Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books I Liked in 2011

I knew it! You were just dying to know what books I really enjoyed this past year.

My favorite piece of adult fiction that I read was City of Thieves by David Benioff. It's a story about a Jewish boy during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, and given that they are all starving, you wouldn't think it would be funny, but it is. (Funny in the way that Catch-22 is funny--a lot of absurdity!) In high school went through a period where I read a lot of Holocaust literature, but that is not the same as World War II literature, and I really knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad.

My favorite piece of non-fiction that I read this year--alright, to tell the truth, I'm still only half-way through it--was (is?) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Through the lens of one woman's cells, and one woman's family, we learn about: her family history, as well as ethics and racism in medical research. Maybe that doesn't sound too scintillating, but it is really engrossing.

Update 1/1/12: I forgot to put in my favorite graphic book of the year. That book would be Feynman, by Jim Otavianni (author) and Leyland Myrick (illustrator), about Nobel prize-winner (quantum physicist) Richard Feynman. And Otavianni is an Ann Arbor resident!

As for children's books:

The best children's book that I read this year--and I just read it last week--is an older book, a Newbery Award winner from 1998. The book is Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, about the Dust Bowl. It's written in free verse, and the sparing, short lines make the book a very quick read. (It is quick, but also there are some parts that are [mentally] difficult reading.) This children's literature site suggests that you could pair Out of the Dust with reading the book (and/or watching the movie) Grapes of Wrath.

I'll also mention four other children's and/or young adult authors:

Tamora Pierce has a newer book out, Mastiff, that I enjoyed. It's part of a young adult fantasy trilogy about Beka Cooper, a policewoman (Dog) in Tortall. I have pretty much enjoyed all of Tamora Pierce's books--although I will say that my daughter found them boring. But then, she doesn't like fantasy at all.

E. Nesbit is an author I keep coming back to. This summer I listened to The Phoenix and the Carpet (well, part of it--can you tell I sometimes stop in the middle and pick up the book again later?). However, my favorite book by E. Nesbit is The Railway Children. Here is a 1964 essay by Gore Vidal about E. Nesbit, in case you are interested.

Rick Riordan is in the middle of a series about Egyptian magicians, and my son has insisted that I read this series, as well as the Percy Jackson series (about the gods on Mt. Olympus). I have to admit that I give these series kind of middling grades (they are okay, but not fabulous). My son, however, disagrees and so I am sharing this with you because you might have an elementary- or middle-school child who would like to read these as well. Looking at Rick Riordan's biography (see the link above), I was surprised (but maybe I shouldn't have been) to see that, "For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. In 2002, Saint Mary’s Hall honored him with the school’s first Master Teacher Award." He also writes adult mysteries. Maybe I should try those.

John Feinstein must be one of the most prolific writers ever. If you've heard him on NPR, you might not know that he has a very interesting mystery series that is targeted at the young-adult, sports-loving audience. He's got two teen reporters--a girl and a boy--covering big sports events like the Final Four (Last Shot) and the World Series (Change-Up), and solving mysteries along the way. Both my son and I agree the whole series is quite good.

I don't get to spend much time with illustrated story books anymore--and I miss them--which is perhaps why I have found myself thinking about these two "vintage" books recently:

Lore Segal's Tell Me A Mitzi
Brinton Turkle's Rachel and Obadiah (and others in the Obadiah series like Thy Friend Obadiah and Adventures of Obadiah)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Testing and the Emperor's New Clothes

This history of testing in New York State is both funny and terrifying. . . and it could just as well be Michigan.

10 Years of Assessing Students With Scientific Exactitude by Michael Winerip (New York Times article)

PS The comments are good too.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

$1.4 Million Dollars: School Medicaid Revenue

One of the items that I missed in the action-packed Ann Arbor school board meeting last week is Pat Green's announcement that she had found $1.4 million dollars for the district. That savings is approximately 10% of the projected cuts needed--nothing to sneeze at--and comes from Medicaid reimbursals that we should have been getting.

I have to admit that when I heard about this, I shouted to my friend, "I had that idea first!" And seriously, I did.

On January 24, 2010 I wrote a piece called Revenue Side, where I stated,

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.)

I also mentioned it again a week later, on January 31, 2010, in a post called The Rest of the Story: AAPS Budget Part II (remember, we were doing budget cuts that year as well), where I wrote:

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. 
At the first of the fall budget forums this year, I mentioned Medicaid reimbursement again to Robert Allen, who told me the WISD handled it (which they do, but apparently they weren't handling it well)--and I'm pretty sure that I wrote something like "maximize Medicaid reimbursement" as a suggestion at both last year's and this year's budget forums.

In fact, the only reason that Medicaid reimbursals were on my radar screen at all is really a fluke. Several years ago, my son was on a baseball team where a few of the players' moms were either speech therapists, occupational therapists, or physical therapists at various school districts. Given that it was May and June, they spent a lot of time discussing how time-consuming the Medicaid billing was for them. Before that, who knew that schools even billed for Medicaid?! Not me.

I'm not really a cynic. Well, sometimes I think my family is full of cynics, but my husband nicely points out that we are optimistic cynics. So by writing this up, I in no way mean to imply that Pat Green (or other school staff in finance or special education) didn't come up with the idea of looking into this on her (or their) own. (In other words, I'm not looking for credit.) It's very plausible to me that Pat Green has had experience with Medicaid revenues in other districts, and in fact may have read the same research study about Medicaid reimbursals that I had read. It's also likely that the Medicaid problem was much more bureaucratic and difficult to untangle than just increasing billing. So that's the optimistic part.

But here is the cynical part.

I did bring up the idea of looking at Medicaid reimbursement nearly two years ago. And perhaps I wasn't the only one to bring it up. For two years, the district has been collecting ideas for budget savings from parents, teachers, and taxpayers. I wonder if they ever looked closely at the items people wrote down? Did they just ignore them? At the fall budget forum I went to, someone suggested scrutinizing the comments on budget saving in, and yes, I am fully aware of how squirrelly those comments are! But there are likely a couple of diamonds in the rough on those budget articles, and I know that I myself have lots of ideas in this blog. No, they are not all good ideas. Some of them are impractical or lousy. But some of them are good!

I just wonder--did anybody really look at all of those ideas that have been collected at the budget forums? In other forums? [Here, by the way, is an obvious plug for the school district leadership to read this blog regularly. It's super easy to become a regular subscriber by clicking on the "Subscribe" RSS feed on the right.] My first recommendation to the school district for budget cuts this year is to go back and read the data and ideas they have already collected.

And by the way, when it comes to Medicaid reimbursement, it could be that other school districts in the county should follow Ann Arbor's lead and be able to increase their Medicaid reimbursement revenues--Saline, Ypsilanti, Dexter, Whitmore Lake, etc. . . are you listening?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is It Time for AAPS to Raise Top Administrative Salaries?

Tonight, the Ann Arbor school board is being asked to raise the salaries of three of the district's top administrators.

The salaries that are up for a vote relate to the following four administrators, two of whom are new to the district (so the ratification is for contracts that Patricia Greene, Superintendent, and Deb Mexicotte, School Board President, have already signed):

Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services Alesia Flye, hired in at a salary of $140,000. The former Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services, Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly, had a salary in 2010-2011 of $132,000.
Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Dawn Linden, hired in at a salary of $117,900.
The former Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education was also Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly (prior to taking on the interim appointment of Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services), and in that capacity her salary was $122,399 in 2010-2011.  It should be noted that Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly also had 38 years in the Ann Arbor district. (This is not an increase in salary.)

The other two are current staff people:
Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Robert Allen
Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources and Legal Services, David Comsa

In 2010-2011, Robert Allen's salary was $130,556 (before he was interim superintendent, where he earned the same salary as our former superintendent, Todd Roberts).

In 2010-2011, David Comsa's salary was $124,524.

The proposed salary modifications for Robert Allen and David Comsa bring their salaries to the equivalent of the new deputy superintendent Alesia Flye, on the grounds that they should all be equal.

The percentage  increases, relative to 2010-2011 salaries, for the three deputy superintendent salaries are 7.2% (Allen); 12.4% (Comsa); and 6% (Dickinson-Kelly/Flye). Overall, this is an additional expense to the district of nearly $33,000. (If you include the fact that Dawn Linden is getting less pay than Dickinson-Kelly was, the cost is just over $28,400.)

I know what the superintendent is's a big's not a lot of money. 

Wrong! That is the wrong way to think about it! It's hugely symbolic.
The school district has to cut $14 million dollars,
and says to parents, "You need to pay more for x and y."
They say to teachers, "You are going to have to give concessions of x and y." 
They say regarding using local and/or unionized companies, "We are going to go with low-ball bids." (Tonight there is also a discussion/resolution about contracting with a non-unionized, west side of the state company called DM Burr for heating and cooling.)

And then they say, "Oh, but let's raise our salaries."


Please join me in asking the Board of Education to oppose this resolution. Email: or go to tonight's meeting, December 14, 2011, 7 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Read the details about the salaries and the DM Burr contract in the board packet, here:

Read the last board meeting's discussions about salaries, and about the DM Burr contract, in this Ann Arbor Chronicle article.

Update Thursday 12/15/2011: Early this morning, at about 1:30 a.m., the salary resolution was brought back onto the agenda (at 10 p.m. my friend was told it would be voted on at the next board meeting, and had been taken off the agenda for this meeting) and it was approved 4-3, with trustees Baskett, Lightfoot, and Thomas voting against the raises. That is very disappointing to me. And what is even more disappointing is that I wonder now, if I had realized a little bit earlier that it would be on the agenda tonight, could we have changed the outcome of that vote? It only would have taken one more school board member to vote against the resolution. I'll say this: It will get ever more difficult for the administration to convince teachers to take cuts, and to get parents to vote for the tech millage, when they are raising their own salaries.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time and Time Again

Lately my son has been getting a lot of bar and bat mitzvah invitations. A bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah (bar mitzvah for a boy, bat mitzvah for a girl) is a Jewish ritual rite of passage marking the transition from being a Jewish kid to a Jewish adult (ritually speaking). (My son has not had his bar mitzvah yet.)

As you might or might not know, generally when kids have a bar or bat mitzvah they get presents. And then they have to write thank you notes. When I had my bat mitzvah, the thank you notes seemed endless.

Which led me to the following recent conversation.

Me: "Joe got his thank you notes out really quickly! His bar mitzvah was just last week!"
Son: "Well, it takes less time if you do it quickly."
Me: "It doesn't take less time. Whether you do it quickly or slowly, it takes the same amount of time."
Son: "No, if you get them done in a week instead of two weeks, it takes less time."
Me: "But if every thank you note takes 5 minutes, and you have to write 20 notes, it takes 100 minutes altogether, whether you write 2 a day for 10 days, or do all 20 in 1 day!"

[We'll leave aside the fact that you might achieve efficiencies if you do a lot of them at once. Because you also might get writer's cramp.]

The math on this--which my son did understand--goes like this:
5 minutes/note x 20 notes = 100 minutes
2 notes/day x 10 days = 20 notes/day x 1 day
And yet, my son insisted: "No, it takes less time, because it's a shorter amount of time."
And here, my son is referring to the difference between 10 days, and 1 day. In other words, he was thinking of time as a spatial entity, and I was thinking of time as a quantity. [Mathematicians might have different words for that, by the way.]

I know, you're thinking, "That's a cute story, Ruth, but what does that have to do with schools?"

When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, we had to go to school a minimum of 180 days/year. So school was scheduled for 183 days/year, in order to account for snow days and other unforeseen events.

But now, school is scheduled with a minimum number of minutes as a requirement. A few years ago, when the legislature increased the number of minutes that students had to go to school, most districts just distributed those minutes over the school days, rather than add days to the school year. Typically, just a few minutes a day really added up.  All of which led to the following exchange that I thought was very funny with an elementary school teacher.

That year, we were chronically late to school with our oldest son, and the teacher commented on it.
Me: "I guess I had the time school starts wrong. What time is the bell?"
Teacher: "Well, the first bell is at 8:08."
Me: "OK, what time is the second bell?"
Teacher: "It used to be at 8:14, but now we don't have a second bell any more."

Does it make a difference, minutes or days? Is time a quantity or a spatial entity? You be the judge.

Update 12/13/11: Honestly, I did not know when I wrote this that had just published an article on the idea of using a balanced calendar at Scarlett and Mitchell. Nothing has been decided yet, and you can read the article here. As I've written about before, I myself am not interested in a balanced calendar for my kids. I know that other people are. I think the balanced calendar would be fine if people can opt in or out of it. So if Scarlett/Mitchell becomes a K-8 magnet with a balanced calendar, I'm sure some people will want it. Others won't, and they should be able to go elsewhere.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Proud Music

I spent much of this evening at the Ann Arbor Open winter band and orchestra concert. For middle schoolers, they sounded pretty good! The improvement between the intermediate and advanced groups is very noticeable. It's so nice to really see the difference, and understand that they are really learning!

As a parent, it is always a "kvell moment" when your child is performing, and there are not enough opportunities for performance in many types of school work. (Kvell--a Yiddish word that roughly translates to "swell up with pride.")

While I was sitting there in the audience, I was thinking about a couple of conversations I had with my sister and sister-in-law over the past few months. They both have middle-school-age kids, and they all go to "very good public schools" (in other words, comparable to Ann Arbor). But do their kids play instruments? Not anymore. "She tried it for a week..." "After two weeks she decided she didn't like it..." "She wanted to play the flute but she could barely get a sound out of it."

Two things stand out here. First, in the Ann Arbor schools, nobody tries instrumental music for a week. Everybody has to try it for at least a year! Second, students spend a few weeks at the beginning of fifth grade trying out different instruments, and if it's hard for a student to get a sound out of a flute, the teacher will probably not assign flute to that student.

So those conversations--and tonight's concert--really made me appreciate the Ann Arbor Public Schools music scene...especially in the elementary and middle schools, before it gets super competitive. The start that AAPS gives kids in music is awesome!

Or perhaps I should say that the AAPS music program...
Is jazzy.
It's snazzy.
It rocks and 
it rolls.
It's classy and
it's brassy!
It boogies and
it bounces!

Thanks, music teachers!

P.S. I would put in a plug here for Horns for the Holidays, but I'm not sure it still exists. Does anybody know? If you have an instrument in good condition, many of our local school districts would probably welcome the donation.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Evaluating your Child for Special Education Services

Do you suspect that your child may need special education services? If your child has not been officially diagnosed, but you have a feeling that they need services, you have the right to request an evaluation for services.

A parent can request a special education evaluation at any time if they believe it is necessary.  Interventions and a special education evaluation can be in process simultaneously.

If the school your child goes to is resistant to doing an evaluation (perhaps because they think they need to try an intervention first) you can (gently but firmly) remind them that it is the law. This letter from the U.S. Department of Education might be helpful: 

Two other groups that might be helpful:

Student Advocacy Center

In particular, you might appreciate the sections on Special Education.

Ann Arbor has a Parent Advocacy Committee for parents of students with special education issues. In fact, most of our schools have parent representatives. You can find the list of contacts on their web page.

Most importantly, I have found that these parents are fonts of knowledge--if you are worried about your child, they not only often know what you are going through, but can help shorten your learning curve and share important resources.

Just know--you are not alone.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


It's about time that I showed a little love to some of the other school districts in the county.

Saline is considering all day kindergarten.

So is Dexter. Dexter is also abandoning the trimester system and going back to a traditional semester system in their high school. Why? According to this Dexter Leader article, neither staff nor students liked the trimester system, and switching to semesters will also save them staff time. And, Dexter is still planning on implementing an International Baccalaureate program next year in their high school.

By the way, the Dexter superintendent has a post on how MEAP cut scores are changing (they're going up!). That is going to be a huge challenge for all of the schools.

Speaking of International Baccalaureate programs, Washtenaw International High School opened with a much smaller enrollment than expected. I'm not sure what the Count Day numbers will show, but the initial enrollment was for 109 students (they were expecting closer to 150 students). There are seven partner districts, but I think the most interesting factoid (h/t to an anonymous reader) is that 39% of those registered students were coming from out of county! According to Sarena Shivers of the WISD,
Students who do not reside in one of our consortium partner districts may apply for unfilled slots. They must school-of-choice in to one of our consortium districts in order to attend the school. The foundation allowance follows each student to WIHI.
In other words, a student from the Van Buren Schools (Belleville) might become a school of choice student in Ypsilanti and then, as a school of choice student, choose to enroll in WIHI.
I personally think the low numbers are primarily a result of trying to start up WIHI too quickly. It used to be that a project like WIHI would require a planning process of three years, not one year--and that's probably better.

The Ypsilanti School Board has decided to not renew David Houle's contract. David had been their finance director ever since he left Willow Run school. According to WEMU, they are not planning on replacing his position, at least not immediately.

Ypsilanti and Willow Run are also exploring the idea of sharing transportation, including the consolidation of buses and facilities. Now here's what I don't get about that idea--wasn't the WISD consolidation of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Willow Run transportation a consolidation? So have we concluded that it's not working or saving money? And if that's the case, where will that leave Ann Arbor? Has a report been issued yet? (I'm trying to find out but I don't think so.) I'm very confused.

Speaking of transportation, the state school bus certification results for 2011 have been published. Most of our local districts did quite well (the buses are safe). The "consolidated" districts (Ann Arbor, Willow Run, Ypsilanti) all show up under the Washtenaw ISD, and they did have eight buses red-tagged (out of 185).  You might think that's bad, but for Willow Run and Ypsilanti it is a huge improvement. In 2010, all of Ann Arbor's buses passed; 12 out of 44 of Ypsilanti's buses were red-tagged; and 14 out of 18 of Willow Run's buses were red-tagged. So based on this mark, at least, consolidation has been an improvement for Willow Run and Ypsilanti.

Lincoln High School is also undergoing a transformation redesign project (following in the footsteps of Willow Run and Ypsilanti, because they all found themselves on the "Persistently Low Achieving" schools list--not a fun place to be.)  The district explains what is happening here.  Read the "Frequently Asked Questions" piece here.

State Senator Rebekah Warren has introduced a constitutional amendment banning for-profit charter schools. You can read more about it in, and/or you can read about it at  I definitely like the idea of banning for-profit charter schools; I'm not sure how I feel about a constitutional amendment. But I'm glad she's pushing the issue--currently, four out of five charter schools in the state are for-profit! Why are they making money off of our children?

The cap on charter schools is still being debated, and you still have an opportunity to make your voice heard through Michigan Parents for Schools (or on your own). Get your friends in western and northern Michigan to use the MIPFS link as well and contact their legislators.

The anti-bullying bill has passed the Senate. It's not perfect, but it's better than what was originally proposed, which had huge exemptions. Listen to this Michigan Radio interview with Sen. Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing regarding this bill.

Also, if you feel like listening to things, this NPR interview with Norbert Juster, the author of the Phantom Tollbooth, is really delightful. NPR has got this "Backseat Book Club" just started, which is essentially directed at kids, and The Phantom Tollbooth was last month's selection. The December Book Club selection is a book called Breadcrumbs. Read about that here. [Does anyone else remember--and miss--the NPR show Kids America? With characters like Dr. Rita Book? I miss that show.

And a couple of other notes:
There's so much going on! It's hard to keep up, and not nearly enough reporting going on. (I see my role as a color commentator, as they say in sports news.) Having said that, you should feel free to send me your news tips to rlk234 (at)

If you comment anonymously, think about giving yourself a name in the body of your text (as, for instance, YpsiAnon and Anon4 have done)--that way I know it's "you" when you comment more than once. Thanks!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Avoiding Football Cuts: The Back Story

The Title IX blog (which has had a link on my sidebar blogroll for some time) had earlier analyzed Ann Arbor's first round of proposed cuts to athletics--which you might remember from my own post. The authors of that blog felt that only exempting football was likely illegal under Title IX. (I agreed with them, but had other substantive issues with the plan as well. Read about them here.)

Anyway, today they are reporting that:
I recently learned via personal correspondence from someone connected to the matter, that someone filed complaint with OCR to challenge the cuts, and that OCR commenced an investigation. I further learned that the complaint was eventually withdrawn upon assurances from the school district that it would not put that particular reduction plan in place. 
OCR, by the way, is the (federal) Office of Civil Rights, the department responsible for enforcing Title IX.

The finalized plan is described by here, and in that article, Liz Margolis (AAPS Communications Director) is quoted as saying, 
Margolis said the district is confident that, despite eliminating three girls’ sports and two boys’ sports, the district will be satisfying all Title IX requirements.
“The ADs have looked at these as well as Dave (Comsa, assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services) and feel that we’re OK,” she said. “It’s about accommodation and opportunity and we still feel that we fall well within Title IX implications.”
Very interesting.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pilgrims and Indians

True, this post is not really about Pilgrims. Growing up in an east coast town where the first European settlers arrived in 1630, and where my neighbor's ancestor came over on the Mayflower, we spent a lot of time on the Thanksgiving story, and the histories of the Pilgrims' descendants were present in the graveyards nearby.

The presence of the Indians, though, was muted. We didn't learn too much about their post-Revolutionary War history, probably because they were mostly eradicated from the Boston to Washington DC corridor. 

In college, though, I spent a month in a tiny town in South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Reservation. [It turns out that this county currently holds the honor of the poorest county in the nation.] While there, I stayed with an Indian (Sioux) family and I learned quite a bit more about Indian history. The mom in the family had gone to one of the Indian boarding schools. I hadn't heard about them, either.

So I wasn't entirely surprised (but I was disturbed) to hear this NPR special on the South Dakota foster care system and how it affects Indian kids.

I also recently got, from a friend, a curriculum/history piece about Indian boarding schools. There was one in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan that her relatives had gone to. The ones in South Dakota, I was surprised to see, are still in operation. Visit this link and scroll down for the curriculum guide. There's also a note that says additional teacher materials are coming.

And/or listen to this NPR story, Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.

In any case, this Thanksgiving, let's all brush up on the Indian side of the equation.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reprise: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Astute readers of this blog will know that I've already written, at length, about the book that I bought my youngest son a couple of years ago for Chanukah, a book that he loves but--at the time--described to me as "inappropriate." Honestly, it's one of my favorite posts, so you should read it.

But you might be wondering, well if she already wrote about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, what more is there to say? Plenty, as it turns out. I think my son has read this book 9, 10, 11 times, and I had read it about 1-1/2 times (what can I say--I'm a skimmer, and some parts of this book are rather painful). The part I'm going to quote is rather painful, and yet it's a part I didn't even notice until I decided to get the audiobook for last year's Thanksgiving pilgrimage out east. (By the way, it is an excellent audio book.)

Sometimes when I listen to a book, I notice parts of it that I didn't notice when I read the book. And so it was that I caught this passage, which is in the chapter, "Because Geometry Is Not A Country Somewhere Near France."

"All right, kids, let's get cracking," Mr. P said as he passed out the geometry books. "How about we do something strange and start on page one?"
I grabbed my book and opened it up.
I wanted to smell it.
Heck, I wanted to kiss it.
Yes, kiss it.
That's right, I am a book kisser.
Maybe that's kind of perverted or maybe it's just romantic and highly intelligent. 
But my lips and I stopped short when I saw this written on the inside front cover.


Okay, now you're probably asking yourself, "Who is Agnes Adams?"
Well, let me tell you. Agnes Adams is my mother. MY MOTHER! And Adams is her maiden name.
So that means my mother was born an Adams and she was still an Adams when she wrote her name in that book. And she was thirty when she gave birth to me. Yep, so that means I was staring at a geometry book that was at least thirty years older than I was. 
I couldn't believe it.
How horrible is that?
My school and my tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from. That is absolutely the saddest thing in the world.
And let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful that I--and my kids--have never had 30-year-old geometry books. So may it always be.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Administrative Cuts: Easy to Be Hard

Recently, I had two conversations with people who are actively involved in the school district about the district's administrative costs. Neither person works for the district.

One person told me that he feels the district is very hard pressed to get anything done because they have cut so much administrative staff, perhaps too much.
Another person said to me, at one of the recent budget forums, "What do all these administrators do?" [There were an awful lot of administrators at the budget forums. I assume they had been directed to be there.]

I don't know this for sure, but I think that the second commenter's opinion is more common in the district, and of course, I've been curious myself as to whether the district had actually cut a lot of administrative staff.

So, back in the summer, I asked the Ann Arbor school district for information on administrative staffing during the 2005-2006 year and the 2010-2011 school year. It was my first ever FOIA request! (And it really wasn't that hard to submit--thanks Ed Vielmetti for all those FOIA Friday posts.)

The reason that I picked 2005-2006 as my baseline was that I had heard that it was the year that the district got the most per-pupil funding. (Not true, as it turns out--that was 2008-2009.) It also gave me a five-year span to compare.
In 2005-2006, per-pupil funding was $9,409;
in 2008-2009 per-pupil funding was $9,723;
and in 2010-2011 per-pupil funding was $9,490.
But per-pupil funding has fallen to $9,020 in 2011-2012, which brings us back to 2001-2002 in actual dollars (not taking into account inflation).

Anyway, I digress. I asked for information about administrative salaries during 2005-2006 and 2010-2011--everything from the assistant principal level on up. As you shall see, I might have asked for the wrong thing. It's still interesting data, though! What I got was the district's "Cabinet" (Superintendent plus top administrators), all the principals and assistant principals, and the athletic directors--who are considered to be at an assistant principal level.

By using 2010-2011 instead of 2011-2012 I got actual staffing expenses rather than budgeted expenses. I also have the (lower) Superintendent's salary of 2010-2011.

In 2005-2006, the district had 20 elementary schools, 1 K-8 school, 5 middle schools, and 5 high schools. Five years later, the district has the same configuration, except that now Skyline High School has been built and has three of its grades.  And based on my notes below (which I put into a table for you), it doesn't seem like very much administration has been cut at all. But that might be due to me asking for the "wrong" things.

First of all, it's hard to compare the Cabinet. Each superintendent decides who should be in the cabinet, and the cabinet has been significantly reconfigured. For example, currently there is a Director of Physical Properties in the cabinet--that is Randy Trent. His position was made cabinet level after two lower-level positions (of which he had one) were combined into one position following someone's retirement. In 2005 there was nobody from special education services in the cabinet, and now there is--which is definitely a good thing for special education services. In 2005, I believe that all legal work was done on contract. Now we have a legal voice (David Comsa) in the cabinet. All cabinet positions are non-union.

But--why do the cabinet level position pay increases exceed the increases of the unionized administrative staff?  That seems wrong. And I believe that the district just filled at least two fairly high-level administrative positions. I wonder how their pay compares.

Second of all, I only asked for the positions of assistant principals on up.
There were, I believe, several positions in administration cut, but they were obviously at levels below what I requested in my FOIA request. At the levels I requested, it doesn't look like there has been very much administrative cutting at all. It does look like the raises--below the cabinet level--have been reasonable (and at a rate less than inflation).

What happens when one gets raises at a rate less than inflation is that one constantly feels like one is getting cut. While this is true in terms of adjusted dollars, in terms of actual dollars it is not a true cut. The same thing is happening with principals, in a different way. I know that Pioneer and Huron *feel* like they have lost a lot of asst. principal positions. Really, those positions have gotten transferred to Skyline, and the ratio of principals to high school students at the big schools is fairly stable. 

In this data, it is also possible to see some areas where there could--and probably should--be changes.

1. Skyline has an athletic coordinator and not an athletic director (therefore, he doesn't show up on this chart) because I was told that the plan is that, after one of the other ADs retires there will only be one AD and two athletic coordinators. Here's how I think about it. The Athletic Directors are at the level of Asst. Principals, and every year there are asst. principal positions open. Why not move one of the ADs into an assistant principal position now and replace her or him with a lower-level athletic coordinator? Why wait until someone decides to retire? If we only need one athletic director, why wait?

2. Should a couple of schools be closed? Candidates that would come to mind to me: Pittsfield (size--disperse the school. Downside:  it does draw a huge number of kids from the neighborhood); Mitchell (make Scarlett a K-8); Scarlett (without Mitchell--disperse the school to the other middle schools); Ann Arbor Technical School.

3. Could assistant principals be only part-time principals and work in the classroom?

4. Now that the comprehensive high schools are so much smaller, do we need as many assistant principals as we have? Could we live with one principal and only one or two assistant principals at these schools?

5. Does the preschool need a full-time principal?








Number of Students



Down 327 students
The preschool nearly doubled in size from 95 to 162 but that doesn’t show up in this per-pupil funding count. It does, however, have separate funding. Both times, Pittsfield is the smallest elementary school and Scarlett is the smallest middle school.

Per-Pupil Funding

$9,409/ student

$9,490/ student


That increase does not cover inflation

Number of Cabinet Level Staff



See text

The Superintendent chooses who should be in the cabinet. All these positions are non-union.

High School Principals



Skyline opened

Huron, Pioneer, Community, Clemente, Stone, and then Skyline

High School Asst. Principals



In 2010-2011, Huron had an asst. principal who retired partway through the year and wasn’t replaced. Both counts include Athletic Directors at Huron and Pioneer. Skyline has only an Athletic Coordinator.

Middle School Principals




Middle School Assistant Principals




See elementary school notes

Preschool, Elementary, K-8 Principals




In 2010, the Mitchell principal was pulled out of the school to organize the Mitchell/Scarlett K-8 program for a year and is still counted in this count.

Pay Range for Assistant Principals

$86,660-$97,705 (103,200)


+5% to 6% over 5 years

I think in 2005-2006 one asst. principal was getting a principal’s salary based on past service.

Pay Range for Principals



+2% to 6% over 5 years
2005-2006 Comprehensive HS principals: $120,470
2010-2011 Comprehensive HS principals: $127,840

Pay Range for Cabinet



Increases up to 12% for staff who were in the cabinet at both times.

*Excludes Director of Communications who sits on cabinet but is paid significantly lower rate.

Superintendent Salary

$144,200 (Fornero)
(Roberts, then Allen)


Roberts left part way through the year and the interim supt. was paid the same rate. 2011-2012 Supt. Green’s salary is about $245,000. Compared to 2005-2006, that is an increase of 70%.

Budget Ideas: Forums and Beyond

I was looking at my cell phone bill, and the bill was higher than I expected, because the "usage" was higher than expected. Uh oh. We have four phones on our account, and I immediately assumed that it was my college-age son, because we've had some over-usage issues before. But I thought we had resolved them. So I took a look at the bill, and it turns out that the culprit was. . . my husband! Which was a nice reminder to me that there is a reason we collect data, and that reason is that it (hopefully) enables us to make more intelligent decisions. In the case of the cell phone overuse mystery, that meant calling attention to the issue with my husband, not my son.

In the case of school budgets, it means using the data that is available. With that in mind, I've had ideas for budget cuts, and so have lots of other people, and some of those ideas--when scrutinized with data in hand--might turn out to be really really good ideas or really really bad ideas.

By the way, I'm all for lobbying the state to get more money from the school aid fund, or to change the way school retirements are funded. I just don't think we can plan on those issues resolving as the solution. I'm also hoping that we will try for another countywide enhancement millage.

I'm going to share some of my ideas, and some of the ideas that I thought sounded intriguing. Given the size of the needed cuts (probably $14 million!) and the size of the school budget (close to $200 million), the cuts needed are large but not super-large (7% of the budget).

So, for instance: given the number of staff involved in the school district, it seems likely that some of the cuts will need to come from the staff end. I need data to better understand a) how much have employees already given up in concessions? b) how much would we save for every increase in class size? In other words, if high school classes go up on average by one student, what would that save?

Some ideas that I heard from other people that intrigued me: 

If the school day were lengthened, but the number of days in school shortened, would that save money? How much? [What if it were the other way, and the school day were shortened, but the number of days in school lengthened?]

Over the past several years, Rec & Ed has moved from a department that was heavily subsidized to a department that stands (financially) on its own. I was intrigued by someone's idea that perhaps Rec & Ed could turn into a department that brought in money to the district, and I wondered: a) (how) could that happen and b) do any other Rec & Ed departments in other districts do that successfully?

Would it be possible to ramp up fundraising from Ann Arbor school alumni? What would that cost to get started, and what could we expect to make in income?

Does the district own property that it should sell or lease?

Here are some of my ideas--I don't know if they are feasible--that's what data is for--but don't dismiss them out of hand: 

If we open the district high schools as schools of choice, how would our income increase? What would be a reasonable expectation? Is there a downside to that?

Would we save money if we closed Ann Arbor Technical High School (formerly Stone School) and worked with those students on a six-month GED program? Or would that cost us more money because we would lose those students from the almighty per-pupil count? How much would we gain or lose?

Would we save money if Skyline High School went to a semester system (block scheduled or traditional schedule). I have other reasons for wanting this, but in the budget savings area, I have this idea that if every school used semesters, we could set things up so that some schools offer some (more unusual) offerings. For instance, right now, Skyline is the only school to offer Chinese. What if only Pioneer offered Latin? We could have students inter-enrolling, with a midday bus (including Community), but no inter-school buses at other times of the day. So just as a student could now split-enroll at Huron and Community, they could split-enroll at Huron and Skyline, in order to take classes only offered at one school. Would that save money on a) transportation; b) class consolidation?

My sister's kids go to school in Newton, Massachusetts. It seems that many of the districts in the Boston suburbs do not provide any daily substitutes for high school students. (They do provide long-term subs, and short-term subs for K-8.) If a teacher is out for a day with the flu, those students go to a study hall, held in a large room with one supervising person--not a teacher--for up to 4 classes worth of students.  (The kids, by the way, love this, because they often get a chance to do their homework during school hours.) It would be worth looking at these districts to see if that is something we could adopt, because it would certainly save a lot of money. (How much?) Don't dismiss this out of hand. Newton schools are similar in many ways to Ann Arbor schools.

Scarlett Middle School's building is large enough to combine Scarlett and Mitchell into a K-8 school, in the single building. It is already a goal to have a K-8 campus, and this would allow us to save on the cost of a principal, heating costs, etc. Plus, it has been my observation that one of the attractions of Ann Arbor Open (which has a long waiting list) is the K-8 option. What would we save by closing Mitchell?  What if we turned that school into a magnet school? Would that cost money or save money?

What is an appropriate ratio of a principal to students at the middle and high school level. Should some of the middle schools not have an assistant principal, or only have half of an assistant principal? Can an assistant principal be half-time and also teach a couple of classes? Does that violate any union contract? Is that negotiable?

What if we offered fewer sports? At the middle school level, would we save money by having only three or four seasons of sports instead of five?

Could a district-wide volunteer coordinator utilize parent volunteers to help with administrative tasks? For instance, I know several parents who work in statistical or financial units at UM and have very high-level skills. Instead of asking those parents to volunteer at a school fundraiser, could we put them to work for the district? Maybe parents who work in development could help ramp up a development campaign targeted at alumni. This would obviously require coordination.

Then, of course, there are the ever-present questions:

What do all those administrators do? Is the district really a lean machine, as they tried to represent at the budget forums, or is there still some fat at the administrative level? (I will try to analyze this, next.)

What are other districts doing? Let's analyze what they have done, and see if there are ideas out there that we should adopt.

Last, but not least:

Did we evaluate the purported budget savings from past years, and see if the plans met their targets? Did any of them exceed their targets? Which fell short?

AAPS: How and when are you going to roll out additional information? How are you going to involve parents?