Monday, October 10, 2016

Ann Arbor School Board Endorsements: Mitchell, Gaynor, Van Valkenburgh

It's time for Ann Arbor school board endorsements. 

There are eight candidates for three spots, and my friends who have gotten their absentee ballots are asking me what I think.

I know, you're thinking--in the past, Ruth has not made endorsements. That's true. But in the past, I haven't worked on anybody's campaigns either.

I feel this year is different. You should (and you will!) vote for whomever you decide to vote for, but I would like to share my thoughts.

I really appreciate anybody that takes on the often-thankless task of running for (any) school board. It doesn't pay big bucks, it takes a lot of time, it's hard work, you get a lot of criticism. Having said that, there are more candidates than spots, so we do have to choose.

FIRST: We're Talking About The Non-Partisan Ballot

I'm not a person who checks the straight-ticket box (even when I vote a straight ticket, which is probably 95% of the time, I like to fill in all of the little circles).

But if you are a person who checks the straight-ticket box, you should know that many of the school-related races: school boards, community college trustees--ALL of that--is on the non-partisan part of the ballot. Even if you vote a straight ticket, DON'T FORGET about that part of the ballot!

SECOND: I Think It's Time For A Change

There are three seats open, and two incumbents--Deb Mexicotte and Simone Lightfoot--are running again. I'm not supporting either of them, and I hope that you won't either--especially not Deb Mexicotte, who has been the president of the board for the last several years.

There is a lot that this board has to be proud of, and I have agreed with probably 80-85% of their decisions. However, the other 15-20% has been extremely problematic.

Although a former board member pointed out to me that seven people are on the board (so it's not like these two incumbents could do anything just by themselves), these two are the only ones running for re-election. Also, the president of the board does a lot of work setting the agenda and the process, and in my opinion, that has been the most problematic part of the current board.

I have concerns with the teacher evaluation system (which I believe goes far beyond what the state requires); I have concerns with the way the district has dealt with over-testing of students (the number of tests has been increasing every year); I have concerns with privatization and the number of "employees" who are not the district's employees.

But make no mistake about this--my biggest concerns are about process and transparency. I've had these concerns for several years, and in fact discussed them in an Ann Arbor Chronicle issue back in 2014! (Read it here.)  Board votes are frequently 7-0 with little or no discussion; items get rushed through; discussion of important items happens late in the board meeting when parents, students, teachers, citizens are unable to be there; minutes reflect simply the motion and the vote, and not the discussion. Subcommittee meetings are held during the school day, when teachers and students are not able to be there.

As one recent example: in the past, there were informal budget meetings with concerned community members in May, while the budget was being developed, to discuss what might be added or cut. This year, there were no meetings, and the budget was not even shown to the public until the day of the meeting where it had its public unveiling.

A friend asked me if this was really the work of the Superintendent? I believe that if the school board--and particularly the school board president--were to say, "That's not how we do things here," then that's not what would be done.

Current school board members can certainly be proud of many achievements (largely because of our fine staff), but when it comes to process, they have been sorely lacking.

So, I will not be voting for the incumbents, and I hope you won't either.

THIRD: I'm supporting Hunter Van Valkenburgh, Jeff Gaynor, and Harmony Mitchell

[Photos in order from left to right]

Hunter Van Valkenburgh
is a parent, an attorney, a former teacher himself (not in Ann Arbor), and the husband of an Ann Arbor Open teacher. 

Jeff Gaynor is a recently-retired AAPS teacher who also hosted several exchange students who were placed in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Harmony Mitchell is a parent who moved here a few years ago from the DC area, where she saw first-hand the havoc wreaked by the so-called "education reform" agenda of Michelle Rhee and company.

I have had extensive conversations with these three candidates, and I know that they are concerned with transparency and process. I know that they support our teachers. They are running as a slate, and you can read about their campaign and their platform(s) here.

They also have--all three of them--endorsed the Educate Ann Arbor platform, which I mentioned recently. (Go ahead, you can endorse the platform too!)

FOURTH: But what if...

But what if you don't like to vote for slates? What if you don't like one of these candidates, but you like the other two?

Well then...I'm still going to ask you to not vote for the incumbents, because...there are three other good options.

[Photos in order from left to right]

1. Rebecca Lazarus--Rebecca is a parent of two children in the district and a graphic designer, and she would be my first choice, because although I don't know her personally, she also has endorsed the Educate Ann Arbor platform, so I know her values line up with mine. Read more about Rebecca here.

2. Don Wilkerson--Don is also a parent of two children in the district, and he has been actively involved in his school's PTO and in the PTO Council. He previously ran for the board and he is a hard worker. He has unfortunately (in my opinion) aligned his campaign with Deb Mexicotte's and Simone Lightfoot's. Read more about Don here.

3. Jeremy Glick--Jeremy is a recent graduate of Skyline High School and a University of Michigan undergraduate. He would like to bring the student perspective to the school board. Read more about Jeremy here.

You can also read about lots of local races, including Ann Arbor school board, at

Last, But Not Least: State Board of Education

The State Board of Education deserves its own blog post, but in case you are pressed for time on your absentee ballot, I am supporting John Austin and Ismael ("Ish") Ahmed. Yes, they are Democrats. Read about John Austin here. Read about Ismael Ahmed here.

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  1. Jack Panitch was having trouble posting this comment and asked me to post it. It is long, so it is being posted in multiple parts. This is Part I. --Ruth

    Let me illuminate the example you gave in your last blog entry. In the end, I’m not sure this is a good example of lack of transparency or lack of process. It’s more a story of the most dedicated volunteers in our community doing the best they can under difficult circumstances and then dodging rotten tomatoes. You know: the same old same old.

    For the first time I can remember, last year, the District did not hold public budget meetings at the high schools or the middle schools. Two factors drove this decision:

    for the two previous years no significant cuts were proposed, so the public did not show up for any of the budget meetings. [To be perfectly accurate, at the meetings I attended there were two or three members of the public, not including me, and maybe 10 District employees, the superintendent and a trustee or two. I have heard from reliable sources that this pattern repeated itself throughout the meetings. I suspect the poor attendance was chiefly due to the fact that no one cared, because it certainly wasn’t for lack of notice]; and

    the District had just held public meetings at the middle schools to provide information about the special ed millage, and they did not want to waste anyone’s time holding another series of public meetings (two or three weeks later) that would be poorly attended. [Few people attended the meetings for the special ed millage, and the District had a good idea, based on experience, that no one would show up for budget meetings, either.]

    So, the District axed the customary community budget meetings, the Special Education Millage being the critical priority/push in light of its potential benefit to the community.

    Next, knowing that the public would have little motivation to comment because no cuts anyone cares about were on the table and the proposed budget was a placeholder (the real budget discussions would take place later when the special ed millage revenue materialized), it made some strategic sense to the trustee whose committee vettes the budget to pass it immediately to satisfy the legal requirement of having a budget in place before the end of the fiscal year.

  2. Jack Panitch was having trouble posting this comment and asked me to post it. It is long, so it is being posted in multiple parts. This is Part 2. --Ruth

    At the meeting where the board introduced and moved to pass the budget, the Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools told the Board that the approach was wrong and that they should provide a comment period. [This is an eye-witness account, by the way, because I was sitting right next to him.] Some trustees seemed a little non-plussed, because they instinctively knew what would happen. Deb Mexicotte was not among this group: she saw the community’s interest in putting the vote off and said so immediately.

    And that’s what happened. The Board put the final decision off to permit the public another two weeks to provide input, even though the likelihood of anyone saying anything significant about a budget everyone understood was a placeholder was fairly minimal.

    So, guess what happened in two weeks? Nothing. At the appointed time two weeks hence, no one came forward to comment on the budget. Folks who care about process and didn’t pay attention or didn’t understand what it was they were watching were agitated about the Board’s approach, but, ultimately, no one had anything substantive to say.

    So, you left out all the best parts of the story, especially the part where the Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools makes a legitimate point about process, the Board, herded back from unnecessary controversy by Deb, responds appropriately, and in the end the public does the predictable thing and wastes the opportunity the MIPFS ED secured on principle on our behalf.

    Our priorities reveal us. I make it a priority to follow this stuff and ask questions when I don’t understand. Others don’t. Paying attention helps me understand a process that I sometimes need to engage in for the benefit of others.

    I’ll tell one more true story because the example you chose to illustrate your concerns is hauntingly familiar. It seems to be some kind of recurring, hot-button, aha, gotcha issue. In 2014 I stood among a crowd of board candidates talking about the issues when one particular candidate announced his concern that the District hadn’t held any public budget meetings that year, an example of a complete lack of transparency according to him. The District had, indeed, held public budget meetings. I had, in fact, attended one. When I corrected the record, this same not-so-well-informed candidate treated us to the complaint that the budget meetings must not have been well-publicized. They were, in fact, well publicized. You don’t have to be omniscient: you just have to make paying attention one of your many competing priorities, and if that doesn’t work, bump it up a notch. Needless to say, I will not vote for this particular candidate, because I know he hasn’t spent any time developing the relationships beyond his insular community that would make him an effective advocate on behalf of all the students of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

    Best regards,

    Jack Panitch

    The views expressed in this letter are my own and do not represent the views of the executive board of the PTO Council or any of the Council’s members.

  3. I strongly agree with Jack's comment's here, I am an informed community member who also attends many of the BOE meetings and also the community meetings held by the administration, and have noticed the shamefully low attendance. It seems like many of the charges leveled at the incumbents, and Deb Mexicotte in particular, are distorted or outright false. Of course, when you are in office and trying to make things work while having to abide by state and federal regulations that you may completely disagree with, it is a very complex process with many grey areas. Ann Arbor BOE bends over backwards to get community participation, and the public can attend any of the committee meetings, they are open to all. Just because they are held at a time when some folks cannot attend, that does not mean there is a lack of transparency. When meetings are held, there is very poor attendance. This board has done an outstanding job in a climate that is very hostile to AA from the state level. The teacher evaluations do not go "far beyond" what the state is requiring, they are in line with what the state requires, and they have spent years developing a model that takes many factors into consideration, with quite a bit of teacher input. The process that has been in place before was a joke. We do have many excellent teachers, but the ones who were not performing should have been held accountable.

    As to the question of testing, again, the BOE had to conform to increased state and federal regulations which we have to adhere to. It's interesting that you never mention how Ann Arbor Open was subject to sanctions for not having enough kids taking the tests. It's not smart to cut off your nose to spite your face.

    This is a theme I see here, complex and difficult situations painted as simple black and white issues, with all of the incumbents as the "bad guys" and the slate is going to do what they want and ignore all the regulations and compliance with what we have to do, not just to survive but to thrive.

    If you listen to who has the most knowledge and grasp of all the different factors and legislation which affects our kids and our district, the choice will be clear. It's also not fair to have people run as a slate, as if they are all equally qualified and have exactly the same views on everything. They should have had to answer the questions you posted in the other blog post individually and not as a slate.

    It is disappointing that many facts have been so overlooked and distorted, to seeemingly create an "us vs them" mentality. The real data for our district is quite good, and has been improving. That ought to mean something. Incremental change and working within the system are not automatically bad things, it's how change gets done without destroying the current system first.

  4. I don't think it's black and white at all. I realize the school board makes difficult decisions all the time. But I do think that it is time for some change on the board. I think that many teachers feel very poorly treated (and it's not about the money); I see that testing just increases and increases (and it's not all driven by state requirements). I see a lot of lip service being paid to parent and teacher involvement, and then little attention or action taken in response to that.

    So I think it's time for some change.

  5. I'm a teacher in the district and I'm convinced that the school board is out of touch with the realities in the classroom. They seem to dismiss concerns from parents, staff, and community members. They act like they know better and don't need to dialogue and consider alternatives. Worst, they overlay the problems with this slick PR that has us all thinking we're in two separate worlds. Teachers are more demoralized than ever. Students are under more stress. Parents are shut out. Indeed yes, it's time for a change.

  6. Mr. Panitch seems to have a lot to say on this issue. I suspect he and the subsequent commenter have not spent much time in the schools lately!

    1. Actually, I know both of these commenters and I think they both spend time in the schools! As do we--
      In other words, we can all see different things and have different opinions.
      Please let's not get into a flaming war about who spends more time in the schools!

  7. As a BOE candidate, I'm not going to directly reply to the points above, nor will I engage in an "Is, Is not; Is, Is not," dialogue. Instead, the following reply is a copy of the statement I gave on Dec. 9, 2015 announcing my retirement, 6 months before I gave any thought to running.

  8. My name is Jeff Gaynor. This is my 38th year as a teacher – the first 20 at elementary and these 18 at Clague Middle School. Sadly, this will be my last year, well ahead of schedule. This is why:

    40 years ago, I made the decision to go into teaching. At U-M I learned a great deal about how to teach. I learned about children, and about the history and philosophy of education. Pre-student teaching at King School in 1976, I learned about organization from Mrs. Perrigo, about compassion from Mr. Monash, and about high achievement from Mr. Loeb.

    While student teaching I thought that I’d never be able to do everything a teacher needs to do. Was I ever going to master this profession? I’m happy to say the answer is still, ‘no.’ Each year I discover more needs, more to teach, more for students to learn. And this is as it should be. I am still learning, concentrating on what I can do to help students. My efforts are validated as teachers in the next grade say my students are well prepared, and hard working. I work hard and long at preparing effective lessons and open-ended assignments, informing parents, and giving feedback to students, all in order to help each student grow.

    For that is the touchstone, what I learned first about teaching: I find out where a student is – and move her, or him, along. I know scope and sequence; I know how to connect what a child knows with what she or he has to learn. I juggle the abilities and needs of 25, or 55, students. Until recently I had the freedom and flexibility to use my professional judgment, as long as I could defend the results.

    But this has not been so for the last 8 years or so. There have been more restrictions and misdirection each year. Instead of team-teaching, sharing 55 students, in 6th grade, as I did for 10 years, I am now teaching 140 students, in assembly line fashion, without collaboration. I have received reprimands when I taught to the needs of my students rather than the demands of the Pacing Guide. In staff meetings, we talk about data points; about GLCE’s, about SLO’s, almost never about the real needs of our students. We teach, and measure, against an arbitrary standard, as though all students are all the same.

    Authentic teaching, and learning, gives way to “covering” everything, and preparing for the Common Assessments, low level multiple-choice tests which are given without purpose. No more do students have time to work on rich projects. So for students too, learning is an artifice: fill in the blanks; don’t take risks; do what you need to get by, with no room to fully engage.

    Ever increasingly, students are coming to Clague in a daze. This is due to teachers, K-8, being pressed to teach too much, too fast, too soon, and too abstractly. Too many students are not even expecting what they are being taught to make sense.

    For years people asked me when I was going to retire. My answer: “Not Ever.” Last year, I was asked a different question: What did I like about teaching? After answering, they asked, “Can you teach like that now?” I startled, and realized I had to answer, “No.” That’s when I decided I would retire.

    Who bears the responsibility for this? Certainly Federal and State demands, as well as budget cuts. But also our district leadership, who sees cost, but not value; who wants control, not collaboration; and also the Board, who wants to ensure the system’s survival, but at the expense of trust, and of excellence.

    My only consolation: This year I can focus my time and energy on my students’ best interest, rather than the arbitrary, capricious and half-formed demands of the administration. We are having a good year, which more than makes up for the poor evaluation I expect to receive, for I will continue to teach in the best interests of my students, challenging them, allowing them to fail and helping them regroup. I won’t teach out of fear. I will not say, in doing my job, that I am simply following orders.

  9. I don't attend every board meeting but I've attended many where there have been between tend to hundreds of people there. They are extremely well attended when there are issues and I have literally never heard some members of the board speak, which makes it hard to know why I should support or not support them. These are open meetings to hear the board's perspective and open debate amongst them and I don't hear it. Im never heard about a meeting to discuss the budget and I read the parent newsletter. In fact I went to the only one I ever heard about in Roberts time and the tables each talked about ways to save money and reported back. Each table said similar things, work with AATA to bus more high school kids and drop high school busing, start school later so you aren't heating the building in the dark, and I can't remember the third thing off hand but as far as I know they were never explored. The teacher evaluation system has zero science behind it and by the time I first heard of it, it was a done deal. The testing too, no real science, done. School start times, you could bring 100 experts and they wouldn't care. I know the experts at UM in these areas and I've seen them go to meetings and the board heard who they are, what they do and they barely listen, let alone seek out a meeting to hear more. And don't forget that when the state took away LGBTQ rights by getting rid of domestic partner health, did they stand with the teachers and their partners? No they stood on the wrong side of history because their lawyer told them they had to. Did their lawyer tell them that not one of them could go to the district court in Detroit to support their trachers? Because I went and I didn't see them.