Green if they felt they had received appropriate direction form the board, and they said they had.
The one area in which the board did dive into budget specifics was busing. That was prompted by news that Ypsilanti and Willow Run public schools decided this week to consolidate transportation services in their districts, and put out a request for proposals (RFP) for transportation services.
Allen explained that if Ypsilanti and Willow Run quit the existing consortium of districts getting transportation services through WISD, that would would leave only AAPS in the WISD consortium. That would significantly increase management costs that have, up to now, been shared by the members of the corsortium. He also noted that there has been a lot of talk at the state level about the possibility of consolidating school districts. Green suggested that merging transportation operations may be the first step toward a broader consolidation of Ypsilanti and Willow Run.
Transportation: Board Response to Ypsi/Willow
Trustees asked why Willow Run and Ypsilanti public schools made the decision to band together, with an eye to withdrawing from the WISD consortium. WISD assistant superintendent for business services Brian Marcel responded that both districts are under a lot of financial stress and are likely trying to be sure they do their due diligence. He noted that if the WISD responds to the joint RFP put out by Willow Run and Ypsilanti, it would be “competing against ourselves.”
Trustee Glenn Nelson added that he thought the Ypsilanti/Willow Run RFP was motivated by a desire to privatize services in order to get out from under the state retirement system mandate, which is rising to an employer contribute rate of 27% of total salaries. Nelson suggested that the board should explore whether AAPS could join the RFP process. Nelson said that privatizing transportation services – with or without Ypsilanti and Willow Run – would yield significant savings, though he said he was not necessarily advocating for that.
Mexicotte said that it distressed her that Willow Run and Ypsilanti “did not make a phone call to say they were going to do an RFP.” Trustee Susan Baskett agreed, likening the situation to AAPS “getting dumped at the prom.” Mexicotte reiterated how AAPS had decided to stay in the WISD consortium even when all but three districts pulled out because AAPS was the “linchpin” needed to make it work for the other districts. “I’m trying desperately to hang onto a top-drawer educational system, and I feel like at every turn we are being thwarted,” Mexicotte said. She suggested considering taking buses and drivers back within AAPS, or alternately, cutting busing entirely.
Marcel said the WISD has tried to be responsive to AAPS, and that it was not a fair assessment to say WISD had not addressed inefficiencies. When AAPS decided to change its overall transportation policy this year, Marcel said, “that changed everything.”
Transportation: Evaluation of WISD Transportation Services
Trustees Simone Lightfoot and Christine Stead expressed concerns that the board has not been given a requested update on operational statistics from the WISD. The operational stats would include a detailed breakdown of on-time arrivals and departures, and accidents/incidents. Marcel said the WISD has provided the board with a financial report, and will be undertaking a customer satisfaction survey of parents in the spring.
Stead said continuing to receive transportation services from the WISD wouldn’t be compelling if two of the three districts pulled out of the consortium. She added that the operational statistics were necessary to decide if AAPS should continue to work with the WISD on transportation. Lightfoot agreed, saying that the spring was too late to receive this information.
Mexicotte suggested to Marcel that he meet with trustees one-on-one to address their frustrations. She noted that the board has made “numerous” requests for information from the WISD that it has not received.
Transportation: Special Education Busing
Thomas wondered whether AAPS would leave special education busing in the hands of the WISD regardless of what it decides to do regarding general education busing. Allen said that was definitely a conversation that should happen, and noted that the fact that special education buses carry low numbers of students to central locations makes the consolidation of those services particularly appealing.
Lightfoot strongly advocated subsidizing the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to bus AAPS students rather than eliminating busing entirely. “AATA is thinking about its role,” she said. “We have a responsibility to work across government entities for the benefit of taxpayers.” [Lightfoot was one of 39 people who spoke at a public hearing on transportation held at a meeting of the Ann Arbor city council on Jan. 23. In her remarks, she encouraged increased collaboration between AAPS and AATA.]
Lightfoot also said she leaned toward supporting AATA rather than the WISD – because the AATA is in the business of providing transportation. She suggested that the AAPS could subsidize student bus passes, and that it’s important to give the community options, if AAPS eliminates busing entirely.
Baskett noted that if AAPS eliminates busing, many students will look to AATA to provide that transportation, and suggested that AAPS should give AATA a “heads up.”
Stead expressed concern with working with AATA while the transit authority is in the midst of a major transition to a countywide model. She noted that while Ann Arbor will still hold nearly half the seats on the restructured AATA board [7 of 15], it would not have a majority. Green agreed, saying that coordinating student transportation with AATA “is not as easy as it sounds, [and] … cannot happen on a short turnaround at all.”
Thomas noted that the basic problem with using AATA buses for students as he saw it was that AATA routes are “spokes of a wheel… intended to bring riders downtown, not to distribute people around the edge of the wheel.” Lightfoot said that AATA could be used to work in certain areas or at certain times of day, but Stead countered that AAPS cannot offer busing inequitably within student groups.
Nelson stated that there are models for this sort of cooperation, such as in Madison, Wisconsin. The strongest argument against the idea that it’s too hard, he said, is that this model works in other places.
Michelle Pogliano and Kecia Rorie – principal and vice-principal, respectively, of the district’s Preschool and Family Center – gave their annual report to the board outlining the various programs and services serving the youngest AAPS learners. The preschool serves children and their families from birth to five through four main programs – Head Start, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE), and Early On. Children can qualify for services in a variety of ways – based on low income, being “at-risk of school failure,” or having developmental delays or special needs.
Pogliano explained the impact on the preschool of Washtenaw County’s decision to relinquish management of the federal Head Start grant. At this time, she said, a request for proposals (RFP) has not yet been issued for another entity to take over Head Start, but it is anticipated that the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) will submit a proposal to become the new grantee. If local management of Head Start shifts to the WISD as anticipated, Pogliano said, AAPS preschool will remain a “delegate site” and the program’s structure will remain the same.
Nelson noted that Head Start’s grantee is required to make a 25% match of federal funding for program costs. He expressed concern about how that will play out. He questioned what the WISD would have to cut in order to provide the matching Head Start funds, which he estimated to be about $400,000.
Stead pointed out that federal funding is also likely to decrease over the next ten years, leading to a cumulative reduction that could have a serious impact on the ability of Head Start to be sustainable. Lightfoot agreed, saying that she feared the program might be phased out all together.
Trustees praised the preschool staff members for their dedication, and expressed their support for the preschool, regardless of what happens to federal Head Start funding. Pogliano said the new grantee should be in place by April.
Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Assessment
AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye, director of instructional technology Anne Reader, and director of student accounting, testing, and administrative support Jane Landefeld updated the board on the implementation of the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment in the district this fall.
The board approved the purchase of the MAP in May 2011. It is an adaptive, computerized assessment of math and reading skills. The MAP is currently being administered to all AAPS students in grades K-5 and K-8 students at Ann Arbor Open at Mack and the Scarlett-Mitchell campus. It’s administered three times a year – in September, January, and May.
At the Jan. 25 COTW meeting, both Flye and superintendent Patricia Green acknowledged that the rollout of the new assessment tool had been rocky, but that staff is now more comfortable with it.
Green said there was a time this fall when the district had to decide whether to follow through with using the MAP. “There were complications with the implementation due to our archaic technology… It became a real nightmare,” Green said. She explained that after significant retooling of the product, by both the vendor and AAPS instructional technology department, “the glitches weren’t there this time around.”
Reader detailed how professional development has been used to teach AAPS staff how to administer the MAP, as well as how to use the data it provides. She walked the board through some examples of the reports and planning charts teachers can access, as well as how individual student data will be shared with parents. Use of student growth data among third grade teachers at Allen Elementary was highlighted.
Trustees expressed excitement about the uses of the growth-over-time data provided by the MAP, as well as the utility of looking at MAP data side-by-side with other information about students – such as classroom grades, other assessment scores, and demographic data.
Mexicotte noted that this work supports the “personalized curriculum” objective of the district’s strategic plan. Nelson and Thomas noted how MAP data can aid the district in closing the achievement gap.
Baskett requested that the information sent to parents about individual student data should be written in more user-friendly language and include suggestions on available resources for helping struggling students. Nelson agreed, saying, “If you tell someone they’ve got a problem, and don’t tell them what to do about it, you just cause stress and anxiety.” Green said that Flye has “tremendous talent” in communicating with families about student data, and that she was currently working on that.
Trustees also suggested there might be a need to increase the student accounting support staff as the district’s data management needs increase. Green agreed, “The workload is enormous.”
The board agreed to amend its meeting schedule to avoid meeting five weeks in a row – by canceling its Feb. 1 meeting, and switching the order of the next two meetings. The next regular meeting will be on Feb. 8, and a COTW meeting will be held on Feb. 15.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Glenn Nelson.
Absent: Treasurer Irene Patalan
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 at 7 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]
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