Wednesday, May 9, 2012

AAPS Budget and FOIA: Transparency, Where Art Thou?

If you've been following the AAPS budget proposals, then you know that one of the proposed cuts is to cut busing to Ann Arbor Open. The co-chairs of the Ann Arbor Open Coordinating Committee immediately started brainstorming a) how to stop this and b) if cuts were needed, what could the school offer instead as alternatives?

Fair enough. The only thing is, the budget proposal had a round number estimate for all savings from transportation cuts, and that included cuts at several other schools. What portion of that is related to Ann Arbor Open?

The co-chairs put in a request to the Ann Arbor schools. Then they received--in the mail, not by email (even though they submitted the request by email)--the district's form FOIA response asking for an additional ten days to respond. (And they could get even more time, under the FOIA process.)

You see the problem, don't you? The budget timeline and the FOIA timeline don't match up very well.

At tonight's board meeting, during public commentary, a member of the Ann Arbor Open community (perhaps more than one) brought up that they would like to present alternatives, but they don't know how much they would be asked to save, because they hadn't gotten the information they asked for about the transportation expenses.

After public comment, trustee Simone Lightfoot followed up with a question about how parents should get information, and Pat Green, the Superintendent, said that the proper process was to FOIA information, that would be "fairest" to all.

Actually, I would call that, most obstreperous and obstinate. And idiotic, too.

Honestly, since I started this blog, most of the time I've just asked nicely for information--from Ann Arbor, Saline, Ypsilanti, Willow Run, and the WISD--and I've gotten it. If it is to be easily gotten, what is the problem with just providing it? The one time I had to FOIA something, it was for detailed historic data--which does make sense.

But recently, Pat Lesko wrote about having to FOIA data on class sizes--data that she was told didn't exist, but actually did exist. I wrote about that here.

And now, Ann Arbor Open parents are told that they have to FOIA information about the projected savings from transportation cuts in a budget proposal?

Is this a new policy, promulgated by a new superintendent? You're not making any friends here with this policy, Pat Green. It's wrong.

If the district is basing expected savings in the budget on hard numbers, then it should be easy to provide those calculations to families whose lives will be affected by these proposals. It should be easy to explain what the savings will be for cutting transportation to the various schools--by school. It should be easy to detail the savings from closing or moving Roberto Clemente.  Unless they are based on. . . data that doesn't exist?

Let's assume for now that data does exist.

There's a reason for a formal FOIA process. But there is also a reason that an informal process is often the preferred alternative, not just for the ask-ers, but also for the ask-ees. 
If a policy is necessary, I can imagine a school district policy that matches what the district has done previously.
If it's relatively easy to get the data, just respond to the request.
If it's difficult or complicated in some way, ask for a FOIA request. Ed Vielmetti pointed out to me, for instance, that in the teacher contract there is language around FOIA'ing lesson plans.

Obviously, lesson plans are not current budget proposals that are being debated by the current school board and that have a timeliness factor involved.

I could get my friends to flood the district with FOIA requests. I don't want to do that. And I'm quite sure the district doesn't want to have to respond to tons of FOIA requests. That might prove my point, but it's not particularly helpful.

No--what I want is a district that is responsive to parents' and taxpayers' requests, with the least drama possible. 

By the way, I've learned a lot about the FOIA process from Ed Vielmetti. Read my post about FOIA, and more, (with links to some of his posts) right here.


  1. Thanks Ruth.

    For what it's worth, I was able to get a prompt turnaround by sending in a FOIA tonight for this information that was requested re AAO busing, and was told by the FOIA coordinator that I'd get back a response next week.

    Given the uneven performance of WISD on getting information back to AAPS on busing, it might reasonably take a long time to get the information. And I think you'd agree that AAPS is way out in front of WISD on openness and responsiveness to the public.


  2. Well, I've found both AAPS and the WISD to be fairly open and responsive. And I hope that is not about to change. (Actually, with the new WISD Superintendent it has gotten much better.)

    In fact, in this case, the original requester of the busing data did not hear back via email (unlike your experience) and about ten days later she received a FOIA extension letter in the mail.

    I guess a separate question is this: did AAPS have the data to make the savings projections? If they didn't (because the WISD hadn't provided it to them, or for some other reason), then how can they project savings? If they did, then it should be fairly simple to share the detailed information quickly.

    My biggest question is whether the district is entering an era where they are going to make it difficult to get data in a timely manner. And I hope that is not the case.

  3. Leaving alone how fast a FOIA request will take,the AAO community response is bothering me. They want to do what they need to at the building level to save bussing for them. I guess I don't see them having the right to decide that. Like what, they get to fire a teacher and drop other people salaries to keep the busses? Are they going to buy all paper supplies for the year to keep busses going to their school? It doesn't seems like their request is a reasonable or well thoughout one. They are just demanding, not bargaining really, and I don't see them as being in a position to bargain. If they go to charter, they'll need to drive them there.
    My kid's been a waitlist to go to AAO for many years now, and there's not equal access to the that school. That school, and the way it's managed isn't an equitable situation in the first place, and now they want even more special treatment.
    That doesn't mean it won't be an adjustment to get carpools together, but honestly, big deal. Walking 1.5 miles is hard too.

  4. Anonymous,

    As an Ann Arbor resident, I don't agree with you. I believe it is everyone's right to get information. The first question is:
    1. What savings is the district estimating are coming from cutting busing to Ann Arbor Open? Is it $25,000? $50,000? What do they base that on? Are they even basing it on hard numbers?

    As an Ann Arbor Open parent, I know a lot of parents who have their kids take the school bus because otherwise they couldn't go to the school. I don't know if they would leave the district or go to their neighborhood schools, but it seems to me like we should be treating all kids of a certain age the same way.

    But it could be that after the district provides the information, that AAO parents would say that "you're right, it's worth the savings." At this point, it's just supposed to be proposals that are being floated by the district, and they need feedback. Our feedback needs to be based on real numbers, and if the district doesn't give that to us, we can't respond intelligently.

    As to you being on the waitlist for many years, I am very sorry about that--I would definitely like to see MORE open school (or language immersion, or arts magnet, or science magnet) K-8 alternatives in the district.

  5. But sorry isn't good enough. Think about what your saying, sorry your kid can't come here, which is a far, far bigger issue than if a school that selects only a few who won't get bus service for an out of district school anyway that isn't fairly accessible to all kids.
    What difference does it make if it's $50k or $250k? This parents already are receiving premium service others can't access in a public school system. I have no sympathy for the bus situation.

  6. And seriously, how are the parents going to decide to help cut costs at "their" school so they can keep taking a bus to a school that isn't fairly open to all residents in it's district. It's actually outrageous the way Open parents are acting. The kids at Clemente have a far more serious and valid issue when they worry for the integrity of their program at a different building. Now that's a real problem.

  7. Anonymous, I'm not sure why you say it's a premium school and not fair? The school uses a lottery system. Otherwise it is just like every other school in the district in terms of costs and how kids are treated.

    In any case, I'd ask you to focus on the issue of this post, which is how people can get information from our public schools.

  8. It is a premium school, not every kid gets to go, waitlists of multiple years is not equitable,rather its an expression it's denial of equal educational experience, because if it was just like all the home schools, it wouldn't matter at all if busing were cut, other than a kid might switch schools.
    Anyway, yes, the district could say how much they projected to save, but a FOIA shouldn't be a big deal, so long as it came out quickly enough. But again, what difference does it make, if it's 50K or 250K, it's not the parents are in a position to bargain for the school budget on behalf of unions. They could express their unhappiness, but there's a big waitlist...

  9. Anonymous,
    I disagree.
    Cutting busing to AAO will actually make it into what you say it already is -- unfair. It will make it only accessable to the most privledged families (those who have the flexibililty to drive their kids to school), or those who live nearby. Those families with single working parents, those who could never have that sort of flexibility, will not have access to the school. It will become a non-representative population.

    It is not unreasonable to ask administration to be able to submit other options for budget cuts to our building. In fact, that is EXACTLY what Dr. Todd Roberts did when he was superintendent. He went building to building and asked the communities to give suggestions for how to cut certain amounts from their individual schools, and it was hugely successful.

    And last point -- we have NO data to support this idea that cutting AAO busing will save money anyway. We are on a middle school route, did you know that? Would those buses just sit idly if not filled with our kids? How much money exactly will we save? How can they not know that, and still include it in the budget cuts???

    Another Anon

  10. It is already quite unfair, so it's not a good argument to say the bussing issue makes it fairer somehow. If every kid in the district could go to a school like Open as easily as they could go to their home school, then it's a fair educational option. But that's not how it goes, at all.
    The parents are trying to negotiate a budget that's already been cut many times for their personal benefit. Parents are going to offer what in exchange for bussing? Layoffs? Less teachers at reduced pay? Like that's in their purview.
    Because what they offer will come off of someone's job at the building, and the employees themselves should be the ones negotiating, not parents.
    It is not a credible premise that there will be no savings by cutting busses. Sure there will...what if it's as low as 50K? I don't have an answer about what someone thinks it's worth it or not.
    Families can move closer to Open if they don't want to get stuck driving their kids. People do things like that.
    But to call AAO fair as things stand is a travesty.

  11. You didn't get in on the lottery, and you are bitter. I get that. I'd be bitter if I didn't get in, too. But making a wildly successful program less accessable to disadvantaged students is a bad a idea, period. My kids walk, I have no personal skin in this game, other than wanting to make sure AAO stays as accessable as possible.

    I think your energies need to be focused on increasing the K-8 choice type programs the district offers (more progressive classrooms? language immersion? arts magnets?). The district keeps finding itself behind the 8-ball needing to cut programs due to the mess that is Lansing. But maybe it should be thinking about how to maximize building use by creating options that draw families back into the district. They need to think creatively.

  12. AAO is not accessible to everyone equally, please, that's the point.
    My energies are focused on keeping teachers from getting laid off, so as to keep the class size from increasing. That's what the important thing this year.

  13. Ruth, I entirely agree with your point about information. Not just about busing to AAOpen, but in general, the foundation of these budget numbers. More particularly, while reducing busing service is fairly straightforward, many other proposals are much less clear - for instance, precisely what might be involved in restructuring Clemente, and what would the impact be? (In that case we are told that the projected savings would be from closing one building, but that leaves a lot of questions about the educational and financial impact unanswered.)

    We want to assume that the proposals have a solid foundation, in which case sharing the details should be easy. If the details are not available, that means that we are tossing around ball-park numbers and the actual details will be worked out later. If that's the case, I think it's a bad way to proceed. In order to judge what sacrifices are worthwhile and which are too large, we need to know the nature of the sacrifices in some detail.

    On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with any one schools saying, in essence, what can we do to save busing for our building? The implication was that alternative cuts and/or fundraising might be involved. But would that mean that Wines or Angell could fundraise to reduce the walk zone for their own schools or to add a bus route? The precedent is troubling.

    In any case, I suspect that the real issue is that state law requires the district to offer the same transportation services to all students in a particular category. So they can eliminate high school busing and not elementary, but they can't eliminate busing to Pioneer and not to Huron. The so-called "choice" schools - Community, Skyline lottery students, AA Open, and I guess Clemente - would then represent one such "class" of students.

    By the way, I'm not eager to cut busing at all, but then it's a pretty big line item. The base budget scenario includes reducing 32 FTE teaching staff; how many teachers are worth the trade for busing? What other large areas are available for cuts? (It's too easy to point the finger at Balas - while taking salary cuts would be important symbolically, it would not make much of a practical dent.) There aren't any good choices.

    Except one - or two. We're working to change things in Lansing, but that is a long-term project. The other strategy is to really pony up as a community to the Educational Foundation and make their "One Million Reasons" campaign a reality. If we can't tax ourselves for operating dollars, perhaps we can come together as a community to support our schools in this way.

  14. Can you clarify whether busing for ALL of Skyline or just the "choice" students is on the chopping block. Thanks

  15. Just the choice students (for Skyline). By the way, it is worth noting that even with the reductions/changes in transfer points this year, Skyline lost about twenty kids who were school of choice students.

    Steve, I do think elementary and middle school students are fundamentally different than high school students. Your point about "classes" of students is a good one but I would think they could probably limit it to high school. I would disagree though about the importance of transportation. I think it is foundational to serving our students.

    As far as Clemente and A2Tech I have submitted a FOIA for that. I believe the cuts there assume a fundamental realignment because RC is an expensive model. But I can't be sure until I see the numbers.

  16. Steve,
    There is in fact precedent for a school community helping to decide what to cut -- it's what Superintendent Todd Roberts did. The school community (teachers, principal, parents, students) give input, they don't have the final say. The super listens, and then makes the final decision. Often times the individuals AT the school know where the least painful cuts can come much better than central administration. It's called great leadership, and Roberts had it.

    Another Anon

  17. There was just more fat to cut when Todd Roberts was superintendent. I'm sure the parents would love to maintain bussing at a loss of a para or two, maybe at a different school. The school is not an island until itself but it's part of a whole system.
    If the idea is to cut bussing at school of choice and leave schools as much alone as they can, and that includes Clemente, and that saves many jobs in the district, that's a serious decision. Is this only feasible if Clemente and other schools of choice are on a bus line in the first place , or does Clemente get moved into town, somewhere by themselves?
    I can't imagine merging Clemente and ATech that quickly or well. And that whole plan needs to be done carefully. These are children who are quite vulnerable.
    Todd Roberts said he take a pay cut and then he left before that pay cut would have taken effect. It was all show. I liked him, but let's stay grounded about what is happening.

  18. The issue to me (an AAO parent who lives in the walk zone) is that we have over 500 K-8 students and only about 50 parking spaces. It is dangerous to walk or drive to our school--especially in the morning. Cutting busses is not without costs. We want to know the potential well as how much it will cost to expand traffic flow to handle the extra vehicles, and what is this district's plan to ensure student safety. The district cannot base budget decisions on only cost savings side of the equation without considering the consequences and potential additional expenses.

    But, this post was really about the access to information, not the substance of the request. Delaying the FOIA response is the district's strategy to deny meaningful input into the budget process. We're just supposed to swallow budget plan a, b, or c and shut up. (and write to the governor, pass the tech bond, and donate to the schools' foundation...according to the BoE).

  19. Is it really about the numbers request?
    Because it sounds like it's to fuel the argument that the costs savings just can't possibly be worth how difficult it would be to access the school, or how, if parents themselves just got a hold of the numbers, they could find the savings at this school to continue busing for these kids alone, since everyone else clearly has no idea how to save money for their (the parents)needs. Isn't that the real argument?
    Because how is the district supposed to get money somewhere? I think the only thing left is teacher's contract, so if the concerned members of the AAO community are interested in getting their's, they should ask the BoE and the AAEA to reopen contracts and ask for wage concessions, which might be a bit difficult in light of SB1040, the retirement bill working it's way through Lansing.
    Is the FOIA thing a stall, well only if they don't release the numbers in time. Ask Ed Vielmetti this week what happened.

    Not all 500 kids get bussed in, many walk. Parents can park nearby and walk their kids in safely, it's up to them.
    Many parking lots in the district are difficult to manage pickup and drop off, there will have to be a system developed to handle it.
    And if no one contacts Lansing and lets them know these funding mechanisms are not helping public education, the cuts and the ridiculous funding mechanism in place currently continue.

  20. Anon, yes: THIS post is really about the FOIA requests. Honestly, I am an open-minded person and I could look at the numbers and say, "OK, that makes sense." As far as I'm concerned they should have released the detail numbers with the original proposal. Maybe if I looked at the numbers I would think that estimate was too low, or too high.

    I was told yesterday that a parent who complained to Pat Green did not hear from her. BUT--when the same parent complained to her city council representatives, and *they* followed up with Pat Green, she responded to them. And she responded to them with budget information that she hasn't given to the parents. THAT IS NOT RIGHT.

    Cutting 32 teachers? Estimated at what salary/benefits per teacher?

    Cutting Roberto Clemente? Does this include cutting the RC or AATech principal? Changing the way the program runs? Are the savings in teachers' aides? Are the savings completely from closing the facility?

    To look at any of these issues and not be able to assess the detail is unfair.

    However--and maybe this gets to your broader question--am I interested in whether it makes sense to cut middle school athletic directors or cut transportation? Absolutely. I will write about that in some OTHER posts. But I thought I would wait to see what information is presented at the budget forum tonight (Monday, 5/14, 6:30 p.m., Huron High School). Join me there!