Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Rest of the Story: AAPS Budget, Part II

I think I addressed the largest chunk of the budget with my recent post on personnel costs and my post on revenue enhancements, including a look at whether we can increase Medicaid reimbursement. Here are a few other thoughts.

1. Efficiencies--Some of the reductions--for instance, finding efficiencies in ESL teaching and other "split" positions--seem like they should have been done long ago, if they are feasible. (Which makes me a little suspicious. Are they?)

2. Transportation--I've written about my opposition to privatization. There is no reason at all to balance the budget on the backs of the lowest-paid staff in the district. But there were three other transportation issues raised in the budget forums:
  • We should not eliminate Kindergarten midday bussing. That sure would make it hard for working parents to send their kids to district schools, unless they replaced it with full-day kindergarten (which I think probably costs more than the savings). When my oldest started kindergarten, I was considering a private school with a full-day kindergarten, and if I had started him there, and if I was satisfied. . . I doubt the public schools would have seen me for several years.  [At the forum, I was asked by my group's facilitator, "Well where did your kids go then, at midday, if you were working?" Answer: to their preschool, where my second child was enrolled all day.]
  • We should be working with AATA. For my high school-aged kids, the walk to the AATA bus route is not any further for us than the walk to the AAPS bus stop, and it doesn't take any longer to get to school. I think many routes could be eliminated for high school students, if we can make it easy. UM students just show their student IDs. Can't high school students do the same thing? Then we would only need to bus those kids who are not reached by AATA.
  • I question expanding the walk zone to two miles. It may come to this, but I'm not a big fan of my daughter walking two miles in the dark in a Michigan winter. I don't want my kids to have to drive to school. I don't want to encourage the culture of driving everywhere, and in any case, cars are expensive.
3. Reducing high school noon hour staff. This seems impractical, if Pioneer and Huron are closing their campuses at lunch time, even to upper class students. 

4. Reducing substitute expenses--can we do more? I understand this refers to changing the scheduling of professional meetings that take teachers out of classes, and that might be fine. In addition, though, I recently read a study that assessed teacher absenteeism. I have no idea if it is high or low in Ann Arbor, but probably that should be assessed--and if it is high, maybe there is a way to make it lower. I have also wondered if it would be less expensive to assign a building substitute in each elementary school building (and more in the middle/high schools).

5. Reducing administrators--can we do more? It is convenient for the district that Maggie Jewett and Michael White are both leaving high school principal positions, and it makes it easy to propose reducing one class principal at Huron and Pioneer. For mid-year reductions, it makes sense to stop there. But for next year, I believe that we could get by with 1 principal and 2 assistant principals at each high school. Before Skyline was established, there were 5 at each high school (or 10 total). Rather than saying that we now need 4 at each high school (for a total of 12), why not say that we can get by with 9? I'll bet that it can even be done by attrition. And is it possible that some of the higher-level departments can be consolidated, thus allowing us to eliminate some management positions?

6. The high school cops. Susan Baskett raised this issue as a question at the budget forum I attended. Do we need them? I will add my confusion about them: What are they there for? What do they do? Can we do it for less? I don't know the entire costs, but I do often see an empty police car, just sitting there, even late at night, at Skyline, and it seems like a waste to me.

Education and Prosperity

Very interesting charts from the Free Press editorial page, regarding how the links between education and prosperity are much stronger than the links between prosperity and taxes. Found here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bits and More Bits

A new private high school, for high-functioning autistic students, is opening up. It's "faith-based." Based on the name, Veritas Christi, I would say it's Christian.

The East-Cross blog is reporting some truly alarming potential state budget cuts for the coming fiscal year. And we thought this year was bad.

The Saline High School principal reports, on Twitter, that the school honored 251 students with straight As at a recent event. Apparently, that is 13.6% of the student body. I know that I was in the top 10% of my high school graduating class, and I didn't have all As. Proof of grade inflation. Yet I'm not necessarily opposed.

I've written about early childhood education, and now--this just in: Washtenaw County Head Start is beginning the enrollment process for the 2010-2011 school year with Early Bird Registration, Wednesday, February 17 from 9 am-4 pm at the Head Start Grantee office located at 1661 Leforge Road in Ypsilanti. This is for families living in the Ypsilanti or Lincoln school districts, and for families living in Washtenaw County that are working full time or who are full time students.  Families must bring a copy of the child’s Birth Certificate, Proof of Income, and Proof of Residence.  If the child has a current physical and dental exam, families should bring those as well. Families will be served on a first come first serve basis.  For more information call 484-7119.  

David Jesse (along with some others) has been doing some extensive reporting on the Ann Arbor schools budget, and a limited amount of reporting on some of the other schools. The reporting is good; it is annoying that it is not easy to find all of the articles. Some--but not all--of them are under School Spending Report.

Noting the passing of: 
J.D. Salinger--Yes, I had to read Catcher in the Rye in middle school. I didn't like it. I tried again when one of my kids had to read it, and I still didn't like it. It seemed very male, and I really didn't like that he spelled crummy, crumby. Many years later, that still bugs me. 
Mary Daly--I was introduced to her writing in college, and it was hard! Beyond God the Father and Gyn/Ecology have hugely influenced feminist and environm
ental thought, and they were eye-opening for me. Talk about being a boundary-pusher! She was one. Howard Zinn--OK, I confess that I never made it all the way through A People's History of the United States, but I was happy to meet a teacher who used it in her social studies class. He had a lot of good ideas, and shared them in an accessible way. And until I read his obituary I didn't know he was a playwright, too. (That is the nice thing about obituaries. You find out interesting things about people.)

I have added the blog Foster Parenting Adventures to the blogroll on the right. The author is a school psychologist in an urban school district, and she recently became a foster parent, which is something I've thought about doing. I'd start reading with the first post.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

If Personnel Costs Are 7/10 Of The Total...

If personnel costs are 7/10 of the total, what part can containing those costs play in a solution? 

Education is obviously a very personnel-intensive field. Our kids need teachers. And teachers' aides. And bus drivers. Custodians. Secretaries. Principals. Coaches. Translators. Occupational, physical, and speech therapists. And I don't think I've named them all.

So--if we need to cut, obviously personnel cost containment needs to be part of the solution. I think that the Ann Arbor schools should set a target for pay rollbacks, and work toward that with the unions. That seemed to work for Washtenaw County. Furthermore, if the overall target is 4% (a number I am making up), then perhaps that should not be distributed evenly. Flat rollbacks, just like flat taxes, are regressive. Put another way, 4% of the pay of someone who makes $25,000 is likely to be felt a lot more deeply than 4% of the pay of someone who makes $60,000. And, 4% of $60,000 is $2400 while 4% of $25,000 is only $1000. So perhaps people at the top should take 4.5% cuts and people at the bottom only 3% cuts. And it could be that health benefits should be included in these cost changes--certainly they are part of the overall package. [And by the way--I've already written about why I oppose privatization of bus and custodial services, but note that those bus drivers and custodians are definitely on the bottom end. Bus drivers' pay goes from $13-$19/hour, bus monitors from $10-$14, and custodians from $9-$18.]

Second--the district should institute an official hiring freeze. Even if it is a "soft" hiring freeze, and is somewhat easy to get around, it would require every permanent position to be justified. I think there might be a way to hire fewer teachers. Sometimes, teachers with one certification have the credentials to teach a different class...

Third--I would like to know what the short-term benefits of an early retirement package might be. Even if--down the road, say in 5-7 years--there wouldn't be savings, it would be good to know if there would be short-term savings. That could give us some time to change state school funding policies.

Fourth--Vacant positions that are still in the budget affect the budget, if not cash position. Eliminate those vacant positions (frequently they are in "hold vacant" status), and we eliminate the budgeted costs.

Fifth--Administrative personnel savings:
1. Is it possible to consolidate departments at the assistant superintendent level and eliminate an assistant superintendent?
2. Go to a 3-principal setup at the three big high schools: one primary principal, and an upper-class principal and a lower-class principal. We do not need 3 assistant principals at each school anymore. In two years, the schools will only have 1600 students in each school--it's possible that even 2 principals in each school would be enough.

Sixth--Personnel questions to think about:
1. An Education Week article recently pointed out that at some schools, roles that used to be extra-curricular have become classes. Returning them to extra-curricular activities can save money because you don't have to pay a teacher's time, but rather extra-curricular support (which is less expensive).  That reminded me that when I was in high school, Yearbook and Model U.N. were not classes. They were after-school activities. Would making these programs extra-curricular save money?
2. Does the trimester system cost more? I've tried it now for two years, and on balance I don't like it, but I'm asking if it costs more. Kids take 15 classes a year, versus 14 per year at the other schools, so it seems like it should.

Seventh--It's not exactly personnel (at least, it is not ours directly, though we pay), but:
Could we reduce or eliminate the police officers at each school? Even cutting their time by 1/3 (so we had the equivalent of when we had two high schools) seems like it might be worth it to me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What I'm Reading

A favorite professor in graduate school advised my class to "read widely," advice I try to take. He also advised us to keep a journal, which is something I don't do (yet).

What I've been reading recently:
The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova: An upper-elementary adventure book, focused on the resistance of the Norwegian people against the Nazis during WWII. I actually stayed up late reading it.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: Dan Ariely is a regular commentator on NPR's Marketplace. He writes about behavioral economics--why, for instance, is the idea of "free" merchandise so compelling, even when an overall discount might save us more? Teachers and students should all read the chapter about procrastination.
Tee Time in Berzerkistan by Doonesbury: Honestly, Doonesbury seems even more prescient when you read the cartoons looking back in time.

Also, I've been reading several mysteries--I'm enjoying a series set in Maine by Sarah Graves--as well as the fabulous monthly "newsmagazine," Funny Times.

Welcome Back...

to Dr. Joe Yomtoob, who is working as a consultant in the Willow Run School District. Dr. Yomtoob has always cared about Willow Run, giving WRCS kids scholarships even after he left the district, and I hope he can make a positive difference.

And here is a shout out to the WRCS school board, for finally trying to move forward.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Revenue Side

It is, in fact, more pleasant to talk about how AAPS can increase its revenue stream than to talk about how it can cut. So here are a few places that I would look.

1. Pay to Play for athletics: This has already been proposed by the district, and I don't have a problem with it, IF there is a way for students who are income-eligible to get the fees waived. had a little chart of what other districts do. I liked the way that Plymouth-Canton has fees set up, with a larger fee for the first sport, and a smaller fee for additional sports.
What I would add: I would add a smaller fee for middle school sports. The seasons are much shorter, but perhaps a fee along the lines of $30/first season and $20/additional seasons would be reasonable.
I would also add fees for other extra-curricular activities, in particular theater and music activities.

2. Grant Opportunities: Currently the district does not have a grant-writer. In a district the size of Ann Arbor's, I think this is a mistake. Although one district official told me that AAPS "couldn't" hire a grant writer without funding from an outside source, I have two reactions to that. First, that yes AAPS could--if the administration wanted to, they could reassign staff to 100% grant writing. Alternatively, they could ask the Educational Foundation, or the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, for two years worth of funding to get that going. This will not affect this year's budget--even successful grants take a while to come to fruition. Investing in a grant writer is an investment in the future.

3. Facility Rental: I'm not convinced that the district has fully exploited the opportunities for facility rental to outside groups. I would like to encourage the district to get a group together to tweak both the pricing and the way that facility rental is promoted. That group needs to include potential end users and people with marketing/business acumen, as well as school facilities people.

4. Medicaid Reimbursement: Some of the district's special education expenses are Medicaid billable. Currently, that billing brings in about $1 million each year, and is largely handled by social workers. I believe that this is an area where the school district needs to be absolutely sure it is maximizing its billing, and if the billing is spread out, it is likely that it has not been maximized. I don't have local statistics, but a study in New York State of 8 districts found that they were only being reimbursed for about 1/3 of the Medicaid monies that they should be reimbursed for. In the study, some of the reasons that the districts did not get reimbursed included: a) not checking students' Medicaid status regularly (so they would be kicked off Medicaid, and not get back on even though they were still eligible, and the districts would not know); b) waiting too long to send in the claims; and c) not appealing claims that were denied, even if they believed that denial was in error. In those districts, the estimate was that they could triple their reimbursement level! The Medicaid claims submission process should be reviewed from the point of service onward, even if the increase would add $100,000 and not $2 million to the AAPS budget. (And this is true for every district in the county.)

5a. I feel ambivalent about one area: Schools of Choice. 
On the one hand, I have felt for a long time that AAPS should have schools of choice. On the other hand, coming into this now, feels a little like we are robbing Peter (the other school districts) to pay Paul (our school district) and I don't feel very good about that. I also wonder whether opening schools of choice to Stone (which I don't think works as a school) and Clemente (which does work, but is our most expensive school) makes any sense at all. Will that entice high school students? Stone was a school of choice before, and I don't think it really got that many people choosing to go there. We would definitely have school of choice applications for Pioneer, Huron, and Skyline.
On the elementary school level, I have found that generally, people who are unhappy with schools are often unhappy after a couple of years, so opening to schools of choice only in grades K/1 does not make sense to me. If we are going to have schools of choice, let's open up a certain number of spots in every grade, K-12.
If we are going to open to schools of choice.

5b. I have another idea for Schools of Choice/Recruitment
There is a whole other part of me that says, we should not be recruiting from other school districts. We should be recruiting from the people who live in our district and are choosing to send their kids to other schools. That also maximizes the amount of money we get (since our per-pupil rates are higher than the surrounding districts, kids from within the district bring in more money than kids from without the district.) My friend told me that in some of our elementary school districts, 1/4 of the students go to other schools.
What will reverse that trend? I think that magnets can do that. Anyone who goes to the Community, Skyline, or Ann Arbor Open orientations can see that magnets get people interested. And they don't have to be more expensive. As a school district, we need to get those families to see AAPS as a viable choice because they offer what the families want (for instance--K-8 school, intensive language, Montessori practice). Here are some of my ideas (just a taste) that directly target individuals who are choosing other schools. [This is not a budget proposal for this year, but some of these things could be implemented fairly quickly, certainly within two years.]

Another K-8 school, on the east side.
A Montessori school (could be combined with a K-8 school).
A language immersion program. (Start with a K-1 Spanish or Arabic or Chinese or Japanese program, and increase from there. Could be combined with a K-8 school.)

High School:
Magnets at all three large high schools. We already have 4 of them at Skyline.
For Huron: Orchestral Music magnet and Foreign Language magnet and/or Science magnet.
For Pioneer: Theater magnet and Voice magnet and/or Sports Management magnet.

Friday, January 22, 2010

News Roundup

Ypsilanti, Lincoln schools are cutting into the muscle. Willow Run, I believe, has reached the bone.

Ypsilanti is considering closing more schools.
Here is the district presentation:
Seriously, does anyone like the idea of K-6 schools? I think it would accelerate flow out of the district. I could see the attraction of K-8 schools. So if YPSD is going to cut a school, maybe they should consider turning two elementary schools into K-8 schools, and closing one of the middle schools.

Lincoln Schools are making major cuts, and thinking about closing Bessie Hoffman. This might drive some kids away from the district, but on the other hand, it would reduce transportation costs enough that it might be worth it.

Also note this quote from the Ypsilanti Courier article linked above:
The [Lincoln] district is currently reimbursed for 84 percent of its more than $9 million special education budget through the state and a Washtenaw Intermediate School District millage. The millage is up for renewal in the fall, but, even if it passes, the district will only be reimbursed for 55 percent of their special ed expenditures because of falling property values. If the millage doesn't pass, the district will only be reimbursed for 32 percent of its expenditures, forcing them to make $1.9 million in reductions.
The exact numbers might differ, but that special education renewal millage will be important for all of the school districts.

Willow Run has started laying off teachers.
Meanwhile, Saline teachers and administrators begin to negotiate.
And (in what is good news from my point of view), the Dexter school board shows some spine and declines to join the Race to the Top.
And I believe that not a single local teachers union has joined the Michigan Memorandum of Understanding for the Race to the Top either.
An article in the New York Times highlights the issues that states around the country are having with the Race to the Top. Some are declining to join the application process.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Varsity Bear

Who knew that you could buy Pioneer paraphernalia right next to the UM wine buckets at a local drugstore? And I'm told that on the west side of town, you can get Skyline stuff... on the north side, Huron stuff!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just Say No To Privatization

I have been trying to keep an open mind about the proposals regarding AAPS budget cuts. For the most part, I think the instructional ideas are sound, and many of them should have been done sooner. And in a couple of days, I should have my own list of proposals for budget cuts and revenue enhancements.

Where the district misses the boat, however, is in the non-instructional proposals. It is time, now, to say NO to privatization of busing and custodial work.

It is time, now, to raise a ruckus about it. Did you know that RFPs have already been posted? You can read them here. And I suspect that it is a good idea to look at the bids archive to get an idea of all the things the district bids out to others. I find it hard to believe that the district, with thousands of employees, could not have done the REMS (crisis management) grant in-house, for example. This is likely an area for cost savings. But I digress. This post is about why the district is exploring privatization, and why it is a bad idea.

I have a lot of issues with privatization. Considering that the custodial and bus driver unions have not had a contract since 2008 (according to the budget information from AAPS), and are currently "in mediation," I wonder if this is actually a union-busting technique.
First: There is an alternative. Do we want our bus drivers and custodians to take a pay cut? Honestly, I think everybody in AAPS will have to take a pay cut! The question is, how does that happen?
At Washtenaw County, the administrator worked with all the unions to get concessions. The process was more or less above board, and guess what? The unions made concessions. Let's work to get the unions to make concessions. That is the model we should follow.

I love teachers. Heck, I am one, even if I don't work in a school district now. But schools do not rest solely on the backs of teachers, although we might like to believe that they do. The bus drivers and custodians have pride of ownership in the schools too. That is worth something to me.

I am concerned about losing control of school maintenance and school busing. A school district can write whatever it wants into a privatized contract, but when it comes down to an employee doing a poor job, if someone else is controlling their hiring and firing, AAPS may not be able to fire them or send them to training.

At the budget meeting that I went to, several people at my table raised concerns about privatization. They wondered what the actual (not projected) savings were when the food service was privatized (the facilitator didn't know). They talked about how satisfaction (on the part of people who eat the lunches) had gone down. And they wondered about the effects on the "lunch ladies."

"Well," our facilitator said, "I believe that the new company hired everyone who wanted to be hired, for the same wages, and the only thing they lost was retirement benefits."

Oh, really? Well, that's kind of a big thing, don't you think? Hello, Ms. Facilitator (who has been with the district for over 20 years)--how would you feel about losing your retirement benefits? And how much did the district save?

According to Chai Montgomery's article in,
In 2006, more than 30 workers lost their union protections when the school district privatized its food services. The district expected to save about $500,000 per year by doing so. Roland Zullo, a research scientist with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor Employment and the Economy, studied this privatization. While a detailed follow-up study to determine exact figures remains to be done, Zullo says decisively that “the food deal did not return the 500k annual savings that the district originally claimed.” While it “appears to have reduced costs” in its first year, “the service costs jumped back up” in the following year. “So, the savings, if any, were short term.”
(Chai himself is not only a union leader but an AAPS graduate.)

According to the UM press release, Zullo says that,
While public schools that privatize their food operations save about 15 percent on labor and 4 percent on food, they end up spending 11 percent more on contractor fees and 4 percent more for supplies.
Read the full privatization study here. 

WHY on earth should we be balancing the AAPS budget on the backs of the people who get paid the least? These people don't make that much to begin with; the proposals assume that we keep the buses and mechanics, so there won't be savings there.

How many people are we talking about? According to the RFPs, there are 166 custodial and maintenance positions, and 180 bus positions (including bus aides). As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to be part of busting their union, either. If they no longer want their union, let them dissolve it themselves.
Side note: I've been a member of a union, but I'm not one now. Sure, administrators would rather impose plans on non-union employees, then negotiate with a union, but from the point of view of employees that is not necessarily the best thing. A lot of the benefits that I, as a non-union employee of a large organization, receive, are benefits that I only get because the unions paved the way.

Message to the teachers union: Support the bus drivers and custodians in their efforts to stop privatization. Don't stand idly by. Unity=Strength.

I cannot think about this without thinking about the context of class divisions in our society. Take myself, for example, a middle class mom. Aside from the teachers in my children's schools, I know well over 30 teachers in the district. I know exactly one bus driver, and one custodian. And yet--that bus driver has children in the district, and that custodian has grandchildren in the district. How many of the bus drivers and custodians have family in the district? If the bus driver loses his job, or needs to move to get one that has job security, we may lose those children from the district.

There are alternatives:
We could negotiate--open, and above board--for wage and benefit concessions. At the county the cuts ended up being around 3%, and people are paying more for benefits. But let's apply wage and benefit cuts to all employees in the district. Let's not balance the budget on the people who get paid the least. If anything, people at the top should take bigger cuts.

We could work with AATA so that high school students who are served by AATA take the public bus. Sure, it wouldn't work for everyone. But for my kids it would not be a problem. The public bus is just as far as the AATA bus stop. That would not only reduce the need for busing, it would also save energy. I'd rather see fewer drivers (which can probably be dealt with through attrition) and no privatization.

In closing: Let's not privatize. Instead, let's negotiate in good faith. Our bus drivers and custodians are vested in our schools, and our schools are worth it.

Side note: I took the picture, above, from a blog post about desegregation bussing in Boston. It looked informative.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Should You Go To Tonight's AAPS Budget Meeting?

If you haven't gone yet, then I think it would be a good idea. The meeting starts at Pioneer High School at 6:30 p.m. Expect about an hour of explanation and an hour of small group conversation. I was pleasantly surprised by the discussion--even if the person who was my group leader was a little bit defensive about the district's choices. The people at my group still got to make most of their points, I think, and the district also asked each person to fill out an individual survey of ideas. 

When you go, if you turn your survey sheet over, you will find that the schools are asking for people to join Action Teams--an even more pleasant surprise. (I don't think they announced this, and it seemed like a lot of people missed it.)

If you can't go, you can still take the survey on the budget, found here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blog Birthday

Today marks one year from my first blog post.
Because I'm a believer in evaluation, I'm going to pause for a minute to reflect. Indulge me.

A few years ago I was standing in the hall of my synagogue. I looked down on the counter and there was a printout from a blog. (I know, you didn't think anyone printed blogs out. Some people do, apparently.) The topic was something I was interested in, and I had been curious about blogs, but I didn't know how to access them. Well, now I had an actual blog address. So that night, I visited my first blog. When I got on the blog that evening, I discovered the blogroll (Links to other blogs the author likes. I have one on the right side.) I started clicking, and clicking, and clicking. My kids thought I was obsessed. Really, I was just trying to learn about an entirely new world to me, because I like to learn about new things.

Eventually I felt I had exhausted what I could learn by reading blogs, and thought that in order to understand how blogs worked, I should have my own. But--a blog about what? It took me months to choose a topic. I chose local schools because a) it seemed manageable; b) I already knew a lot about them; c) I'm passionate about education, and frequently frustrated by things that happen in the schools, so I thought I wouldn't run out of things to say; and d) It did not seem like anyone else was (consistently) blogging about the schools. And I was right, right, right, and right! I have been able to both indulge in my passion, and vent about my frustrations.

So--what have I learned? I was right about the topic. Education, to me, is serious business. I do feel I'm filling a niche. I have a lot more to say, too. There are plenty of things I thought I would write about that I haven't yet--either because of time or because of more pressing subjects. I didn't, for instance, anticipate how frequently I felt I needed to write about money, finances, or budgets! I love doing research, but I have a job and family that require attention.

I was also right that having a blog was a good way for me to learn about the "back" side of blogging. It took me months to figure out how to track "hits" to the blog. I didn't know what it meant to set up blog subscriptions in a reader. I had no idea how to add pictures, and I felt triumphant the first time I linked to another web site. I didn't know any bloggers (at least, I thought I didn't--although it turned out I do know a couple) so I basically did this as a self-tutorial. So I have learned a lot about the blog process, but blogspot is fairly idiot-proof, and no, I haven't learned html yet.

Originally I was ambivalent about promoting the blog. It's not so much that I am shy, as much as the fact that I had seen lots of other blogs founder after a few short posts, and I wasn't sure I wanted anyone to know who I was. But I was simultaneously thrilled and shocked when I got my first comments, and the first link to the blog, less than a week after I had started blogging. (Thanks Ann Arbor Chronicle!) I mean, how did anyone even find me? I had no idea. And I was even happier (after I figured out how to track "hits" and "followers,") to see that my audience has been slowly growing. I also added a Twitter account (find me as schoolsmuse) and I'm slowly learning about Twitter too.

So now I have learned some blogging basics, and in doing so, I've met my basic learning goals. (There are still a lot of odds and ends I haven't figured out, though, and in some cases I would like to identify best practices that would save me time and keep you from being aggravated.) To be honest, I'm not sure what will come next. I might want to blog about some other topics. I might want to blog less frequently. I would be open to adding guest bloggers. Here is to 2010, whatever it may bring--hopefully good news. Thank you for reading!

P.S. Now that there are around 200 posts, I want to remind you that if you are actually looking for something on the blog, there is a "search" link in the top right hand corner. You can also share my posts on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to a feed (which some people find more convenient).

*The picture above is from clip art, but I do wonder if it was done by Ann Arbor's own David Zinn. It kind of has that look.

Homework Revisited

Many years ago, when my oldest son was in kindergarten, he had a friend whose father was a philosophy graduate student. This family was ambivalent about schooling, and in fact unschooled their kids for several years. (If you don't know what unschooling is, take a look at this Earl Stevens article.) Fast forward a decade. I have lost touch with the family, but I found the dad making an interesting philosophical argument to the school board where his kids now go to school. (And somehow, I was not surprised.)

The essence of the argument was this:
His son was a good student with no disciplinary problems. He did well in school (on tests and in-school work), but he didn't do his homework. He didn't do his homework because he was more interested in other things, and chose to spend his after school time engaged in those other pursuits. His parents knew about these choices. His son still did well on tests, despite not doing the homework. The teachers responded first by cutting out the son's recess time (which in this district, as in many other districts, is against written school policies), and then by denying him the opportunity to go to electives.

My acquaintance argued that
it did not seem like...sound...policy to punish someone for an academic choice; their lives belong to them and if they decide not to do their homework, they will just get a lower grade. (Emphases added.)
 He asked the board to make this their policy. 

I find this argument very interesting. What do you think?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically... Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Click here for information about the University of Michigan symposium.

Fire Drill

Leaving the Future Stars performance at Pioneer last night (Pioneer Theater Guild=truly impressive), my friend said to me, "I always wonder--if there was really a fire during a performance (it was very crowded), would people be able to get out?"
Which made me wonder if the schools ever do fire drills when the auditoriums are packed to capacity.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Saline, Math, and the Retweet

Ten days ago I wrote up a summary of the rumors that were going on about Saline eliminating the high school math department.
I said at the time that I didn't know what was true. In fact, I retweeted the Saline superintendent's tweet that "no decisions had been made."

It turns out that, in fact, the rumors were true, as explained in this article by David Jesse.

In fact, the superintendent had met with the leaders of the teachers union and presented them with a list of potential layoffs--including the entire high school math department. Backpedalling, Scot Graden then tells that "the notice of intent was just part of a budget-cutting process he’s promised would leave nothing off the table."  And then--after the teachers' union rightfully raises a hue and cry, he says that he will not recommend eliminating the math department.

Oh, come on. Mr. Graden, you were being disingenuous at best. The honest thing to have done would have been to make public to the community that you had shared with the teachers' union a list of potential layoffs, including the entire math department, and that a notice of intent was required to give the district the maximum wiggle room. And while you were at it, why not make the notice of intent for possible layoffs apply to every single teacher in the district? THAT would give you wiggle room.

Funnily (but I don't mean that in a ha-ha way), just before Christmas, Scot Graden had blogged about the budget process in a post called Judgment. And in it, he writes,
The saying goes, with good judgment, little else matters and without good judgment, nothing else matters. Judgment is the essence of leadership.  In the face of instability, uncertainty and conflicting demands, the quality of a leader’s judgment determines the fate of the entire organization.
 He also questions the importance of process, writing "while the process is important, ultimately we are judged on the results."

Umm, yes. The process is important. Of course you are judged on the results, that is a GIVEN.
But when you use poor process, and (in this case) show poor judgment, what you end up doing is setting yourself up as less trustworthy. If you don't tell someone the truth, and they find out, the next time they are a lot less likely to believe you.

Leaving aside the issue of trust, I believe that with good process, you will get some better budget-cutting ideas than putting the entire math department online. And maybe this was just a maneuver to get the union to take a wage cut and enter into negotiations--union-busting seems to be popular these days--but an honest, open process would have shared the information with people, in a publicly accessible manner.

As for me--I am new to the twitter world--I retweeted Scot Graden's twitter that was essentially denying the rumors. In this way, I feel I made myself an accessory to the poor decision-making. Next time, I am going to be a lot more careful when I decide what to retweet.

I believe that process matters. And I would feel a whole lot better about the whole thing if Mr. Graden would write a note to the community apologizing for his poor judgment this time, and explaining how he will improve the process next time. Everyone makes mistakes, but (as my ninth grade math teacher used to say), it is best to make a different one every time.

Roundup of News, Including Schools of Choice

Lincoln Schools have an opening for a school board member. Applications are due January 20th. Download the application here.

Many school districts are opening up for second semester school of choice transfers. So if you are very unhappy where you are, you might want to consider this as an option. These districts include Lincoln, Manchester,

Whitmore Lake has posted Tier 1 budget reductions.

In Ann Arbor:
Skyline, Community (both high schools), and Ann Arbor Open (grades K-8) have all posted application information and schedules. Yes, it is that time of year again! The district has not yet posted the in-district process if you want to apply to go to a different (non-magnet) school--that should happen in February. The district is also looking at offering some type of limited school-of-choice options, but that is part of a larger budget discussion, and it's not likely to include schools of choice for Huron, Pioneer, Skyline, or Community High Schools.

Are you interested in some other school of choice options, including charters and private schools? I have written about how to find out about them before:
How To Find A School Of Choice
More Notes On Schools Of Choice
Want To Go To A School Of Choice?

I have also written about the Ann Arbor Open and Community processes, you can use the search link on the right to search the blog.

If you have specific questions about how to find the school of your dreams, you could post your questions in the comments section.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quiz Time

What do you know about Hispaniola, the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are? (Haiti is on the left side of the red line, the Dominican Republic is on the right side.)

If you are like me, it takes a major tragedy to realize that I don't know very much about Haiti's history.
Do you remember what the Monroe Doctrine is? Has it had an impact in Haiti?
How did Haiti get its freedom?
Who did Haiti get freedom from, and why?
Who was Baby Doc Duvalier and what terrible things did he do?
What language is spoken in Haiti, and what language is spoken in the Dominican Republic?
Has the U.S. ever occupied Haiti? When and why?
What was the name of the indigenous people of Hispaniola, and what happened to them?
What environmental issues have had a major impact on Haiti's resource base and ability to respond to hurricanes?
Who were the first documented Europeans to visit Hispaniola?
Today's Haitians are primarily descended from what population?

How did you do? I had to look a lot of these up.

UPDATED: No sooner had I posted this than I went to the New York Times and found these links to resources for teaching about Haiti.  You will find them here and here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What Do You Do With Your Kids On MLK Day?

I want to honor the spirit of the day, and not just spend the day There are a large number of fabulous events for adults, but the pickings for kids have been rather slim. The UM Education school offers a day of activities, but they are somewhat uneven and my kids did not really enjoy them. 

Some of the UM Symposium events are appropriate for older kids, but not always.
(This year's list can be found here.)

So over the years, we've reverted to watching a movie together--one that offers opportunities for discussion around the themes of the day. Every year I think I'm going to suggest to the Michigan Theater that they do an MLK Day Film Festival, and every year I forget until the week before the holiday...

Anyway, what types of movies are we talking about?
One year we watched Glory Road (sports movies are big in my house). This year, maybe it will be Invictus.

Depending on your interests, you might watch an old movie, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, or Gentlemen's Agreement.
Maybe you would prefer to discuss an arts film like Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, and talk about King's opposition to the Vietnam War.
A movie like Crash would provide a lot of discussion around the dining room table.
There are many more choices. Depending on your kids' ages and interests, you might find a good Spike Lee movie (When the Levees Broke, for instance) or a play that's been taped--for instance, Anna Devere Smith's Fires in the Mirror (about the Crown Heights riots).

What do you do on MLK Day with your kids? Do you have suggestions for movies to watch?

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Next Best Thing To Being There

Well, I was deterred by the weather on Thursday, but luckily our intrepid reporters were not.

From, a summary by David Jesse.

From the Ann Arbor Chronicle, a detailed article by Mary Morgan and a discussion of possible revenue increases by Jennifer Coffman.

The slide presentation from the first forum is available online.

AAPS has a budget survey you can take (it is on the budget information web page).

And the upcoming budget meetings for AAPS are (all beginning at 6:30 p.m.):
Jan. 12 (Skyline High School),
Jan. 14 (Scarlett Middle School), and
Jan. 19 (Pioneer High School).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

AAPS Budget Analysis and Ideas--Part 1

I'm going to wait to give a fuller analysis of the AAPS budget until after I've been to one of the budget meetings (listed here), but I have downloaded the "user-friendly budget information" and I have a few comments about that. (You want the file, Understanding the 2009-2010 Budget, on the front page of the AAPS web site. And you may feel that you need to print it out--it is hard to read online.)

1. The document is a large file, and given that, I think they could have cut the pages with mission, vision, etc, as well as the little pictures of people walking. The mission, vision, strategic planning could have been a separate document. [There is, actually, quite a lot to be said about the strategic planning plan, which attempts to be all things to all people.]

2. There is lots of good information in here. A couple of basics are missing. I believe that this is the 2009-2010 budget, which runs from July 1 2009-June 30 2010, but I didn't see where it says that. This is important because if they are discussing the approved budget, that had a different level of school aid fund revenue expected than what we are actually getting. There is also a FY 2010 proposed budget (income side) but there is no comparison on the same page to the FY2009 budget. The 09/10 per-pupil allocation shows the (old) expected numbers, which were flat, and since this was done in December I don't know why it doesn't show the actual numbers we now know we will be getting.

3. Approximately two-thirds of teachers in the district are in the top 3 levels of the teacher step ladder, which means that they have been teaching for at least 10 years. So yes, they are more expensive. That is the bad news, but in my opinion there is some good news there too. Teachers with older teaching certifications tend to have broader certifications--they are more likely to be certified to teach K-12, as opposed to K-5, K-8, 7-12, or 9-12.  What this should mean is if the district implements a hiring freeze (which is one of the first things I would recommend), it is likely that there are teachers who have adequate certifications to fill some of those positions. And yes, I know about the down sides of hiring freezes. But the district hired quite a few teachers last year, and not just for special education positions.

4. Medicaid is listed as a one-time reimbursement. I don't understand that--it's my understanding that school districts can get reimbursed for certain special-eduction Medicaid-related services on an ongoing business. Is this a possible place for an increase in revenue?

5. You can see that this was written with a certain point of view when you get to a chapter that is titled, "Dispelling the Centralized-Cost Misconception." Really? Are you trying to convince me of something? Of course I understand that many of the costs assigned to the central office, such as repair and maintenance, or reporting & evaluation, benefit the whole district--on the other hand, that could probably be broken out in some other ways. I would take a particularly close look at the "Centralized Instruction Services" and "General Administration," for example.

6. There is a large section devoted to individual school budgets. and at the end of that there is additional data related to things like individual school capacity. Now, every time I open up the comments at (which I try to do rarely as some of the commenters make me nauseous), I see someone advocating closing Community or Skyline, and I hear friends of mine nervous that Pioneer will be closed! I'm not necessarily a fan of closing schools, and it doesn't necessarily save that much. But if I were a fan of closing schools, I wouldn't choose to close the schools that are a) successful and b) drawing families into the district. Yes--those extremely successful schools include Pioneer, Huron, Skyline, and Community.   I would choose schools that are a) consistently underutilized and/or b) consistently not very successful.
The alternative is to reinvent those schools.

On the high school level, the answer to that question is Stone School, which is consistently underenrolled and deals with a very at-risk population. Based on MEAP scores and enrollment levels, this program is not working. Given the change in the dropout age (state law), and other changes, this is the school to look at first. Can we serve these kids differently?
On the middle school level--which is typically considered to be the weakest link in the district (although that may be true in every district), 4 out of 5 of the schools could fit quite a few more kids (the exception is Forsythe, but even it has some excess capacity). The most underenrolled school is Scarlett.
I've also noticed that many of the people looking at Ann Arbor Open are being attracted primarily by the K-8 option. It could be possible to reduce the middle schools to 4, and add one or two more K-8 programs at another elementary school (or convert one of the middle schools into a K-8 school). This K-8 option is important because there are some private and charter K-8 schools nearby.
OK, I am thinking out loud here, but the K-8 question also fits in with the fact that some of the elementary schools are seriously under-enrolled, and the school with the lowest enrollment is Pittsfield. I like a lot of things about Pittsfield, including the fact that an awful lot of the kids can walk to school, but I've been told that (because there are a lot of Arabic-speaking families in that district) when Central Academy (charter school that teaches Arabic) opened, a lot of kids left the school, and the school has not recovered from that. So obviously one option would be to cut a school like Pittsfield. Another option would be to make it a Language Magnet school (Immersion Spanish, starting with grades K-1, perhaps.) I think that would attract people to the school and the district, and it could co-exist with the neighborhood school because there is space there.

7. Principals and Assistant Superintendents: If you have to make cuts, I think middle management is a natural place to look. From this budget information, you can't find out too much about the jobs of the assistant superintendents and directors, but you can tell something about the principals. This is definitely an area where there can be cutting--particularly at the high school level, and maybe at the middle schools as well. Looking at the 3 main high schools--in the pre-Skyline era, Pioneer and Huron each had one primary principal and 4 class principals (total=10). Now, Skyline has 3 principals (4 next year?) and Pioneer and Huron still have 5. I think they could probably get by with one primary principal and 2 assistant principals (one grades 9-10 and one for grades 11-12). Compared to a few years ago, that would only be a reduction from 10 to 9, instead of an increase from 10 to 13, 14, or 15. In other words, we have to look at the need for class principals as the school size decreases. And it is likely this could be achieved by attrition and principals retiring. For isntance--Principal Michael White is returning to the armed services and taking a leave from the district--so Pioneer has an opportunity right now to reassign and eliminate one of the class principal positions.

8. In the additional documentation section, there is information about the status of union contracts. That is where you can see that the bus drivers and custodian contracts are "In Mediation," having expired in 2008. That makes me suspicious that the threat of privatization is a union-busting technique (in addition to being a bad idea on its own merits).  Perhaps it is a way to get the unions to accept draconian concessions. This definitely deserves its own post.

9. I would also have liked to know--what budget cuts have been made in the last three years? There are models for how other organizations deal with cutting. For instance, the county went through this last year, and asked department heads to propose how they would cut (I think) 10, 20, and 30% from their budget. And some departments figured out how to raise revenue. 

Anyway, I hope to have more information after I go to a budget presentation in the next week or two, and I hope you will go too.  Bring your questions. All meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

  • Thursday, Jan. 7 at Huron High School, 2727 Fuller Road.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 12 at Skyline High School, 2552 N. Maple Road.
  • Thursday, Jan. 14 at Scarlett Middle School, 3300 Lorraine.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Pioneer High School, 601 W. Stadium Blvd.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Will the Real Saline and Math Story Please Stand Up?

Between and Twitter, there is currently a raging debate about whether Saline Schools plans to cancel high school math and move it online. And to be honest, I have no "inside sources," but I can summarize the narrative. [People are googling "Saline and Math," so obviously inquiring minds want to know.]

A visitor to posted, on the Community Wall,
It has been brought to my attention that the superintendant for Saline has introduced a letter of intent that would eliminate the High School math department and replace it with online computer courses.
 Scot Graden, Saline Schools Superintendent, tweeted that "no decisions have been made" and sent out a letter to parents that said in part,
We are continuing to work through a challenging budget reduction process. Recently, there has been information shared with some staff members about possible mid-year reductions. It appears information discussed internally regarding “worst case scenario” options is now being shared as having already been decided. One of the scenarios, was related specifically to high school math and the possible use of online instruction. It is important to understand that no formal recommendations have been made to the Saline Board of Education regarding this option.
 Another commenter says that the Saline union was "given a list of names of Math teachers to be laid off."

Scot Graden tweeted that staffing decisions are on the board agenda for January 26th, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if the administration had given some possible strategies, and names, to the union.

In sum--I'm a little surprised that cutting out all math would be suggested, and I find it really hard to believe that it would work. But maybe that is a real proposal. Maybe it's a proposal that is meant to make a different proposal seem more "reasonable." Maybe it is not a proposal at all. [I will update this if you send me more information.]

BUT--more to the point--the decisions that school boards are making are on a very shortened timeline, because the state took so long to finalize the state budget. So, to some extent Scot Graden is being truthful: no decisions have been made. On the other other hand, it is very likely that some plans (whether cutting math, art, or any other teachers) will be decided at the January 26th meeting, and it is not fair to not share the proposed options in advance with the public.  The January 26th agenda is not posted yet, and neither is the January 26th board packet (is it ever?)--but there is always FOIA. I'll be happy to post anything, or an even better place would be the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository

Connie Toigo

I was sad to hear of the death of Connie Knott Toigo, the principal of the Ann Arbor Public Schools' Preschool and Family Center. Here is an obituary from

And here is information about her memorial service.
Connie Toigo, principal of the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center, died on December 30 of uterine cancer. Her memorial service will be held at Skyline High School on January 17 at 1 PM. A scholarship fund is being established at EMU through the Education Department. Donations can be made to this fund, in her name, in lieu of flowers.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dropout Dilemma

Governor Jennifer Granholm just signed a law that raises the dropout age from 16 to 18, saying that we need to be concerned about outcomes. And of course, it is a great embarrassment that there are school systems where 50%--yes, half--of the students drop out before they graduate.

On the other hand, now that I have an actual, live 17-year-old in my house, I feel pretty confident saying that if my 17-year-old didn't want to graduate, there is no way I could make him go to school every day. So it's a good thing he wants to go to college, eh? If he saw no difference in his future whether he graduated or not, if he chose to skip class every day, I guess that I (as parent/guardian) could be prosecuted for contributing to a child's delinquency.

The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy analyzed the issue and wrote a policy brief, Raise the Age, Lower the Dropout Rate? Considerations for Policy Makers.
The Rennie Center examines the arguments for and against raising the compulsory age of school attendance to 18 [in Massacusetts] and concludes that there is no credible empirical evidence to support this policy alone as an effective strategy to combat the dropout crisis. The Center argues that prior to considering a raise in the compulsory age of attendance, the Commonwealth should focus its energy and resources on developing policies and programs that research has shown to be successful in helping at-risk students stay in school and persist to earning a diploma.

Special Education and Homeschooling

Dr. Nestor Lopez-Duran has been writing quite a bit about autism, and his child psychology blog is linked to in the right hand column. In his latest post, he talks about autism and homeschooling.
Regarding Research in General:
Fortunately, most research on autism is not conducted via the school systems. Most research is conducted at medical and university centers with families recruited from the community. In my neuropsychology assessment experience, I would say that at least 30% of the ASD kids we see are home schooled, and many of these children are active participants in our research programs.
(Emphases added. ASD=Autism Spectrum Disorder.)
I have to admit that I was a little shocked to read the number 30%, even though my experience with homeschoolers has been that one (only one!) reason families choose to home school is that they don't feel a public school is giving them good special education services (and that is true for all kinds of special education issues, not just autism). I also know some families that have moved in order to be in a school district that is more friendly to special education needs.

All of this is worth paying attention to, as the vast majority of special education costs are not borne by local school districts (they get reimbursed), and obviously--in this economic climate--schools want to retain students.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Positive Life Archive

Have you googled yourself lately? What have you found? Are you proud or embarrassed?
Assorted Stuff has some thoughts about this, and they are very well said.

Local, Lively History

If you have not checked out Laura Bien's Dusty Diary blog, I want to encourage you to do so without delay. Laura focuses on Ypsilanti, but--if you are interested in local history--you will find a lot of the information very similar to the goings-on in the rest of the county. This is a great educational resource.

And if you are a student or parent, you will likely be interested in the series
The 1874 Diary of Ypsilanti Teen Allie McCullough.

If you are a teacher, you will likely be interested in the series
The 1919 Diary of Ypsilanti High School Teacher Carrie Hardy.

The Dusty Diary does a fabulous job of sharing both primary source materials and secondary analysis. She's got posts highlighting the same issues we worry about today--healthy food, technology, shopping, government...

And by the way--I live in Ann Arbor and until I started working in Ypsilanti a few years ago I almost never went there. I felt like it was "very far away" and "what was there to do there anyway?" And now I know that it is: a) a lot closer than I thought; b) full of interesting happenings. If you haven't been, I encourage you to go visit (alphabetically speaking) Beezy's, Bombadill's, The Corner Brewery, Pita Pita, The Rocket, Sidetrack, The Ugly Mug, the Ypsilanti District Library (either branch) and more...

Advertising Waste

When it comes to places that the AAPS can cut, I would identify advertising as one area. I don't like their "Exceptional" campaign for a number of reasons. For one thing, nothing about the ads explains what is "exceptional" about the teachers or students featured (they may be, but there's nothing that explains why). Couldn't there be some proof? For another reason, they have given up their most prime space on their web site--the center, front page panel--for those pictures. [The picture on the left comes from that center space.] What is the point of that?

I can't think of much that is more wasteful. Oh, wait, yes I can! Now, I love the Ann Arbor Chronicle, so don't take this next statement as an indictment of them. For the last week, the Chronicle has had, on their front page, not one, but two ads from the Ann Arbor Public Schools--not for a specific event, but just general "Exceptional" ads. I assume that AAPS has requested this, although for the life of me I can't figure out why. But today--today takes the cake. Two of the same ad appear, one underneath the other. Here's what it looked like. No, you are not seeing double.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Start the New Year Off With A Budget Meeting

Sounds fun, no?!
Ann Arbor
You can also download detail on the budget at the AAPS web site.
Ann Arbor school officials will host information sessions in January, where proposed budget cuts will be discussed and suggestions from the public will be encouraged.
Meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be at the following dates and locations:
Thursday, Jan. 7 at Huron High School, 2727 Fuller Road.
Tuesday, Jan. 12 at Skyline High School, 2552 N. Maple Road.
Thursday, Jan. 14 at Scarlett Middle School, 3300 Lorraine.
Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Pioneer High School, 601 W. Stadium Blvd. 
A commenter on says that there will be meetings in January, but I don't see anything on their web site. I will update this if I get more information.
Lots of budget information is here, including some useful information about state-level issues. I don't see any meeting information on their web site.
Budget information here. I don't see any meeting information on their web site.
Budget information here. I don't see any meeting information on their web site.
Budget information here, scroll to the bottom. I don't see any meeting information on their web site.
Saline Schools has a whole budget blog with lots of good information. Right now they are forming three committees that they want parents/taxpayers to apply to be on, looking at three budget areas: Building/Grade Reconfiguration Committee
Pay to Play Review Committee
Activity Fee Review Committee
The application form can be found on the budget blog, and the deadline is January 8, 2010.
Whitmore Lake
There is an opinion survey on the budget, which can be found here. I don't see any meeting information on their web site. 
Willow Run
I don't see any budget-related information on their web site, and no particular meetings either.
Budget meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, January 12, 7 p.m. at the Ypsi High School Media Center (lower level, 2095 Packard Rd.) and for Thursday, January 21, Perry CDC, 550 Perry Street, Psychomotor Room. (I'm not sure about the time for that one.) Additional budget information can be found here, and if you scroll down to the bottom (Other Information), you will find the budget information that was presented to the school board in mid-December, as well as a list of 2009-2010 proposed budget cuts.

And yes, there are kids in Washtenaw County who go to South Lyon, Plymouth-Canton, Grass Lake, and Van Buren school districts (among others)--and if you are a parent or taxpayer in one of those districts, you should visit their web sites to find out about the budget activities going on there.

Also--if you know about a meeting that is scheduled but I do not have listed, send me a note or add it to the comments. Thanks!