AAPS Retreat Aug. 1: Evaluation, Budgeting

Topics: role of student performance; move to zero-based budget

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting/committee-of-the-whole (July 18, 2012): The AAPS school board met Wednesday to plan its annual retreat, and to take care of a small amount of business. The board will meet on Aug. 1 from 3-9 p.m. at a location yet to be determined – to evaluate its own processes, and set goals for the 2012-13 school year.

In planning for the retreat, the board discussed its support for moving the district to a zero-based budgeting system, a goal of AAPS superintendent Patricia Green. Trustees also suggested discussing student performance measures, as related to both superintendent evaluation and the possible restructuring of teachers’ compensation to include merit pay.

The one item of regular business conducted at the July 18 meeting was to renew the district’s membership in the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA).

Board chair Deb Mexicotte also confirmed at the meeting that she’ll be seeking re-election in November. Dale Leslie, a former local businessman, has also filed for election to that seat – the only one open this cycle on the seven-member board.

Retreat Planning

Mexicotte opened a discussion on the board’s upcoming retreat, usually held in the summer. She noted that the board has typically met annually to evaluate its effectiveness, set goals for the year, and keep the board and superintendent’s work in alignment. The board goals then become regularly updated items on the board’s agenda over the year, she noted.

Retreat Planning: Agenda

At the July 18 meeting, Mexicotte led the board through a discussion to set the agenda for this year’s retreat. She suggested the board should conduct its annual self-evaluation using a survey tool that has already been distributed to board members. She told her board colleagues that the tool is the same one trustees used at the end of the superintendent search last year. “We should have the results of both surveys in front of us on August 1,” she said, “and we can talk about how this last year has gone.”

Out of the board’s 2011 retreat had come the idea of creating a “committee of the whole” to replace two previous committees consisting of three trustees each.  Those were the planning and performance committees. The board met for the first time as a single committee of the whole on Nov 2, 2011, and voted officially on Nov. 16, 2011 to continue the new committee structure by amending board policy.  The board has been operating with the single committee of the whole since that time.

Mexicotte said she would like the board to discuss the timing of the retreat, and whether an outside consultant should be hired to facilitate it which has been typical in the past. She invited board members to suggest additional topics for discussion at the retreat – beyond the board evaluation and goal-setting pieces already on the agenda.

Retreat Planning: More Topics

Trustees offered a range of additional topics they would like to have discussed at the August 1 retreat: the budget process and financial planning; superintendent evaluation and data management; incentive alignment around student performance [aka "merit pay"]; and their agenda-setting process.

Retreat Planning: Topics – Zero-Based Budgeting

Trustee Andy Thomas suggested that the board should use the retreat as an opportunity to figure out exactly which discussions need to begin in September to get “an earlier jump on the budget process.” He argued that the district gets “too hung up” on getting revenue numbers from the state before proceeding with budget planning. He said that the district knows it will be short at least $12.5 million next year already – $4.5 million of fund equity that was used for the 2012-13 budget, and a built-in structural deficit of at least $8 million.

Trustee Irene Patalan said she is optimistic that the district will weather the legislative challenges coming out of Lansing. But she ventured that it might be an interesting exercise to try to have a working budget for FY 2013-14 in place by the end of December 2012. Mexicotte noted that tension always exists in the timing for crafting the AAPS budget – between waiting for the information to come out of the state’s spring budget conferences versus the putting together the budget ahead of those conferences. She pointed to the risk of needing to retract proposed budget reductions if they end up not being necessary. She added that rebuilding the budget to use zero-based budgeting – one of Green’s goals when she was hired into the district last year – will “change the dynamic” even more.

By way of a simplified overview, zero-based budgeting contrasts with an incremental approach. Taking an incremental approach assumes the previous year’s budgeted expenditures for some activity as a base for evaluating how much to budget for the coming year – and requires evaluation of the change from that base, up or down, for the planned budget. A zero-based approach takes zero as the reference point, not what has been budgeted historically.

Green said she has known of “compliance budgets” in districts that are required to pass a budget by the end of the calendar year, but said that such budgets were “basically bogus … because they had to include everything but the kitchen sink.” Regarding zero-based budgeting, Green said it will take most of the year for AAPS to plan for it, and stated, “It’s not as easy as you think.”

Green contended that zero-based budgeting will give the district much better control of its resources. She estimated that AAPS could save $2 million this year just by implementing this method. Calling the process a “cultural shift,” Green said that zero-based budgeting must be strategic, and requires the use of technology. It also requires maintaining the same line-items year to year – not adding, deleting, or changing them – in order to better track actual spending. She added that zero-based budgeting allows the comparison of “actuals to actuals” not “budgeted to budgeted,” and significantly cuts down on transfers from accounts. Trustee Christine Stead added that the new process will also cause building administrators to shift from asking “What have I budgeted?” to “What do I need to run this building?”

There was some discussion of the appropriate timing of implementing zero-based budgeting. Trustees generally expressed their interest in Green taking her time to get it right. But they acknowledged that the savings Green predicts would be welcome as soon as possible. Thomas said, “This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time – if you can come up with a column labeled “actual,” I would be so happy.”

Trustee Glenn Nelson pointed out that the board does review the actual spending via the annual audit, but Thomas countered that the audit comes out too late to be useful to budget planning and said the board should review actual spending at least quarterly. Green said that she gets a monthly report called the “recapitulation, or ‘recap’” that does just that. She noted that variances begin to become apparent around January.

Stead argued for increasing the scale of the financial planning the district does. She would like to see a three-year view – to be better positioned if the pattern of state cuts over the past five years continues. Nelson said if the district gets “ahead of data,” it will affect the quality of decisions. “It’s like deciding today whether or not you will take an umbrella with you next Tuesday,” he said. Stead responded by saying that Nelson’s illustration was not a good comparison. On an individual level, she said, the kind of planning for which she is advocating would not answer the question, “Will I need an umbrella on Tuesday?” but “How do I position myself to be able to buy a house?”

Nelson said that any long-term planning should include a review of the district goals in the strategic plan, the achievement gap elimination plan, and the discipline gap elimination plan. Trustee Simone Ligthfoot noted that the district transportation committee has begun meeting, and that it is using a three-year timeframe for planning, so that AAPS planning three years out would be helpful to the charge of that committee.

Stead said she is not interested in staff bringing the board a list of proposed FY 2013-14 cuts in December, but that she would like to see a working committee with board and staff take a long-term view to restructure the district so it continues to be financially sustainable within the macro trends that are anticipated.

Retreat Planning: Topics – Superintendent, Student Evaluation

Stead suggested that the board should use the retreat to nail down which student performance measures should be used to inform the superintendent’s evaluation. The state now requires student academic growth to be a factor in the evaluation of all education professionals, including administrators. Stead explained that the board needs to decide which student performance measures to “roll up” to the level of the superintendent for evaluation purposes – individual student test scores, scores by building, by teacher, or by other aggregate measures, for example.

Green added that the state has not come to consensus about which measures of student growth would prove most effective in evaluating superintendents. Stead agreed there is flexibility in the choice of scores. Stead suggested that the board identify four or five measures to “roll up” this year, and then have a touchpoint in the middle of the year to see which measures make the most sense. Mexicotte felt the student growth data should include Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores.

Nelson suggested that the issue of performance measures goes beyond those used in the superintendent evaluation. He reminded the board of the questions that surfaced when it was considering restructuring Roberto Clemente Student Development Center earlier this year. “This is a big, substantive piece,” Nelson said, “We need to have consensus on what we are measuring.” He added that student performance should inform the “personalized learning plans” (PLPs) touted in the district’s strategic plan. Thomas later asserted that the board should decide whether PLPs were something the district could realistically achieve.

Green explained that the MEAP does not measure student growth; however, the recently-implemented Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA’s) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment does measure growth. Green called the NWEA assessment “extremely critical” and pointed out how the assessment can measure the change in cohorts of students over time. In contrast, Green said, the MEAP cut scores have shifted and changed. She also responded to board members’ concerns about the PLPs, saying that the PLPs will “kick in” as the district’s technology becomes fully developed.

The district has already committed to some data collection and management processes to meet requirements on inclusion of student growth data in performance evaluations. And several board members expressed concern about the district’s capacity to expand those processes even further. Thomas questioned what resources AAPS really needs to get what it wants from its data. Green noted that she would like a stronger linkage to exist between the student accounting and information technology departments – but said that “the manpower is just not there.”

Stead and Lightfoot suggested that AAPS director of student accounting Jane Landefeld and AAPS deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen be present at the retreat. Green added that AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction Alesia Flye should also be included.

Retreat Planning: Topics – Merit Pay

Stead also suggested that the retreat include a board discussion on incentive alignment around student performance. She said AAPS should be able to reward teachers who are positively impacting student growth, and noted the parallels to private industry and recent tenure reform legislation. Stead argued that AAPS should encourage a culture in which high performers are rewarded, and in which “teachers want to be really effective, not just avoid being fired.”

Mexicotte said that the board has not developed any strategy regarding merit pay, and noted that in past discussions, board opinion on the issue has been mixed. She also referred to negative feedback the board has received for the amount paid to current administrators. Mexicotte also noted “it’s a political thing” to reward anyone in this difficult financial climate.

Stead clarified that the net amount of money paid to teachers does not have to change, but that it could be redistributed. “We have demonstrated as a board that it’s important to reward high performers and leaders,” she said.

Patalan said that she’s observed that if the culture focuses on excellence, it encourages everyone to “rise to the level of those who are doing top-notch work.”

Green suggested that rewards also do not have to be monetary, and that gifted educators want to do well.

Mexicotte said that incentives about student performance should focus on quality not quantity. Lightfoot added that the retreat is an opportunity for the board to re-affirm core commitments – on this and other value-laden items, such as recruiting historically-underutilized businesses to bid on capital improvement projects.

Retreat Planning: Topics – Agenda Setting Process

Nelson suggested that the board reconsider how agenda items are prioritized. Mexicotte said that the board could consider creating a rubric to determine a proposed agenda item’s placement. The rubric, she said, could include staff and board capacity, time for development, consistency with the strategic plan, etc. She quipped that she and Green, who are tasked with agenda setting as part of the new board committee structure, could also just “throw darts” to decide what gets on the agenda.

Nelson said he feels the board has lost a sense of high-priority things over the past 18-24 months, and that by March each of year, there  have still been 30 items to get through on that year’s agenda.

Mexicotte said that if the retreat works, the board should come out of it with a list of priority issues against which to judge new items.

Green argued that administration and board capacity must be linked. She cautioned against just being a “good” district by keeping staff and board member energy a mile wide and not very deep. Green said that she would like to see a cycle developed for bringing administrative reports to the board. The recommendations in those reports would be used as benchmarks against new priorities the following year. As examples, Green said there should be a regular review of curriculum, and an update for the board on all-day kindergarten.

Mexicotte said she heard Nelson’s comment as a request that that board try to discipline itself a little more. She added that the last two years have been a time of rebuilding and adjustment. Some of the board members who have been serving a long time have been frustrated by newer board members who have wanted their concerns addressed immediately, she said. Longer-serving board members, she continued, “have been wanting things for ten years.” Thomas noted that there is only one board seat up for election this November, which means that the board will remain relatively stable, and should be able to maintain such discipline. [The open seat is Mexicotte's and she's seeking re-election.]

Lightfoot said she likes the idea of a regular administrative reporting cycle, as long as room is left on the agenda for things that are not currently on the radar. “We don’t want to stifle [innovative] ideas coming out of the box,” she said.

Mexicotte said that being more structured about what is on the agenda will be helpful, and allow the board to actually be able to pay attention to unexpected items.

Retreat Planning: Logistics

Mexicotte asked board members about the work remaining on the summer agenda, and the board agreed to cancel its July 25 meeting. She then suggested that incentive alignment around student performance might be too big of an issue for the retreat, and that perhaps it should be the topic of the September committee-of-the-whole meeting.

She requested that board members weigh in about whether to have a facilitator at the retreat, and received comments pro and con, with several trustees saying they did not have a strong opinion.

Pros included: Mexicotte could participate in the retreat more easily if she were not facilitating the discussion; the retreats have usually had outside facilitation; and getting an outside perspective on board functioning can be helpful. Cons included: an outside facilitator costs money; the current board has been together long enough that it doesn’t need a facilitator; and there is no specific role the board needs a facilitator to play at this time.

Lightfoot asked how much a facilitator would cost. Mexicotte estimated it could be from $1,000 to $2,500, depending on who it is. Nelson suggested hiring a facilitator only for the board evaluation section of the retreat, but not for the goal-setting portion.

Trustees expressed general agreement on the idea of starting the retreat earlier in the day. After checking specific schedules for August 1, they agreed that they would begin meeting at 3 p.m., work through dinner around 5:30 p.m., and then continue meeting until roughly 9:00 p.m. Mexicotte also noted that some portion of that time would also be devoted to holding a short regular board meeting to handle some small items of business.

Mexicotte said she would work with board secretary Amy Osinksi to find a facilitator and to secure a location for the board to meet on August 1, beginning at 3:00 p.m.

Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Renewal

The one item of regular meeting business conducted at the July 18 meeting was to renew the district’s membership in the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA). AAPS superintendent Patricia Green briefly introduced the item. She explained that MHSAA membership is necessary for AAPS high school athletes to compete in statewide tournaments, and noted that no cost is associated with it. She also noted that MHSAA membership requires adherence to a broad range of rules for all schools to follow, and that annual renewal is required.

Lightfoot asked if the MHSAA was the only organization of its type, and Green said it was. Stead added that every state has something like it.

Trustee Susan Baskett asked if this item could be placed on the board’s agenda earlier in the year – because it occurs annually. Osinski said it was her fault the item had not been placed on the agenda sooner, and that it will come sooner in the future.

Outcome: The renewal of the district’s membership in the MHSAA was approved unanimously.

Agenda Planning

The board generally sets its meeting dates and other calendar items at its annual organizational meeting, typically held in January of each year, which is also when any new board members elected the previous November would be sworn into office and begin to serve. But Mexicotte noted that Osinski had already put together a proposed board calendar for the 2012-13 school year. She ventured that the board could vote on it sooner – because the maximum change to the board’s make-up after the November 2012 election would be one person.

Mexicotte then announced that she has officially decided to run for re-election to the school board this fall, and that she has one challenger  at this point. [Dale Leslie is listed on the Washtenaw County clerk's webpage as a candidate, along with Mexicotte.]

Regarding the early passage of a calendar, Mexicotte noted that Green would like a calendar that covers the school year. Osinski distributed a draft calendar for the 2012-13 school year and pointed out that she had tried not to schedule any meetings on holidays. She noted that in the past some meetings have conflicted with Rosh Hashanah   and Yom Kippur.

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

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, August 15, 2012, at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.

This is the final AAPS board meeting report to be filed by Jennifer Coffman. She has covered AAPS board meetings and AAPS-related topics since January 2010. In that time, she’s written 83 reports. This fall she’ll be returning to a full-time teaching position in a neighboring school district. Monet Tiedemann will continue The Chronicle’s coverage of AAPS starting in August. 

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One Comment

  1. July 25, 2012 at 5:58 am | permalink

    I wanted to thank Jennifer Coffman for her service to our community in providing the kind of thorough and well-written stories that helps people have a good understanding of what occurred at events (primarily board meetings) that Ms. Coffman covered. There is an excellent journalistic quaity in her work. I greatly appreciated the thoroughness of her reporting.

    We wish you all the best, Jennifer! As an AAPS parent and a Plymouth-Canton teacher, we know you will stay in touch and engaged on the importance of a public education. Thank you for your work!