Monday, March 22, 2010

Cui Bono?

When I was in graduate school, I turned in an early draft of a policy paper in an education class (as was required), and got back the comment from the professor,  
"Cui bono?" 
"Who," she wrote, "benefits from this policy? You need to answer that question."


You may, or may not, have been following the saga of the Detroit school district and its emergency "financial" manager, Robert Bobb. He has come in to "clean up" the mess, improve the schools, etc. For the first year, I liked him. Now, I'm not so sure. And his latest idea (the one I really didn't get, when I read about it in the Detroit Free Press), is to get bonds to build new schools, while at the same time closing half of the city's schools. According to his projections, the number of students in the district is going to drop by half within a couple of years. But even if he's right about that, I still don't understand why you would close all these schools and build new. Detroit is already full of abandoned buildings.

In any case, this week I was asking a Detroit community activist about it. "Look," he said. "This is about the privatization and dismantling of the Detroit schools. That's how it's going to end up." I was stunned for a minute, not able to figure out what he meant, and then the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.

In fact, I wrote about it last week. Here. "When you close a school, who are potential buyers? For whom is a building like a school perfectly suited? Why, for another school."


Coincidentally (I know, that's hard to believe), my husband got an email today from a Detroit architect, who noted that the Detroit school district is selling many, many DPS buildings--and maybe they can be repurposed for good community projects.

So--in Detroit we've got tons of school buildings, going for fire sale prices, and although the Detroit architect is correct, it is highly likely that a lot of them will be bought up by. . . charter schools. Unlike the old days that I wrote about last week (pre-1994, pre-Proposal A), now it really matters financially where kids go to school. Students bring their money with them, and all of that moving around can wreck a district because districts don't know until the middle of September what their actual student counts are, and there is less stability in funding and more difficulty in planning. (And that is leaving aside the "small" matter of the state legislature not figuring out until partway through the school year just how much money each district should get per-pupil.)

In 1985, when the Ann Arbor school district reorganized, and a few private schools bought old school buildings, it created a form of indirect competition. It did not directly affect the amount of money the school district had available to it. And now, it does. Now, every student who leaves DPS takes their money with them. So charter schools create direct competition.

Was John Engler's main goal to dismantle the public schools? Is that the goal of Robert Bobb?
[I know that technically charter schools are "public." But they are not public in the same way as our traditional public schools, and some are more public than others. More on that another time.]


Today, I was thinking: Cui bono?

According to this Free Press article, Robert Bobb let go many administrative staff in the DPS schools, and then hired consultants to do the work for more money. Wait--isn't he supposed to save money? So: Cui bono?

Just now, I got a "tweet" that the Ypsilanti school board approved the closing of Chappelle Elementary, and the reconfiguration of grade levels that goes along with that, on a 5-2 vote. Cui bono?

If the Ann Arbor schools privatize maintenance and transportation, cui bono?

If the Dexter schools decide to follow the International Baccalaureate program, cui bono? 

If the state government doesn't raise per-pupil school funding, cui bono?

You get the idea. Follow the money, and see who gets the benefit.
And here is my related question: If somebody benefits, is it always the case that somebody has to lose? And then--who are the losers? The students? The community? The employees?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Texas? Rewind, Please

Have you read or heard about the Texas textbook controversy? Texas is trying to put a "conservative" stamp on textbooks, and because they order so many, it will affect what textbooks look like nationwide.

Both Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have funny takes on this. Which do you like more?

Jon Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Don't Mess With Textbooks
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform

Oh, and by the way--the 30th anniversary of Oscar Romero's death is March 24th.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
I's on Edjukashun - Texas School Board
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

(R)Evolutionary Thinking

I was at the Field Museum in Chicago in December, where they have a terrific exhibit about evolution. The heading of the sign on the rights says

"Evolution is one of science's best-supported theories."

THIS WEEK, the movie Creation (about Darwin's life) is at the Michigan Theater, so it seems appropriate to honor Darwin's contribution to a huge paradigm shift that has taken place over the last 150 years.

Charles Darwin's thinking was evolutionary, and also--Revolutionary. He was able to be a (r)evolutionary thinker because he was a wonderful observer, and he was simultaneously open-minded. He read widely, and he thought about multiple fields of science. I learned about him in college classes in geology, biology, and environmental studies.

And yet, debates persist. [And honestly, I don't understand that. I don't see any conflict between evolution and religion. If the "hand of God" is in everything, then why not in evolution?] You can read more about these debates in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know--we all want to change the world.


I think Charles Darwin did.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ypsilanti Update

Tomorrow night (3/18/10) there is a meeting at Ypsilanti High School auditorium at 7 p.m. to hear about the Ypsilanti administrations' proposals for school closings/budget reductions. Read more about it at Mark Maynard's blog. (See the post, Ypsi School Closings Part IV.)

The Ypsilanti school district did lose population after two schools were closed a few years ago. I can't say if the school closings were the reason. Nonetheless, remember that any estimated savings will be hugely affected by losses of students from the district.

From the outside, the thing that would make the most sense to me would be to redistribute the Perry kindergartners into the other elementary schools, but I am definitely looking from the outside in. . .

Unintended Consequences

I know you've all been waiting for this post. 
At the end of the 1985 reorganization, several schools were closed: Bader, Clinton, Freeman, Lakewood, Newport, and Stone schools. In addition, the K-6 elementary schools became K-5 schools; the 7-9 middle schools became 6-8 schools; and the grade 10-12 schools became 9-12 schools. In addition, the Open School got a School Of Its Own, at Bach.
Now, back in the day--pre-proposal A--decision-making did not take into account the number of students in the district the way that it does today. Of course, overall the size of the district population mattered, but ten students here or there did not make any significant difference. In fact, the five-year forecasts the 1985 committee used showed the elementary school population growing slightly, and the middle and high school populations decreasing slightly. The 1984 total head count was 13,772 students, and the Committee on Excellence used a 1990 projected head count of 12,741 students.
After the decision was made to close the schools, the district had to decide what to do with them, and the decision was made to sell some, and keep others.
Bader (which is in Ann Arbor Hills) was bought by a preschool, the Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center.
The district held onto Freeman (which is in the Dixboro area), and gave a long-term lease to Go Like The Wind Christian Montessori. Side note: Rec & Ed soccer games are still sometimes played there.
Clinton (which is halfway between Stone School and Bryant, and which abuts Clinton Park) was bought by the Jewish Community Center, and both the JCC preschool and the Hebrew Day School are located there.
The district held onto Lakewood School (on the west side of Ann Arbor near Dolph Park), and reopened it in 2001--at which point it got some fairly extensive renovations. After being closed for 15 years, it probably needed them.
Newport School (on Newport Road) was sold and became the Rudolph Steiner School.
Stone School (at the corner of Stone School and Packard) has been used by the district for various things over the years--for Rec & Ed, for the New School (an alternative high school), and now for another alternative high school, Stone School.
When you close a school, who are potential buyers? For whom is a building like a school perfectly suited? Why, for another school. 
One of the unintended consequences is that, in selling schools to other schools, the district set up competition for itself. This doesn't seem to have been anticipated at all, and in fact--pre-proposal A--what mattered most was whether the community would support the schools, and not the exact number of students in the public schools.

So, for instance, the Rudolph Steiner School started in 1980 with a handful of students, and grew slowly until 1986, when it was able to occupy Newport School. By 1999, the Steiner School had 298 students--the vast majority in their K-8 lower school (313 students K-12, 2009).
In 1985, the Hebrew Day School was in very inadequate space, and had under 50 students. By 1999, the Hebrew Day School had over 100 students (87 students K-5, 2009).
Go Like the Wind Christian Montessori school, which only opened in 1987, had over 100 students by 1999 (101 students K-8, 2009). 
And Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center goes through age 8, with a K-2 primary school program that in 1999 had 35 students (33 students K-2, 2009).

Of course, not all of those 500 or so students live in Ann Arbor, but probably about 75% of them do. (That is an unscientific number, based largely on the people I know who send their children to these schools.) In addition, at least three of these schools have feeder preschools, so children who get started there are likely to stay there.
Certainly, all this was an unintended consequence.

All of this didn't matter so much then, but it matters a lot more now, when per-pupil counts matter so much--and I feel that in some sense, we gave these schools the freedom to expand. Sure, they might have found space anyway (several of the charters have), but we made it easy for them. Obviously, excess capacity can be a drag on the system. However, there were estimated savings at the time--have they come to pass? I don't know, but if you include the per-pupil costs, I think the closings probably haven't saved money.

And in the "this might be too far-fetched to consider" category, I will add one more possible unintended consequence: the building of Skyline High School and the building of the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center. Regarding Skyline, I say this because, today, we still have significant excess capacity at the middle school level. (Remember, this was also true in 1985, and one of the proposals that wasn't implemented included closing a middle school.) At the time, putting sixth graders in the middle schools kept the middle schools at essentially the same size, and adding the ninth graders to the high schools put Huron and Pioneer essentially at capacity. I say that the building of Skyline as an unintended consequence "might be too far-fetched to consider" for two reasons: first, the estimates of student enrollment only went out five years, and the estimates were essentially flat. This turned out not to be the case, at least ten years out, when the fall head count had grown by 1500 students. The other reason is that educational trends can be like bulldozers, and the trend to move to having ninth graders in high schools reached its ascendancy many years ago. I don't think there would be much traction for moving ninth graders back to middle school--at least, I never heard it entertained as a serious suggestion during the whole time that building a new high school was discussed.

In a similar vein, it seems to me that the building of the AAPS preschool center admits the importance of having feeder preschools to the K-12 AAPS program--something these private schools figured out years ago. Yet, at the point at which this was identified as a need, there was no obvious building for locating all of the preschool programs.
[As to what I think about the excess middle school capacity--I think that there is a lot of demand for K-8 schooling, and one of the middle schools could become a K-8 school. But that is a subject for a different post.]

Last, but not least--the planners did not (and I would say, probably could not) have anticipated the ascendancy of charter schools. Charter schools have undoubtedly had an impact on some of the schools' enrollment, particularly in the elementary schools. The Committee on Excellence had a goal of ensuring that all elementary schools have enrollments over 300. In 2009, three elementary schools fell short of that (I'll give Abbott a pass at 297), with Pittsfield School having the lowest enrollment--and my understanding is that at least some of the reason that Pittsfield is so small is due to the fact that charters have attracted many "potentially Pittsfield" students.

So--unintended consequences--is this what you thought I would say?

P.S. Because this is the last post I will write on this for a while (at least I think it is), I just want to say that I believe the Committee on Excellence did a really good job with the information at hand, and the reason is that the process was good. The process was used to the advantage of the school district. The process involved a citizens' committee gathering input from the larger community, bringing a proposal to the School Board, with the administration serving as support for the committee. Read about that process in the report itself. That was then, this was now--let's learn from our past. And if you see any of the members of the Committee around town (some have passed on, but some are still here), you can thank them, because I'm posting the list of members:
1. Mary Austin
2. Ronald Bishop
3. Vincent Carillot
4. Patricia Chapman
5. Susan Doud
6. Cheryl Garnett
7. Leonard Gay
8. George Goodman
9. Charles Kieffer
10. Norma McCuiston
11. R. Griffith McDonald
12. Bettye McDonald
13. Melinda Morris
14. Merrill Nemiroff
15. Duane Renken
16. Ingrid Sheldon
17. Joann Sims
18. Estelle Titiev
19. James Wanty
20. Ronald Woods

Monday, March 15, 2010

Privatization History

In the course of looking up information about the 1985 reorganization, I came across some information about the history of privatization, all of which is taken from the earliest User-Friendly Budget on the AAPS website, 2002-2003, to wit:
Out-sourcing has occurred over the years in order to reduce costs, comply with mandated regulations, and to complete projects within short schedules. The effects of using contracted services includes: the reduction of F.T.E.s, benefits, retirement, and other employment costs. While the Board policy does not show preference to local vendors, a substantial number of local contractors do win contracts to provide goods and services to the district.
What follows, then, is a list of contracts that they have tried to, or decided to, outsource over the years. (This is on pp. 37-40 if you are looking for it.) It's actually pretty shocking reading:
Since 1990, district managers have also explored the possibility of privatization in areas such as Custodial, Maintenance, Warehousing, and Transportation. Private companies were given the opportunity to meet with district employees and to review operational practices. Although each of these reviews did not result in proposals that would have reduced costs, we will continue looking at using the best combination of in-house employees and private services. (Emphases added.)
 Here are the listed bids:

1990, Facilities, Service Master
Declined bid invitation
1990, Facilities, Unbar
Declined bid invitation
1990, Facilities, Marriott
Received proposal of $7,184,909 for 90/91
Proposal would have resulted in an increase of costs of $1,650,000 over 3 years

1991, Facilities, Marriott
Declined bid invitation
1992, Transportation, Laidlaw
Not able to provide the same level of service and generate savings
1993, Facilities, Witt, Fiala, Flannery & Assoc.
Received proposal of $6,739,151
Proposal would have resulted in an increase in costs of $239,151

1994/95, Warehousing, U.P.S.
Not able to provide the same level of service at our costs
1995, Transportation, Laidlaw
Not able to provide the same level of service and generate savings
1996, Facilities (Snow Removal), Arbor Building Services
Snow removal pilot program at Pioneer
Increased costs: Cost of pilot program was 50% of total district costs

Do you think I was cherry-picking the worst outcomes from this report? That is not the case. That was the whole list. Which kind of makes you wonder. . . under what conditions does privatization actually work?

And you will wonder even more, if you read this Ann Arbor Chronicle article on the last school board meeting, which quotes Mark Zullo, who has studied the privatization of the AAPS food service workers, and says, that "AAPS is spending less on food service because of increased revenue being sent from the federal government via the school lunch program" and that workers were harmed by the privatization. According to him, "new hires were paid at $9 per hour, and that none of the workers could afford to use the health care offered to them – due to an increase in co-pays to $3,000 annually."

Desegregation Outcomes

The primary focus of the 1985 reorganization was integrating the schools--in particular, integrating the black and white populations. The Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern populations were much smaller than they are today.
I was interested in the immediate impacts of this reoganization, but unfortunately I did not have time to dig through the microfiche and find the 1986 enrollment numbers. As a result, this post takes a much longer view of this reorganization. On the one hand, this is somewhat unfair, since the committee that developed the reorganization was only able to estimate out about five years. In taking the long view, I also need to recognize that there have been some (relatively minor, with the exception of the re-opening of Lakewood and the opening of Skyline) changes to the individual school boundaries over the years.
[By the way, his post gets a little numbers-heavy. I think the numbers tell the story, but if you don't, skip to the end. Also, for the purposes of counting here, I count Ann Arbor Open as an elementary school.]

At the time of the report (1985), the AAPS African-American population was 17% of the total schools population, and the state considered a school out of balance if the African-American population was + or - 15% points compared to the district average, which is how the state recommended a 2-32% guideline for Ann Arbor. The Committee on Excellence chose a more restrictive +/- 5-15% range.

If we look at the racial makeup of the schools today, the African-American population average is still between 12 and 27%, the goal of the committee. In September 2009 it was at 14.5%. Some individual schools are much higher or lower.  Angell School, for instance, has an African-American population of only 3.6%, and in total, the following schools fall below 12%: 9 elementary schools (give Logan a pass at 11.8%), 2 middle schools, and Community High School.

On the other end of the spectrum, Roberto Clemente's African-American population is 82.3%--but I should note that this was true back in 1984, and I guess because Clemente and Community were and are magnet schools, the committee was unable to address the numbers through redistricting--though they did say they hoped to reduce the achievement gap. (In fact, lawsuits against the schools, and Proposal 2, have limited options on this front even more.

So, aside from Clemente, the schools that are over the 27% number today comprise a much smaller number: Mitchell, Scarlett, and Stone.

[In 2002, by comparison, 8 elementary schools and Community High School were below 12% (Not including Forsythe, at 11.7%). No elementary schools were above 27%, but Scarlett, Clemente, and Stone were above 27%.]

If we look at the 2009 African-American AAPS population percentages, however, we only get part of the story. 
For while the African-American school population has shrunk slightly as a percentage of the school population, the Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern populations have increased greatly. Where the fall 2009 headcount counts African-American students as 14.5% of the population, the Asian population comprises 14.2% of the population.
So, using a broader lens, let's take a look at Angell School again:
3.6% African American
32% Asian, 
4.2% Middle Eastern, 
5.8% Multi-ethnic, 
.3% Native American, 
.6% Other, 
4.9% Latino/Hispanic, and 
48.5% White. 
In other words--even though Angell doesn't meet the criteria of 12-27% African American, it clearly is diverse.
You might be surprised to know that the district, on average, is now 52.8% White. If I were to say that a range of 42-62% White was acceptable as a range for desegregation, these schools would be below 42% White: 7 elementary schools (at 41.9% I will give Thurston a pass), Scarlett Middle School, and Clemente and Stone high schools. These schools would be above 62%: 4 elementary schools, Forsythe Middle School, and Community High School.

And if we were to set up a committee to strive for racial balance today, we would find that the Asian AAPS population is highly concentrated in some schools, and barely present in others. Using that same 12-27% range, there are 10 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 3 high schools that that come in under 12% Asian population, and there are 5 elementary schools that are over the 27% number.

It is worth noting, however, that the 1985 reorganization had at its core, not 1, but 2 significant goals related to racial integration. One goal was "the elimination of racial isolation," which was considered an important value in and of itself. Although I hesitate to call that the "primary goal," it was in fact the driving force behind the reorganization. And although the reorganization was not, and is not, perfect--from the point of view of eliminating racial isolation, I think the work of the committee stands on its own, and 25 years later, it stands pretty well.

At the time, the Committee on Excellence of Education noted that
On a district wide basis, the academic performance of minorities lags far behind that of the majority population. Minorities are significantly overrepresented in lower curricular paths and significantly underrepresented in advanced courses of study. Disproportionately high numbers of minorities are the subject of disciplinary action. . . Measured by the critical index of progress toward educational opportunity, the Ann Arbor School District, in this regard, is in crisis.
The second goal, then, was the goal of reducing the achievement gap. Twenty-five years later. . . countless policy papers later. . . many efforts later (and whether these efforts have been wrong or inadequate--or both--we'll leave for another time). . . this goal remains elusive, and has not been achieved.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Little History

The 1985 reorganization might have been the biggest reorganization in Ann Arbor school history, but it did not involve the first school closings. Other schools had been closed earlier, as one-room schoolhouses were phased out. Between 1960 and 1985, the Ann Arbor school board opened (I believe) nine elementary schools, and closed some others. For instance--when Lakewood opened in 1961, both Wagner and Sullivan schools closed. (One was on Wagner. The other, I believe, was on Jackson Rd.) 

In the 1960s both racial and economic imbalances were becoming more prominent in the Ann Arbor schools, and the flash point for the school district was Jones Elementary School, which was 75% black. Given the lack of fair housing laws and enforcement, and the fact that the schools were primarily neighborhood-based, the segregation is not surprising. (Now, Jones School is Community High School.) Jones School was closed in 1965, and at the time, an advisory committee recommended that no school have a population that was more than 25% black.

The discussions around desegregation continued, and continued, and continued, for the next twenty years. A 1979 committee developed a desegregation plan, and that desegregation plan was passed by the school board in 1980 but was overturned after a hotly-contested school board election. In the early 1980s, Ann Arbor had several schools that were considered by state guidelines to be "racially imbalanced" but the school board was unable to deal with the issue. For instance, Newport and Freeman schools were largely white, while Dicken and Northside were largely black. Bryant and Clinton schools were just a few blocks from each other, but Bryant was largely black and Clinton was largely white. A "Committee on Excellence" was formed, and they issued their report on August 23, 1985. At that point, 19/26 elementary schools (or 73%) did not meet the recommended range for racial composition. The report is available online through the University of Michigan library.

Although the report was "tweaked" by the school board, its major recommendations were approved:
Regarding integration:
Each building in the district shall have a student population which reflects the racial composition of the community. There shall be a black population in each building that ranges between 12% and 27% of the building enrollment. (p. 4, emphases added)
The committee noted that this range met state guidelines, but was actually more restrictive, because the state was recommending a range of 2-32% black, and the committee felt that was too wide of a range.

Supporting recommendations included closing schools to both achieve racial balance and maximize efficiencies and changing from a K-6, 7-9, 10-12 school setup to a K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 setup. In addition, they recommended that the Open School program--which had been split between two schools--be given its own home in a school that was destined to be closed.

The idea was that, in 1985, there were 26 elementary school principals overseeing schools with an average of 260 children, and that by 1986 there would be 20 principal overseeing schools with an average of 380 children, despite the fact that the schools only included grades K-5 rather than grades K-6.

It is worth noting that at the time of these discussions, the "racial balance" discussion was almost exclusively a discussion about the black and white populations. The Asian and Hispanic/Latino populations in Ann Arbor have expanded tremendously since then, but in 1984, the Asian population was highly centered on North Campus and concern was expressed that if all of the students from North Campus were sent to one school, it would create a "third world ghetto."

The report (which I found interesting) discusses a lot of the same issues we discuss today: labor relations, the racial achievement gap, ways to support low-achieving schools, student assessment, alternatives to tracking, magnet schools, the savings that would come from school closings, professional development for teachers, and more.

Given the great demand for Ann Arbor Open today, I had to laugh when I read this:
The elementary Open School Program should be housed in a single site adequate in size to accommodate all the students who wish to enroll in the program. The process of selecting students by lottery should be eliminated. (p. 29, emphases added)
Not all of the recommendations were accepted, but most of them were. One that was not was the closing of Forsythe Junior High School.

I will talk more about what happened to the schools that closed later, but the schools that closed as general program schools included: Newport, Bach, Stone, Bader, Freeman, Clinton, and Lakewood. In the late 1990s, there were some more changes, but if you've ever wondered:
  • why Bryant is a K-2 school paired with Pattengill, a 3-5 school;
  • why kids from Glencoe Hills get bussed to Burns Park, even though several schools are geographically closer; 
  • why the Open School has its own building; 
  • or why we have middle schools that are grades 6-8...
we owe that to the 1985 reorganization. 

Read more about the goals of desegregation and reducing the achievement gap and whether they worked here.

Information in this post came from the Report of the Committee on Excellence of Education (1985), as well as Ann Arbor Observer articles from March 1985, December 1985, and June 1986, and Ann Arbor District Library records.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

But Was It Worth It?

All over the state, school districts are announcing their intention to close schools. In Washtenaw County, Chelsea and Saline have said they are in the "definite" camp, and Ypsilanti and Willow Run are both highly likely to close schools. I doubt that is the end.

But this is not the first time that schools have closed, and--on the theory that those who don't know their history will repeat it (not always for the better)--it seems well past time to look at whether past school closings paid the dividends that past school boards wanted. In other words: was it worth it?

I moved to Ann Arbor in 1985, and at the time, the community was abuzz with the possibility of closing schools. Ultimately, six schools were closed, and there was quite a lot of reorganization as well. I didn't have kids then, and I was new to town, so I paid some--but not tons--of attention. In any case, I have spent some time, on and off, over the past several weeks looking for information about these closings, and now I think I have enough information to put up some posts over the next couple of weeks.

Three thoughts to start us out:
1. The 1985 closings were part of a long (very long) deliberative process that gathered steam over time, and covered the tenure of more than one AAPS superintendent. The timelines today, by comparison, seem like when you put the video on fast forward and get the "Mickey Mouse" voices speeding by. In other words: deliberative process? What is that?
2. Whether you think those school closings were successful depends in large part on your assessment of the defined objectives. In the case of the 1985 school closings, the primary issues were desegregating the schools and reducing the underutilization of some schools (particularly at the elementary and middle school levels). There was more, but those were the BIG ideas.
3. The law of unintended consequences suggests to me that we should also be looking at how these changes caused other, unintended, changes. Were those unintended consequences desirable, or undesirable?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some Interesting Links

A tweet from DavidNGoodman (Detroit-area AP reporter) led me to this teacher blog from someone who started out in Teach For America: Not Much, Just Chillin' and to this very interesting article from the New York Times, Building A Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green. The article gives a shout-out to both the Michigan State University and University of Michigan schools of education. And I don't necessarily agree with all of the conclusions, but it is interesting to read about. The article also links to the Uncommon Schools web site (which is promotional--just a warning). I wouldn't normally link to it but I did like the teaching clips on the right hand side.

[There is a recent post on the teachers' blog Not Much, Just Chilling that talks about what this teacher gets paid as a teacher in eastern North Carolina. It struck me just how little she is getting paid, after 5 years on the job, and how low pay is in eastern North Carolina as compared to Michigan.]

Also in the New York Times, as part of a series on the impact of immigration, you can look up every school district in the country (yes, including Washtenaw County), and check out both racial/ethnic makeup and the assigned diversity index (the percent chance that two students selected randomly would belong to different ethnic/racial groups).  The key question--is diversity increasing or decreasing? The data spans 1987 to 2006, so you can really see some trends. In Washtenaw County, for 2006, Fortis Academy is #1 in diversity. Check out #2... (I had fun guessing.) I went back and looked at my hometown in a New York suburb. Racial and ethnic diversity is still every bit as low as I remembered from high school.

In graduate school in education, I often found myself disagreeing with Diane Ravitch, a leading educational thinker. So I was surprised to listen to this NPR interview with her, and find that for the most part I agreed with her. [I think she may have changed more than me. And she essentially says, "I thought this, but now I have changed my mind." Kudos to her for being willing to admit to a change of mind.]

And today, NPR has an article about the Department of Education stepping up civil rights enforcement. It's about time...

On a totally separate topic--not education, but yes, local--The Farmer's Marketer is doing a series on the various community farm/share options in the area. I tried one a few years ago but didn't like driving out to the farm every week, so I'm shopping around, and maybe you are shopping too! There are a lot more choices now.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Retirement, Privatization Details

If you didn't read Jennifer Coffman's excellent article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle about the mid-February AAPS board meeting (it was published during school break, so I just read it), I encourage you to read it. The article is full of interesting, important, detailed information, particularly in these areas.

Retirement Funding Scenarios
Although Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools had explained quite a bit about the retirement issues at the state level (which you can read about in my post here, including the comments section), there is more detail here, from Todd Roberts, AAPS Superintendent. Note, however, that is is a statewide issue and thus is applicable to every district in the state. It's complex, and I'm not going to try to summarize Jennifer's summary, but one important thing to know is that this decision is out of "our" (local school districts') hands, just as the amount that we get from the state per-pupil is also out of "our" hands. Many people point to the retirement funding as the "source" of school funding woes. I would point to our tax system and per-pupil funding, but it is absolutely true that the retirement funding is something that school districts don't have control of, is run by the state, and is not (generally) negotiable in teacher contracts.

And there is this:
Robert Allen reiterated that the AAPS projected budget had allowed for a 1.5% increase in retirement contributions. However, he said that the new state-mandated increase of 2.47% will translate to an extra cost per public employee equal to 19.41% of employee’s salaries.  That means an additional $1 million in payments to MPSERS during the 2010-11 fiscal year.
That’s an additional million-dollar budget shortfall. (Emphasis added.)

Revised Budget Projections
Regarding next year: 
Todd Roberts presented a series of budget scenarios based on three variants of state funding: (i) no additional cuts to the foundation allowance, (ii) an additional $200 per pupil cut, and (iii) an additional $300 per pupil cut.
Regarding this year: 
First, he pointed out two factors that have changed since the community budget forums – an adjustment in the student count number from 16,489 down to 16,440, which currently translates to a $476,427 loss of per-pupil funding. The second factor is the increase in employer retirement contribution rate described earlier in this article.

(I will note, this is still higher than the original per-pupil count, which was originally 68 students higher than expected.)

Privatization of Bussing, Maintenance, and Custodians
This is a very long and very interesting discussion. Among the tidbits (tidbits, to me, because I hadn't thought about these particular ideas):

During earlier public commentary time, [Kathy] Griswold had argued that privatization is racially-biased and a distraction. She contended that there is no financial reason to outsource, and that it is not in the best interest of students. (Emphasis added.)
Kathy Griswold makes the assertion of racial bias because, as a group, the bus drivers and custodians are more likely to be people of color than other groups (for example, teachers) in the school district. Anything that affects them could be construed as having a disparate impact.
Disparate Impact:  Even where an employer is not motivated by discriminatory intent, Title VII prohibits an the employer from using a facially neutral employment practice that has an unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class. 
New Hires: No Comparable Wages and Benefits, Leaving Aside Retirement
We already knew that the privatization savings come largely from excluding retirement, but here is some additional information I didn't know.
The most contentious community voice came from a man who took issue with Allen’s assertion that wages and health care benefits would remain the same. Also using the district’s food service as an example, he asserted that food service workers are not in fact paid the same across the board. He contended that new hires are paid $9 per hour, and given health insurance with co-pays that cost $3,000 per year rather than $500 per year.
Allen allowed that while the food service workers were paid exactly the same wage at the time they transferred from AAPS to Chartwells, the district’s contract with an outsourced company does not extend to new hires: “They [Chartwells] are a company … they have a right to do that.” The public commentary speaker concluded with, “You should not be misinformed about what happened to the health care of these employees … Basically, at $9, they cannot afford the health care plan.” Mexicotte’s [Board President] response was, “That’s often what happens with outsourcing … It’s not a perfect world.” (Emphasis added.)
I have to say that I resent that "It's not a perfect world" response. I know it's hard for the school board to balance the budget, but still--I tell my kids that "Everybody is doing it" is no excuse for doing something wrong.

Community Responses to Budget Survey
Margolis [Communications Director] began by cautioning that the surveys were “unscientific” because a single responder could have submitted multiple responses, or completed both surveys. Further, not all respondents commented in every are making the “total” number different for each category. The online Zoomerang surveys garnered 338 responses, and 519 surveys were completed at the budget forums.
I think the surveys from the budget forums are obviously useful, since those were accompanied with discussion and the presentations from the AAPS staff. On the other hand, I've noticed AAPS relies a lot on those online zoomerang surveys, and given the caveats above, I have to ask, are they useful? It's easy to rely on a survey and forget its limitations. So--to what end are they useful?

Simone Lightfoot noted that,
“These online results were clearly different from what I saw at the town hall meetings.”
So the question is--why? Is it because it drew in a different group of people? Or because people did the survey more than once? (I only did the survey once, but I did also go to a budget forum--I don't think the survey asked if people had been to a budget forum so I don't think you could assess the overlap.)

Employees and Students Opting into the District

Final comments on the survey responses came from a community member concerned with what would happen to the children of district employees who currently attend AAPS if those employees are outsourced. He estimated that this situation would affect approximately 70 students. Some students are able to attend AAPS schools based a parent’s employed with the district, not residency in the district. (Emphasis added.)
I had no idea about this! 
Deb Mexicotte answered first, saying that the question was interesting . . . Baskett [school board member] asked for clarification of board policy on the issue, and Roberts answered that currently in that situation, the student would leave with the departing staff member.

In other words--we could LOSE 70 students (over half-a-million dollars) in this privatization deal. Has that been figured in?

There's much more. Read the article yourself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Money, News, and AAPS

During school break, David Jesse had an article in about the money the Ann Arbor Public Schools are spending on contractors. Leaving aside the 33% increase in spending, there is this:
The largest new expenditure was a $55,000 contract given to former Ann Arbor News reporter Casey Hans to create a district newspaper and write stories for it. Other smaller contracts - some awarded to former district employees - were given for professional development.
Roberts said money for Hans’ contract came from backing down on the district’s advertising buys and transferring some money into the communications budget from another district budget.
[N.B.: That is just the cost of the contract. I imagine that printing and mailing increase the total cost to the $100,000 range.]

On the one hand, I understand the problem. AAPS is not the only group struggling to figure out what to do in the wake of the Ann Arbor News closing. Many nonprofits are struggling to figure out how to get their message out to people. I know a handful of people who read on-line regularly, and another group who read the Ann Arbor Chronicle, but most of the people I know have taken to reading them occasionally, if at all, and relying on WEMU and WUOM for their local news.  I recently read a blog post (sorry, can't remember where) that talked about the loss of the Ann Arbor News as the loss of a common, community document. In other words, although we still have news sources, we are not all relying on the same news sources, and so our understandings of "news" is fragmented. All of which poses a problem for the school district and a whole slew of other nonprofits and businesses. I understand this newsletter as an attempt to provide consistent messaging and information to a larger group of people. Added to that, I've been a paid newsletter editor, and I know it can be time consuming.

On the other hand, is this the solution? First, newsletters by their very nature are public relations pieces. They are not "news" in any critical sense. Public relations pieces are not necessarily bad, and they can be informational, but if you take a look at this new newsletter online, you will see that it has a lot of "good news" of the sort that can already be found in the This Week bulletin. At least this first issue is more "puff" than "information." [Seriously. The top article? Eberwhite teachers reach out to tutor young students at Parkhurst.]
We already have a communications manager at the school district. Supposedly, we have a budget crisis. It becomes really hard to believe what the district is saying. If we "need" to cut school staff and we "need" to cut what people get paid, and we "need" to protect classroom resources most of all, and we "couldn't" fund a grantwriter unless the funding came from a new/foundation source, then why the hell are we funding a new school newsletter? Really, we should be cutting the communications budget by at least 20%, not holding it neutral or increasing it. How will this newsletter protect and improve student outcomes? And why doesn't it even have any real news in it?

Oh, shoot. Now we're back to that transparency thing.

AAPS, Libraries, and Transparency

It was just happenstance that I wrote about libraries in my last post. Seriously, I was not expecting to get this in my inbox yesterday from a school PTO liaison:
We have recently learned of a slew of proposed cuts to our schools’ library programs, and these cuts have not been widely discussed as part of the larger public budget discussions going on.
It appears that administrators are proposing discontinuing all library classes, having the librarians teach tech ed, and having nobody (parent volunteers?) maintain the libraries.

It is also our understanding that there are alternate proposals that involve cutting FTE’s by reducing media services at over-staffed locations, which would save just as much money (perhaps more?), and not necessitate these drastic changes.  Unfortunately, it looks like momentum is favoring the former proposal, and doing so without any public input, as the public has not been made aware of this.

I encourage any of you concerned with this possible development to contact the School Board, Superintendent Roberts, and the Administrator for Elementary Education, LeeAnn Dickinson-Kelley, to tell them your feelings about this (email addresses below).  
And here are some email addresses that might be useful:
Superintendent Todd Roberts:
Administrator for Elementary Education, LeeAnn Dickinson-Kelley:
AAPS School Board:
Please feel free to pass on this information to any other parents within the AAPS who might be interested. (Emphases added.)

Could I find anything about this on the AAPS web site? Nooooo. Will the other options save more, or the same amount of money? I have no idea, but if that is true, I'd like to know why they are thinking about this option.

OK, so--school board and administration--here is a RECAP for you. 

I was at a millage meeting, and someone asked Todd Roberts what people mean when they are talking about transparency. He said, roughly, "I have no idea. Our budget is on our web site."
In a follow-up blog post, I explain what I think people mean by transparency. Read about that here and here.
Todd Roberts, this is another example. This is not transparency. If you have "new ideas" about ways to save money for the school district (which is good), then share them publicly. Keep us updated. Sharing information with the public should not be window dressing. You have a web site. You have a new newsletter. You have a budget page on your web site. That would be transparency.
What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Libraries are some of my favorite places. I've worked in two of them.
Growing up, the library in my town had a youth card. When you were twelve, you could get a card to access the whole collection. But for a long time after I turned twelve, I wondered--why would anybody want to access the adult books? There was nothing to read there--at least, nothing enjoyable. Obviously (to me), all the best stuff was in the children's room.
I felt nostalgic when I read this article in today: 
University of Michigan Library to bid farewell to card catalogs

Sure, it's easier to search online. But I'm not sure I always get better results. Searching by author, title, subject--neat, clean, efficient--it worked well for me. 

On the other hand, the article also reminded me of a conversation I had with my oldest about investigating colleges. We were discussing an experience of some friends of ours on a tour of several colleges. 

Mom, you are not expecting me to go visit every library, are you? Because I'm not going to do it.

That's when I realized that he was right. When I went to college, the actual physical plant of the library mattered very much. And now--so much of the library is virtual. For a freshman at MSU, University of Michigan, or Wayne State, will the physical plant of the library make a difference? Not in the way that it did for me. 


But still, there is a limit, and I hit that limit at Skyline High School.  My middle child had an assignment from English class--choose a memoir, and read it. She told me she would stop by the school library and choose one. Later that evening, I asked what she picked. 

Mom, I couldn't find anything. That library has no books!

There is a limit! Aren't school libraries supposed to support the work of the students? Would it be so hard to have books, at least to support the work of the English department? 

Outcome: We found a memoir in our home. (Angela's Ashes, if you want to know.) Actually, we found a few memoirs. 

And Skyline: If you ask for some donations from families, I would be willing to donate those memoirs to get you started. And I will bet that I am not the only parent who would do that. 

Books. We can still use them. In schools.

Monday, March 1, 2010


When I was in my early twenties, I got my dream job at a small nonprofit, and I stayed there for 14 years. My dream job, that is, except that the pay was kind of low and there was no retirement fund. We weren't always sure the jobs would be funded year to year--some of the funding came from grants. There were, however, generous vacation, sick time, and health insurance benefits. The job was extremely interesting. And who needs a retirement fund in your twenties? In general, the people I worked with didn't seem to need that. We were (for the most part) young, and when several years later the organization ended up setting up retirement funds where the organization would match up to 2% of our salary, we thought we had hit the jackpot. Most of us contributed 2% of our own money. I looked at that fund the other day. It recently crossed the $10,000 mark, which I thought was funny (in an ironic way--as in, who could live on that?). And then I looked at this fact from Harper's Index (January 2010).
Percentage of all US 401(k) accounts that are worth less than $10,000: 46%.

And now, I work in a big organization. Big enough to offer retirement, vesting, matching funds, etc. And one thing that I have found is that there are a lot of people in this organization who started working there in their twenties and thirties. They are vested now. They chose to work there, because they craved stability. They knew they wanted the retirement fund (even in their twenties).

And look--you can be a nurse, or an accountant, or a computer programmer, in a lot of settings--public sector, private sector; private entrepreneurial start-up, medium-sized office, large public setting. Some people will choose that larger, public setting because of the stability and benefits it offers. In trade, they might give something up... a more interesting job... more money... or frequent changes of organization (because if you stay until you "vest," you are going to want to stay a while longer as well).  Do you know anyone whose parents encouraged them to go work for the post office, the government, the schools?
Would you prefer a $50,000 salary now and no (or very limited) retirement benefits, or a $40,000 annual salary now, with retirement benefits? I look around my organization now, and I see a lot of people who chose the latter.

Most school employees fall into that second category. They're consciously choosing stability over the risks of starting a small business. And when they were looking for a job, or considering careers, they probably skipped over the ad for the small nonprofit. When they chose their jobs, they were, in fact, considering a wage and benefits package that included retirement benefits. They are not separate from the decision. They are a part of the decision.
If and when retirement benefits cease to be part of the package for teachers, custodians, or anyone else (see the interesting comments and discussion in this post) then we might see some changes in the makeup of the employees. And generally, what that means is that the "best and brightest" will leave, because they have more options and/or more go-get-'em. That, in my opinion, will not benefit the schools. Retirement benefits may be dragging schools down financially, but have you considered that they also might be dragging schools up in quality?

Not everyone can live on a 401(k) worth $10,000, and some people know that--even in their twenties.


Well, I had to turn moderation on for older comments. Yes, everyone has been very respectful, except for the spamming sexbots. (At least that's what I call them. It was annoying to have to delete bunches of spam.)

I'm contemplating a change of name, to Ann Arbor School Musings (as opposed to Schools Musings). Everyone always gets it wrong. I think you can argue that both ways are correct--originally I was thinking I was describing musings about Ann Arbor schools. Now I'm thinking that I'm musing about schools, and I'm located in Ann Arbor, so dropping the "s" may more accurately describe the blog's evolution. So I changed the title up top (but nothing in the web address has changed) and I'm trying to decide. Opinions are welcome. Right now the title looks bare, with one fewer "s," but I'm not necessarily a huge fan of change.

I've also decided it was time for a new picture. This one brings to mind the Peter, Paul and Mary song, Where have all the old schools gone" Oh wait, that's Where have all the flowers gone? No, that can't be right--the flowers are coming back. I saw in the Ann Arbor Chronicle that snow drops have been spotted. So--you will find a beautiful picture of a snowdrop below, which can be found in the original at Spring is almost here.

The picture above, by the way, is of the Geer School in Superior Township, and was taken off of the county web site, where there is information on local historic districts, including the Popkin School. Here is what the page has to say about the Geer School:
From 1880 to 1982, this one-room, red brick school represented an important era in Michigan education and was a center for community life. Named for William Geer, the first school director, and built by Joseph Warner of Ypsilanti, the school featured side-by-side entrances for boys and girls, a slate blackboard, a woodshed, and two outdoor privies. Water was carried in a bucket from across the road.