This week I went with my friend Julie to speak at the school board meeting during public commentary. It was a good experience and I will be posting our commentary (about the NWEA MAP test) over the next few days.
But I thought in the meantime I would share some reflections about the meeting, because although I occasionally watch the meetings on t.v., I haven't actually been to a school board meeting in a number of years.
The meeting started about fifteen minutes late, and the room was crowded at the start with parents and students. The school board often starts with a performance of some sort, and this week the performance was the Wines 5th grade choir. They were good! I enjoyed the performance.
By that time it was about 7:30. That's when we had public commentary. As Ed Vielmetti has pointed out to me, not a lot of people submit comments to the school board. You can submit comments in written form if you don't want to talk. If you do want to talk, though, you get four minutes. [Write directly to the school board at any time by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
At that point the board went through reports from groups--the administrators, the black parents' group, the special education parents' group, and maybe a couple more. Then there was the President's report and the Superintendent's report. The president reported out on some other meetings, and the Superintendent seemed to be reporting out a lot of things that could be read in the This Week report.
Honestly I was left feeling a little confused about who the audience for all of this is. I had always thought of the audience for school board discussions as the board itself, but sometimes it didn't sound like the audience was the board.
All of which leads to this point: they spent the first hour and a half with reports that seemed more congratulatory than substantive. If we were playing a drinking game and we had to drink every time they said "thank you" or "congratulations" we would have been quite drunk by 8:30. I'm not, by the way, recommending that.
You might think that I'm curmudgeonly about the congratulations and thank yous, and really, I'm not. I'm all for thanking people for hard work. It's just that it starts to sound forced. And also--and more to the point--they didn't talk tachlis (that's a Yiddish word for substance, brass tacks) until 8:30 p.m.
The first substantive item on the agenda was possible revenue enhancements for the schools. Some of the ideas for revenue enhancements: web site advertising, a purchasing portal for popular stores through the schools' web site, additional Medicaid reimbursement, school apparel licensing, billboards, charging foreign students who want to come to the district for school, "selling" of AAPS staff work in human resources, legal, and billing areas. There might have been a few more. With the exception of the Medicaid reimbursement ($700,000) the amounts were fairly small--adding up in total to about $300,000. Different board members had different reactions to these ideas. Some people didn't like billboards; others did. Some people had a problem with recruiting foreign students; others didn't like selling things through the school web site because we rely on local businesses for support. Etcetera. They had a lot of good points.
I was mostly surprised by what a small amount of money the administrators thought we could bring in for income. Remember that we need to cut a large amount of money from the budget. (Originally I had heard the number $14 million, but at this meeting I heard the number $16 million.) I was very appreciative of Christine Stead saying that people are anxious about the cuts and we need to share information about proposed cuts sooner rather than later.
While I was sitting there, I thought about how each student that we recruit from Ann Arbor is worth over $9,000 to the district. So I was also very appreciative when Glenn Nelson verbalized that we should focus on recruiting students who are in the district but are choosing to go to private, parochial, or charter schools (or are being home schooled). There are over 2,000 of those students! If we recruit 100 of them, that is an increase in revenue of over $900,000.
And that reminded me of a friend of mine. She's a mom of three kids, ages 7, 4, and 2, and she has plenty of money so she could afford any school. Nonetheless, her oldest started in the public schools--but after a few years she switched to private school. "How is it?" I asked her recently, about the new school. "Well," she said, "the service is about 1000 times better." And what, exactly, did she mean by that? She gave as the example of the straw that broke the camel's back that in the assigned elementary school, when her child had surgery, and was better enough to go to school, but not to have outside recess, the school had trouble accommodating that. Surely we can do better than that! Because unfortunately, we had the possibility of three students from that family in the Ann Arbor schools, and that would have meant over a third of a million dollars from that family alone! (Calculated as 3 kids x $9,000 x 13 years=$351,000.) And now, we won't. [I have written about my experience as a major donor to the schools before.]
As this example demonstrates, while the idea of recruiting students from the 2,000 students who are already living in our district and not going to our schools seems like the easiest choice, it is also fraught with difficulty.
So--anyway--that took us to 10 p.m. and a break. And my friend and I went home. The school board continued to meet. I highly recommend that you put a visit to the school board meeting on your calendar as well!