AAPS Retreat: Trusting Each Other Essential

Regular meeting includes briefings on biology textbook, scanners

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education regular meeting/retreat (Aug. 1, 2012): The AAPS school board met Wednesday last week at Skyline High School to take care of some regular business and to conduct its annual retreat. The retreat included board self-evaluation and goal-setting for the coming year.

After a sometimes contentious discussion about the priorities of the board, trustees decided their main focus should be on building trust and relationships among the trustees. Board trustees determined that they needed to build on their trust of each other, in order to address the strategic plan and needs of the district.

Financial goals were also a prominent theme of the board’s discussion of priorities. While there was minimal talk of zero-based budgeting – a goal set forth at their previous regular meeting – trustees spoke of improving their forecasting and having a stronger role in advocating for structural financial change.

Setting a limit on the length of future board meetings was identified as a goal, despite some initial opposition. To limit the meeting time, trustees will set parameters for presentations and discussion periods – parameters that will be discussed at their next committee of the whole (COTW) meeting.

During the regular meeting, the board was presented a biology textbook adoption plan. The board also approved the purchase of computers and scanners as a part of the district’s effort to capture test scores and analyze them quickly at the building level, and tailor instruction to students based on those test scores.


After a one and half hour regular meeting, the board began its annual retreat. The retreat focused on the board evaluation assessment review, board goals for the upcoming year, and superintendent goals for the upcoming year.

Retreat: Board Reflections on the Year

The first part of the retreat, the assessment review, was led by Teresa Bingman, a consultant with the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB).

Bingman began the conversation by asking trustees and the superintendent to give their “top of mind” thought on how the last year went.

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green said she enjoyed the opportunity to be part of AAPS and came in knowing it was a high-achieving district – with improvements needed in closing the achievement and discipline gaps, and resolving budget issues. She expressed appreciation for board’s support, which has given her the opportunity to bring forward solutions.

Many of the trustees reflected on the great deal of transition within the district that happened over the past several years and how that affected the board. Board president Deb Mexicotte ventured that the transitions in board membership had been reflected in the board’s interactions. Trustee Simone Lightfoot said that although there has been a lot of transition, there has been some “gelling going on.” Trustee Glenn Nelson reflected on the fact that a year ago, the board was bringing in a new superintendent, and many of the cabinet positions were up in the air. Now, there was a “Team of Eight” [the seven board members plus the superintendent], Nelson said.

Mexicotte was blunt in her assessment of the last year as the “most challenging” years she has spent on the board, because of the depth of challenges the board has faced: structurally, financially, and publicly.

AAPS board trustee Christine Stead

AAPS board trustee Christine Stead.

Trustee Christine Stead said that she felt the state of Michigan is on a “precipice of severely undervaluing education.” She lamented the fact that although education was one of the pillars of the Ann Arbor community, the district’s hands are tied because of the mandates and laws that are being “slammed through” the legislature. She also said the broader community doesn’t necessarily realize that because of Proposal A, not all the money taken from taxpayers in the district does not return to the district. Stead also said the board dynamics can be a challenge. She expressed concern over the length of some of the board meetings, saying that sometimes the board was “not making good decisions” because they had been meeting for eight hours.

Trustee Irene Patalan agreed with Mexicotte and Stead, wishing that things in the previous year could have been better or easier. She said that if she had to cut the same percentage out of her own business’s budget that the board has had to cut from the district, she would be kept up at night. She compared running the district, one of the state’s largest, to steering a big ship in the ocean, saying, “You hope you see the iceberg so you can turn the boat thoughtfully.” She reiterated that she saw the next year as a challenging one.

Lightfoot had mixed feelings about the past year. She was pleased that there is a new superintendent in place. She noted the board was comfortable in their roles as trustees and had watchdogs on the budget [nodding specifically at Stead]. To her, board dynamics were steady, saying that “even if we’re not comfortable with each other’s approaches, we’re still comfortable with each other.” Lightfoot disagreed with Stead about the length of board meetings, asserting that trustees get their necessary work done. She said she was pleased that the community supported the tech bond, and she looked forward to a time where the board gets more active in the legislative process.

Nelson spoke at length about the foundation that was laid this past year for work to move forward. He highlighted the achievements that had been made over the past year: a staff in place, a superintendent hired, and unifying documents such as the AGEP and the discipline gap elimination plan created. Now that the pieces were put in place, he said, they just needed to be implemented. Nelson asserted that there was now a “wonderful foundation in place, ready to build on,” and that it had been a good year that prepared the board to do something.

Trustee Andy Thomas observed that because the board had “at least a 95% area of agreement” on values, the disagreements they have cover such a small portion of their mission that they become exaggerated and magnified. Since they agree on so much, he noted, what they don’t agree on looks big. He stressed a need to concentrate on their common vision and stop obsessing over differences of approach.

More than once, trustee Susan Baskett used the word “trying” to describe the past year, saying it required patience. She said that she had been brought on the board because of her community activist work and because she saw education as an important tool. But she is angry at the politics and the strategy of divide-and-conquer that’s at play, she said. During the year, while the board was focused on building the foundation, “… the windows would get knocked out. Then once the walls were up, they would get knocked down.”

AAPS trustee Susan Baskett

Left to right: AAPS trustees Susan Baskett, Irene Patalan and Christine Stead.

After hearing all the trustees speak, Bingman said she saw the common themes of dedication, seriousness about the role of trustee, and zealousness for what the board did. She highlighted a written statement made by one of the trustees: “We would be a better board if we had a stronger sense of priorities and if we understood our own and others’ strengths and weaknesses.”

Bingman then said the focus for her was on how to strengthen individual and board relationships and how to help the board to address the major challenges they all agreed should be addressed this next year.

Retreat: Board Reflections on the Self-Assessments

Part of the board assessment was done in the form of a self-assessment that each trustee filled out before the retreat. The self-assessment survey, prepared by Ray and Associates [the same company that assisted in the superintendent search], asked the board members to rate 74 statements on a 1-10 Likert scale. The statements covered a range of topics – board meetings, board roles and responsibilities, team building, goal setting and problem solving, decision making, program evaluation, board-superintendent relations, community relations, board development, and fiscal development. In addition to the ratings, each trustee answered four open-ended questions.

To facilitate the conversation on the assessment, Bingman asked each trustee to talk about what stood out for them the most when they saw the aggregated results from the self-assessments.

Baskett began by saying she saw how trustees were committed as a board, and they need  to understand how best to use their strengths. Her particular challenge is seeing the board avoid the issues trustees disagree on. As an example, she contended that the board has said they wanted to work on issues of equity – but has not had the courage actually to work on it. Without having “the courageous conversation,” Baskett argued, the board won’t get to addressing strengths and weaknesses.

Lightfoot also indicated surprise that there are issues of trust on the board. She emphasized that theirs is a collective agenda – a combination of trustees and community. She also echoed Baskett, saying the board does not value perspectives on race as much as it values financial or special-education perspectives. She also asked that terms such as “trust” be defined, based on something concrete, rather than put out there as an indirect approach to addressing an issue.

Thomas expressed shock that board members felt a lack of respect in the way they dealt with each other. He also said he was surprised there was the perception that board members were more interested in advocating their own agendas, as opposed to the district’s agenda. Not being able to concentrate on common objectives was a concern for him.

Taking a different tack, Nelson said he saw an increased emphasis on financial issues, when instead, he felt the board needed more to focus on thematic issues – such as personalized learning plans. He said there was a great danger in the chemistry of their group that fed an overstatement of financial problems. He noted that the district has seen a contraction of about 3% per year, which, he said, should be addressable through productivity increases. Nelson said he didn’t want to get wrapped up in the finance discussions, asserting, “If we get the program right, we’ll get the finances.”

In her reflection, Patalan brought up the issue of providing better communication and customer service. Education is important to the trustees, she said, but contended that they “get beat up way too much.” So she wanted to “get in front” of the communication so the public had a better sense of the “good news that is happening.” She also noted that because the board has such a desire for information and asks “for every report in America,” it can sometimes bog down the process and contribute to long meetings.

Offering her impression, Stead said the only progress the board has made is being more accustomed to “what we are.” She saw that trustees were engrained in who they are, and that was playing out as the trustees talked through their self-assessments. She maintained there was a level of passive-aggressiveness on the board, where personal attacks could be launched. Stead disagreed with the notion that it was okay for the board to segment out into subspecialties, arguing instead that the board needed to make policy and budget decisions – and not ignore any student. It’s not only important to close the achievement gap, she said, but it’s also important that there is no ceiling to excelling.

Mexicotte, wearing a Star Trek pin, which she said she wore when she wanted to remind herself of her “fundamental values,” was the last trustee to offer her opinion on the results of the assessment review. She began with a preamble, listing the accomplishments of the board over the past year. She noted the board accomplished a whole docket of work, passed a difficult budget and a technology bond, hired a superintendent who then had to hire staff, put the AGEP and the discipline gap elimination plan in the framework, focused on the strategic plan, changed board structure mid-year, and got through their entire set of policy review. Mexicotte said she believed they were doing better as a board in a lot of ways. She had believed the board had been settling in, understanding how best to work together. And then, she said, she looked at the data.

The data from the self-assessment showed the board did less well in 56 out of the 74 areas, compared to the 2010-2011 year. In only 12 areas, did the board make incremental improvement, she said. Mexicotte pointed out that in two-thirds of the assessment areas, they didn’t think of themselves as better. She noted that in the 34 areas identified by Ray and Associates as areas for improvement, 22 items showed a four-to-three split among the seven board members – with four pegging the items on one end of the Likert scale and three on the other end. The only unanimous agreement of the board was on the incorrectness of the statement: Board meetings adhere to a set schedule and typically do not exceed two hours.

Mexicotte said her impression of the board was not reflected in the data. As as a self-identified problem-solver, she said her “heart was hurt” – because there have been continuing problems she hasn’t been able to solve through leadership.

Several trustees assured Mexicotte she has been an effective president of the board. Nelson said she was the kind of leader who is tested and whose team wins the championship despite the arguing. Lightfoot praised Mexicotte, saying she wouldn’t want anybody else leading the board during these times. Patalan and Baskett both made supportive statements about Mexicotte.

Giving her take on the evaluation, Green said she was struck by Nelson’s use of the phrase “Team of Eight.” She emphasized that she also felt that they were a team. Referring to the “governance mosaic,” Green compared the board to a mosaic – with the pieces not fitting together perfectly and with sharp edges, but suggested it was still a beautiful mosaic. She emphasized the district’s strategic plan and the board’s vision to implement that plan.

Retreat: Board Goals

Based on the evaluation review, Bingman identified a list of seven items she thought the board could focus on over the upcoming year: meeting lengths; transitions; equity and race issues; finances; customer service; communication/transparency; trust and relationship building; and developing a process of solving major problems and approaches. The issue of transitions was eliminated, because the only foreseeable transition could be a turnover of one board member after the November elections. [Board president Mexicotte’s term is up this year, and she is running for re-election. Dale Leslie has also filed for a spot on the ballot. Leslie attended the Aug. 1 board meeting.]

Mexicotte led the board in their discussion of the importance of the items identified by Bingman. She stressed that their discusion should center not on the district’s goals, but rather on what they as a board, should focus on – so the students of the district could be better served.

When Nelson said he would prefer to start from the district guidelines and the strategic plan, Mexicotte again emphasized that the conversation was meant to be about the board. She expressed concern that they needed to talk about whether  they wanted to be a “beacon on the hill” for issues such as financial leadership and race and equity.

Mexicotte asked the board members to identify the three most important issues they wanted the board to address over the coming year. Trust and relationship building topped the list, with six trustees choosing it as a focus. [Mexicotte didn't identify issues herself.] Finances was second, with five votes. Garnering two votes each were: meeting length, race and equity issues, and determining processes for solving major problems

Retreat: Board Goals – Trust, Relationship Building

Through their discussion, the board identified trust and relationship building as being at the heart of many of their other issues, so that needed to be their top focus. Without trust, Stead said, it was hard to address any of the other issues. Without trust, she said, trustees couldn’t have the race/equity conversation, and they couldn’t work on new processes for solving major problems.

Issues of trust and relationships have affected many things, Mexicotte noted. Referring to the recently adopted committee-of-the-whole (COTW) committee structure, she said the board had abandoned previous committee structure – because of issues of trust and relationships. If those issues were addressed, it might fix meeting length, she ventured. Mexicotte maintained that work on race and equity would also help engender trust – so it could be wrapped up into the overarching topic. That’s a thought Thomas also expressed.

Retreat: Board Goals – Finances

Much of the board’s conversation about issues of finance focused on being more of an “agent of change” in finances. Baskett pointed out they could “be the leaders in putting some political pressure on the legislature in getting more and having fewer reductions.” She said it was more than just talking about it – it’s about taking action. Green’s experience in leading legislative reform and advocacy was cited. Mexicotte said that if the board took on the goal of finances, they would have to take it on as a multi-faceted board action.

Nelson noted that given the “conservative administration” in the state of Michigan, the most feasible item within the power of the board would be to provide leadership at the intermediate school district level, and lead a regional enhancement millage for the county.

Patalan suggested “guerrilla protesting,” by staging the board’s meetings in Lansing, outside the capitol building, to draw attention to their issues.

Thomas focused on developing a longer-term strategy on finance. That way, he maintained, the board would be able to educate the public better on the decisions the board has made and how that would affect them. Patalan connected that to her point of getting ahead of communication and customer service, so the conversation could be had thoughtfully with the public.

Retreat: Board Goals – Meeting Length

While it was not identified as the top priority, the issue of board meeting length received considerable discussion. The board was split on the issue capping board meeting duration.

Thomas didn’t believe that meeting length should be addressed by the board – a sentiment echoed by Nelson. Lightfoot had said she was okay with the meetings as they were, because the board “got the work done and didn’t twiddle their thumbs.”

Patalan expressed her belief that the problem of meeting length was a subset of other issues. Stead said that when meetings go on for 10 hours, the trustees are not doing their best work. In addition, she felt the length of the meetings is disrespectful to other obligations that members of the board and the administration have on the mornings following board meetings.

Although the board was not necessarily functioning at its best after a certain length of time, Mexicotte allowed, she believed the board just needed to decide. If trustees decide not to limit meeting length, then they shouldn’t complain about it. But if they decide to limited meeting length, then they need to support that process 100%.

Patalan agreed with Stead – that meeting length could be dealt with by just setting a time limit. She acknowledged, though, that the board had many items on its agenda, so the meetings were going to be long. Stead challenged that assertion, saying there could be just two things on the agenda, and the meetings could go until 2 a.m. Nelson attributed that to a culture of everyone wanting to make their voice heard, a sentiment Thomas had also expressed. Baskett disagreed, saying, “Not everyone.”

When Stead suggested the issue could be addressed setting a goal, Lightfoot reminded her that executive secretary to the board of education Amy Osinski had tried that in the past – without much success.

In order to condense meeting time, Stead suggested limiting presentation times, having a more focused question-and-answer period, and having an end time target for regular meetings – midnight. She noted that for a five-hour meeting, that would still allow for an hour of public commentary.

Mexicotte didn’t believe trustees were prepared yet to discipline themselves by setting meeting time limits – but allowed that could change in the future. So Mexicotte called for a vote on a target time for meeting lengths. Patalan, Stead, and Thomas voted yes, while Nelson, Lightfoot, and Baskett voted no. Mexicotte cast the deciding yes vote.

Mexicotte indicated that the issues of setting a target meeting length time and developing parameters for presenters would be brought forward at the next COTW meeting. Green stated that if the board was serious about setting parameters for discussion and presentations, she could provide a style sheet to presenters.

Mexicotte identified the need for a range of parameters for presentations; not all presentations should get the same amount of time. She acknowledged that comprehensive presentations needed more time, and the board itself needed to be more disciplined in their discussions.

Retreat: Board Goals– Equity and Race Relations

Several trustees agreed there needed to be a conversation about equity and race relations. But Mexicotte stressed that there needed to be a strategy. She said that while other members of the district have had these conversations, the board has done nothing. But before the conversation could take place, a groundwork for the conversation, based on trust, needed to be established. She wanted to be ready for that conversation to take place by the end of the next year.

Nelson mentioned there was a broader initiative in the Ann Arbor community to understand race, and alluded to the Understanding Race Project, a series of community-based discussions, forums, and workshops hosted by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. He suggested that as an opportunity for the district to be involved in something bigger. He also floated the idea of parent support groups for members of the Latino community – citing improvements made with the Black and Native American communities since the advent of parent support groups.

Stead expanded Nelson’s point, saying that while trustees talk about the various ethnicities in Ann Arbor, they have never talked about the Asian community in terms of parent support groups. She asked if the goal was to be culturally aware of the ethnic groups in Ann Arbor. Nelson said he believed the district should reach out to the Asian community, as well.

Both Lightfoot and Baskett referred to the “squeaky wheel” getting the oil. Lightfoot also said the outreach to families should be global. Baskett added that it should be done in a respectful way.

Retreat: Superintendent Goals

During the retreat, Green had an opportunity to present her goals for the district and her expectations of the board. She asked for board support of the initiatives they have crafted together over the past year – because it will take time to implement them. She mentioned that the goals set last year were much more general than this year’s goals. This year’s focus is to bring to life the strategic plan.

Green highlighted the recognition the Achievement Gap Elimination Plan (AGEP) and the discipline gap elimination plan were getting from other districts in the state. She noted that both plans have been shared with the University of Michigan and Yale University. She said the full technology plan, which has not been presented to the board formally, will begin implementation in 2013. She also noted a focus on talented and gifted will be a major component of personalized learning and meeting international standards.

Green shared a preliminary draft of her goals with the board and with her staff, saying the genesis of the document was a reflection on the future of the district. The document focused on strategic planning for the district, data collecting, increased communication and partnering within the district, and personnel management. She noted there will be a need for some time to further develop specific plans.

Several trustees thanked Green for the comprehensive document she provided them. Baskett said one of the things she has most appreciated about Green is the documentation she provides for what needs to be done. Nelson liked that it focused on implementing what they’ve said they were going to do.

Superintendent Goals: Student Achievement

Student growth was a theme for many of the trustees as they looked through the superintendent’s goals. Thomas asked for Green’s thoughts on the item listed for increasing student achievement and growth at all levels, given new state standards. Green explained that new cut scores made the achievement gap appear to be bigger. When Thomas pushed her for more detail, Green described multi-dimensional issues that had to do with personalized learning and possibly the discipline gap.

Thomas reminded Green that the board had asked for an analysis of attendance and absenteeism, and how that may have changed in light of some of the transportation issues the district has dealt with. Green offered that this information could be included in the transportation report or in some other data, and she would make a note of it to bring it in front of the board.

Lightfoot asked how long it would take for the board to see progress on closing the achievement and the discipline gaps. Green pointed out that some results of the discipline gap plan had already been seen, but three years would be needed. Lightfoot then wanted to know how the district is measuring that success. Mexicotte told Lightfoot that benchmarks existed – and there will be updates throughout the year with data to judge the effectiveness of the AGEP and the discipline gap elimination plan.

Lightfoot pressed for “more meat” on the bones of the AGEP. She questioned the results from a plan implemented within the past year, saying that she wasn’t even clear that the AGEP was ready to be rolled out yet. Green responded by saying that there were steps outlined in the plan. She stressed that the implementation of the plan was being enacted, and was data driven.

When Lightfoot asked about the role of summer school and other support services, Alesia Flye, deputy superintendent of instruction responded. Flye noted that summer schools programs are growing, and they are working on improving those programs. She stressed there would be more offerings and more consistency between the programs offered at all of the high schools. She also acknowledged that counselors need to play a more integral role in the programs.

In an attempt to summarize the administration’s work on the AGEP, Thomas noted that Green’s team had presented a framework to the board – and to support that framework, has developed action plans. He contended the board doesn’t need to know exactly every step as to how the plan will be implemented. Lightfoot disagreed with Thomas on that point. She said the plans should be laid out for the board in more detail, because the public has been told there is a plan to eliminate the achievement gap.

Superintendent Goals: Superintendent Evaluation

The board also began its discussion on developing a new superintendent evaluation that accommodates the data and reporting requirements of state law. With the signing of Public Act 102 in July 2011, at least 25% of the annual year-end evaluation must be based on student growth and assessment data, increasing to 40% the following year, then to 50% in the 2015-2016 school year. The law requires the board and superintendent set goals at the beginning of the year, with a recommended mid-year evaluation. For the upcoming school year, the board can choose its own measures, but after that, must adhere to the parameters set forth by the state.

Stead led the discussion of Green’s evaluation. Stead stated that while student growth and achievement needs to be part of the superintendent’s evaluation, there is still some question of what the board is directly required to do. She said the board will need to identify several indicators of student growth in order to be able to gather the data and make sense of it – in order to evaluate the superintendent. And if goals aren’t met, she continued, contingency plans need to be in place.

Stead suggested a feasible option would be to show the district can improve student achievement within a cohort of students – something Green said she had done in Pennsylvania before she took the AAPS job. Jane Landefeld, AAPS director of student accounting and administrative support, indicated that if the assessment instrument stayed the same, the district would have the capability to follow a cohort for several years to track that group’s progress in the district. Stead suggested partnering with various departments at the University of Michigan to help build the tracking model.

Mexicotte asked that sometime in the early fall a COTW meeting should include discussion of the measurements of student growth and achievement to be used in the superintendent’s evaluation. Lightfoot again expressed some misgivings that there weren’t measurable goals in the AGEP.

Regular Meeting

The board had a truncated regular meeting to take care of three pieces of business: a biology text book adoption; a pediatric therapy associates contract; and an optical scanner and computer hardware purchase.

Regular Meeting: Textbook Adoption

After ascertaining there was no public commentary, Mexicotte invited Green to introduce the proposed adoption of a new high school biology book. The book – “Biology” by Stephen Nowicki, published by Holt McDougal – would be used in each of the district’s high schools. Green briefly introduced the topic, stating the the current textbook is outdated and did not cover the breadth and the depth of material the district wanted to teach students.

Biology textbook adoption AAPS

District science department chair Amy Deller-Antieau brought copies of the new biology textbook to the board meeting  – ”Biology” by Stephen Nowicki.

Green offered full support of the new textbook adoption, at a cost of $117,441 for 1,279 copies. She then handed off the presentation to Alesia Flye, deputy superintendent of instruction. Flye asserted the recommended textbook is well-aligned with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) initiatives and was aligned to the Common Core Standards. She also noted the recommended book meets the goal of fully implementing personalized learning – which is a district goal.

District science department chair Amy Deller-Antieau, who led the committee in the search for an appropriate textbook, highlighted reasons why the current biology book is insufficient. The current textbook has been in use for the past 11 years. Content on biotechnology and genetics is outdated, and the text does not address the essential content on stem cells and differentiation.

It also lacks online materials, text access, and virtual labs and simulations that are currently available with many textbook programs. In addition, the current text is written at a lexile level that is more consistent with the reading skills of most 10th grade students – whereas biology is now taught in the 9th grade.

After reviewing seven biology textbook options, the committee put forth their recommendation of “Biology” by Stephen Nowicki, published by Holt McDougal. Deller-Antieau highlighted the supplemental text, which is a supporting reader for students who are lower-level readers. She also mentioned the availability of supplemental materials that teachers can use to provide for differentiated instruction. That’s in addition to the online component, which would allow for updates and more current information.

Despite the textbook’s online version, Deller-Antieau maintained the district would still need physical bound copies – to provide access to books for students who don’t have online access at home. Surveys of students in the classroom showed 50-80% of students want hard copies of textbooks.

Noting that differentiated learning is a priority for the district, Nelson asked if there were specific examples of how a teacher could use the packet of materials for a student who is struggling. Deller-Antieau explained that the interactive reader provided with the textbook is written at a lower reading level, but still provides content that meets state standards.

Nelson followed up by asking about students at the other end of the spectrum. Deller-Antieau responded by saying the online resources provided extension material, such as additional virtual labs. She also said there were a number of project-based and STEM-based activities.

At that point, Green mentioned that the district has been approached by a major corporation studying the world’s best education districts for studying STEM. There have been preliminary talks of partnering with AAPS to focus on connecting biology and STEM initiatives, with potential trips to Singapore, a leading country in STEM initiatives, paid for by the unnamed company, Green said.

When Green talked about looking at the trends in biology and algebra, she referred to a “scattering effect” of those students who are actually enrolled in biology. Nelson had her 
clarify what she meant by “scattering.” She said there were some groups of students who were increasing their enrollment in biology, while other groups were decreasing. Green maintained the data needed to be refined to see what the students were actually doing – but she suggested some of this shifting may be due to the older curriculum.

Thomas focused his questions on better understanding the need for both hard copies and online versions of the textbook. [The proposed textbook is available in both a hard copy for $87.45 and an interactive online edition for $66.95]. He wanted to know what the constraints were against using the online version of the textbook in the classroom. Deller-Antieau said that while teachers had access to laptop carts, there’s a limit to how many individual computers can access the school network. Flye also recognized that there are always requests from parents and students for hard copies of materials.

AAPS Robert Allen

Robert Allen, deputy superintendent for operations of AAPS, explained the first step of the district’s technology plan.

Thomas asked if there would be better infrastructure to support online-only textbooks three years from now – based on the the district’s tech plan, financed by the recently passed $45.8 million technology bond. Robert Allen, deputy superintendent for operations of AAPS, explained that the first step of the technology plan is to improve infrastructure. Later steps would be to improve the hardware and software currently used by the district.

Flye argued that while technology issues in the district will be better resolved with the tech bond implementation, the district still faces the issue of equity and success for all students – and needs to make sure no student is disadvantaged by not having access to a textbook.

Thomas asked about the incremental cost of providing students with an ebook reader to which students could download more than one textbook. Allen responded to Thomas by saying that after the first phase of improving the technology infrastructure, the district has left open the option for moving towards digital textbooks.

Stead asked if phase two of the technology plan included purchasing digital devices for every student. She was assured that while there was the flexibility in the plan, there was no concrete plans to do so.

Stead stressed the need for equal access for all students and asked what the methodology would be for providing access to students who might otherwise not have access. Mexicotte cited the process used for signing out devices at Scarlett Middle School. And Nelson mentioned a previous system of signing out graphing calculators as one way to deal with the issue of accessibility.

In response to a question from Thomas about which “bucket” textbooks were paid from, Allen explained that they are funded from the centralized budget for textbook adoptions. Stead followed up by asking if the district had been expecting this budget request – and referred to a similar replacement request last year. She expressed surprise over this request – because there was “less and less leeway in the budget,” but also stressed that she loved science and supported the district’s endeavors.

Flye responded that the request was expected. She reiterated the need for updated material and the companion resources. She mentioned that the district was planning for complete curriculum reviews and an adoption cycle of every seven years.

Stead observed that when the board talks about the budget, it’s in terms of “big buckets of money.” She cautioned against saying they’re “cutting 25% of the budget” if they don’t know exactly what that means.

Mentioning previous experience in Pennsylvania [where she previously worked], Green talked about implementing a tool where they will be able to project costs for the next five years. The five-year budget projections will become a significant tool in managing the district’s finances and will allow for better informed decisions to be made.

Baskett asked for clarification on the replacement cycle for new biology textbooks. In response, Deller-Antieau confirmed the typical textbook replacement will be a five- to seven-year cycle. The textbook recommended by the administration would align with the most current Common Core State Standards.

Lightfoot reminded her board colleagues that because technology plans overlap with the Achievement Gap Elimination Plan (AGEP) and other strategic plans, they will need to be mindful of all the things that need to be coordinated. She highlighted that textbook and technology purchase were predicated on overlapping issues. Green agreed with Lightfoot, saying the board had sanctioned the strategic plan, which is the umbrella for every other plan the administration has.

Mexicotte stated the board was interested in receiving a textbook replacement calendar for the district, stressing that they have been asking for such a calendar for a long time. She said that would help the district plan, so they don’t find themselves with an adoption cycle that goes 11 years – like for this biology text. When Green indicated that Flye has already been working on such a calendar, Mexicotte stressed again that the board has been asking every year for a textbook adoption calendar for a long time.

Outcome: This is a first briefing item and will return to the board for a second briefing at the next regular meeting.

Regular Meeting: Pediatric Therapy Associates Contract

The board was also presented with a first briefing on the contract approval for the Pediatric Therapy Associates for the 2012-2013 school year. Green noted that for the upcoming year, AAPS no longer has to use 15% of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Flowthrough Grant to support significant disproportionality. Therefore, the grant money allocations have been revised to pay for the total amount of the Pediatric Therapy contract, instead of having to support the contract from general budget funds. Funds under the IDEA are provided to school districts on an entitlement basis for services to children with disabilities.

Elaine Brown, assistant superintendent for student intervention and support services (SISS), indicated efforts were made to keep costs down. The $538,360 total for providing 37 weeks of physical therapy at 120 hours per week and 37 weeks of occupational therapy at 135 hours per week remains the same as the 2011-2012 school year.

When Thomas asked if Pediatric Therapy Associates was the only group locally that had the capacity to provide the services the district needed, Brown assured him there were other bids requested, and Pediatric Therapy was the lowest at $56 per hour. Other groups quoted a range of $65-$70 for physical and occupational therapists.

Brown also provided a board-requested cost comparison of contract versus hiring ancillary staff. The district usually contracts for five full-time equivalent staff positions (FTEs) to provide occupational therapy and six FTEs to provide physical therapy for students with individual education plans (IEPs). The cost of contracting is approximately $55,994 each for a total of $279,720 for five occupational therapists. The cost for physical therapists is $41,440 each for a total of $248,640 for six physical therapists. The district does not pay for fringe benefits for contract employees.

If the district hired in all 11 FTEs at the level of step one teacher (bachelor level), it would cost $434,940 plus an additional $289,817 for fringe benefits. That would bring the total cost for one year for 11 FTEs of service to $724,757 as opposed to the current $528,360. The district would also incur the cost of providing crisis prevention intervention (CPI) training to the new hires, a cost that currently is absorbed by Pediatric Therapy – because they make sure their staff is CPI trained before deploying them to the district.

Baskett asked why the occupational and physical therapists would have to be hired in under the teachers’ contract – as they were professionals, not educators. Deputy superintendent for operations Robert Allen clarified that the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA) bargaining contract included more than just teachers.

David Comsa, deputy superintendent for human resources and general counsel, confirmed Allen’s comment. Comsa noted that when the state of Michigan determined that the therapists served the “community of interest,” they were included in the bargaining contract as part of the legal standard. Baskett asked if the coupling of the therapists to the contract could be undone – and Comsa indicated it would be a difficult legal task.

Brown also spoke of the need to hire a speech therapist, a role that has been vacant for several years – due to the difficulty in finding a qualified speech therapist with the appropriate credentials. But SISS has found there is currently a good pool of highly qualified speech therapists from which the district could hire, so the district would not need to contract for the position.

Outcome: This was a first briefing item. It will return to the board for a second briefing at the next regular meeting.

Regular Meeting: DataDirector Equipment Purchase

Green introduced a request for a $130,629 scanning equipment purchase as a special briefing – one that the board was asked to give final approval on at the same meeting when it was introduced. The hardware – 72 scanning stations consisting of a scanner and a computer – allows for scanning of standard student tests for scoring and analysis in the same building where the student attends school – eliminating any delay in getting student performance data.


Carlos Soto, a lead tech specialist in the Information Technology Department (ITD) was on hand at the board meeting to explain the ins and outs of DataDirector. Seated to his right is  Alesia Flye, deputy superintendent of instruction.

The hardware also allows teachers to print out their own tests that can then be scored and analyzed by DataDirector – a data management software tool. Data is stored in the district’s data warehouse, which allows teachers to review previous performance of their own current students – and track performance of their students as they move on through the system. Flye explained that DataDirector had already been used in a pilot program at five schools in the district.

Green explained that the hardware purchase was needed in order to broaden the district’s reach in collecting and analyzing data in all forms, including information on the achievement and discipline gaps. Green explained that DataDirector is a centerpiece of the district’s approach, so she stressed the need to implement DataDirector quickly around the district.

The $130,629 purchase includes scanning stations for each of the district’s schools, to allow for faster integration of assessment data into the DataDirector software, which would, in turn, allow for a speedier review and processing of that data. The scanning stations, consisting of a PC and a scanner, would be placed in convenient locations so they can be used easily by teachers. Larger buildings would receive more scanning stations, and smaller buildings would receive only one, for a total of 72 stations across the district. Green noted there are Title II funds allocated for the purchase. Title II funds are federal funds, available for programs designed to improve teacher and principal quality.

Carlos Soto, a lead tech specialist in the Information Technology Department (ITD), said the equipment purchase will allow the district to tap into the scanning component of DataDirector. The scanning module of the software requires a PC, not a Macintosh computer, and works with only a handful of different scanners.

To get a handle on the purpose of DataDirector, trustee Susan Baskett sketched out a scenario where test scores would be scanned into the district’s data warehouse, then retrieved by the instructional services team. She first got clarification that there is a difference between the information that DataDirector manages and PowerSchool – which is a system for managing student grades and information within the schools. She also wanted to know who had access to the information in the data warehouse.

Flye explained that DataDirector is purely for assessment purposes. It allows for data from common assessments to immediately be entered into the data warehouse. Landefeld explained that teachers will have access to the data for their set of students. Instructional services and the superintendent will have access to the aggregated data. She noted individual teachers would have the capability of writing a test, printing the test, having students take the test, then scanning the data into the system. Those results can then be compared against local, district, and state evaluation tools.

Nelson questioned how the purchase is expected to help student achievement. Flye responded by saying it would help target the different instructional needs of the district’s students, giving teachers immediate access to see the strengths and weaknesses of students. She said it would be a key part of future assessment.

Mexicotte noted that the DataDirector approach links directly to the need for differentiated instruction for students. Green added that the point is not just to identify students who are struggling, but also those students who are aspiring to go further.

Thomas noted that while he was in favor of anything that helped the district collect data more effeciently, he was bothered that it would only run on a PC and not a Mac. That results in redundancy – because the district already has Macs. Soto replied that while the DataDirector software does work on a Mac, the data scanner module only runs on a PC. He compared it to a Scantron scanner, designed only to do one thing.

Stead asked if the data collected through the Northwest Evaluation Associate (NWEA) testing wasn’t already enough. Flye assured her that DataDirector does not add any additional assessments – but rather is a better way to collect data and analyze the results.

Stead followed that up by asking how the pilot program was going in the schools that already have DataDirector in place (King Elementary, Clague Middle School, A2Tech High School, Community High School, Huron High School, and Skyline High School). She also wanted to know if teacher training will be provided on the analytic capability of DataDirector.

Flye responded that while it was user friendly, training will be important. The schools that are already using DataDirector have been excited to use it, and the pilot has been going well, she said.

Nelson asked if the data warehouse was housed within the district or within the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD). Landefeld responded that while the data warehouse was purchased with WISD money about five years ago, they have steadily been building capacity for the past couple of years.

Mexicotte suggested it would be helpful to create a flowchart of the data warehouse to clarify how the servers were used and to track how the data flows in and out.

Nelson wondered if this could become another area of expertise that could be sold to other districts, much like some of the human resource expertise the district has developed and is looking to market.

Responding to a question from Baskett, Flye clarified that the purchase the board was being asked to approve covers only the equipment. There would be an annual lease cost for the software.

Outcome: This was a special briefing. Trustee Stead made a motion to approve the purchase. Trustee Thomas seconded it. The board voted unanimously in favor of the purchase of the 72 scanning stations. 

Regular Meeting: Agenda Planning

Nelson asked that WISD budget planning be included at the May 8 and May 22 meetings in 2013.

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, Aug. 15, 2012, at 7 p.m. in the Balas administration building main conference room, 2555 South State Street.

The Chronicle could not pay freelance writers to cover public bodies like the Ann Arbor Public Schools board without regular voluntary subscriptions. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

One Comment

  1. By jose
    August 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm | permalink

    I’m not sure why Sue Baskett can’t see that telling everyone else how much they are trying her patience doesn’t help. It’s a very dominating position to view herself in relation to everyone else.