Sunday, January 23, 2011

2011: Keep your eye on...

As far as I'm concerned, the #1 thing to keep your eye on (in Washtenaw County education) in the coming year is:

The Washtenaw Intermediate School District

You probably don't even know what they do! If you had asked ten years ago, I would have said they spent most of their time on three areas of services  for all the local school districts and charter schools: professional development; coordination and services for certain special education students; and data and reporting.

Well, that was then. Now, they are increasingly coordinating lots of services. . . transportation; back-end administrative services; the Washtenaw International High School; Washtenaw Alternatives for Youth.

And in my opinion, 
they are rather OPAQUE about what they do and how they do it. 

A couple of years ago, I read an article in the Ann Arbor News about school graduation rates by (I believe) income. The article said the information was based on a study had been done by the Washtenaw ISD. Unfortunately, the online version of the article didn't have the chart I wanted. When I called to ask for the information, I was told that it was "not public." Yes, I've since learned I could have probably FOIA'd it, but pack rat that I am, I found that I had a hard copy.

More recently, I had these two interactions:

Me: "Do you have a copy of the IB presentation that you have made to Saline, Ypsi, Ann Arbor... (Latest version) up on the WISD web site? If so, can you send me the link--I couldn't find it. I am also interested in other supporting documents: proposed budget, staffing scenarios, transportation information. If that is available please send me links or documents."

The WISD: "You can find the Ann Arbor presentation and related documents here:
Ummm, seriously? You want me to open a very long presentation in a particular district's board document, and scroll through to your section? If the Washtenaw International High School is important, don't you think you could have a section of your web site devoted to it? [Side note: this is actually a really long and important piece of reading, although it was super hard to understand and had not scanned in very well. It has the consortium agreement in there. In other words: what, exactly, did the districts agree to?]
Here's another one: 

Me: "I'm also wondering about the WISD board. Is there an election for the board? Or is it appointed, and if so by whom? (I see some former school board members on the current board list.) I am confused about the board minutes. I see that you post a summary, but not the actual minutes. Why is that? The summaries don't even state who was present at the meeting. Also, how would one get the supporting documentation--for instance, financial reports or plans for service changes (e.g., consolidation)--and the actual minutes."
The WISD: "For more information about WISD and the Board see: We're in the process of updating our website and board minutes will be included.  In the meantime, if you want a copy of the minutes please contact Colleen O'Sullivan at"
So, until recently you couldn't get the WISD board minutes online. [They are now available back to 2008, which is a VAST improvement.] And, how exactly is their board made up? They didn't tell me in the email, even though it seems so obvious to me that they could have explained in a couple of sentences. Once I looked the requisite section up it was also clear why they didn't want to do so. Here is how their board is made up: 
(This information is taken from the link above referring to the board. I had to scroll through several pages there as well.)
9) How are WISD Board members elected?
Members of WISD’s school board are elected biennially on the first Monday in June by a body of electors composed of one member from each constituent local school district board of education. WISD Board members’ terms are staggered. Each member serves a six-year term.
10) Who are the WISD Board members?
The following are members of WISD’s 2010-11 Board of Education:
Mark Van Bogelen, President
Gregory A. Peoples, Vice President
Dayle K. Wright, Secretary
Diane B. Hockett, Treasurer
Mary Jane Tramontin, Trustee

In other words, there is no direct election of WISD school board members. It doesn't say who creates the nominations. . . or when board members' terms are up. . . or if they get paid and what they get paid.

It's not very transparent at all.

To the WISD, I say this: If you want me, and other people who care about process, to vote for the special education millage that is coming up, then you had better find a way to be a LOT more transparent in the coming months. And I say that even though I think the special education millage is important.

To those of you who are journalists or passionate observers of the local school scene, I say: it would be a good idea to have journalists at the WISD board meetings. The WISD is becoming a more, and more, important player.

The next meeting is Tuesday, January 25th, at 5: 30 p.m., at the WISD. They will be discussing the Superintendent search (they have an interim Superintendent now) as well as Washtenaw Alternatives for Youth.

I would tell you to contact the WISD board members by email or phone and ask them to develop a better process for sharing information with the public, but their emails are not posted, only a central phone number: 994-8100 x1300.


  1. Excellent points! Are you forwarding a copy of this to the ISD?

    - YpsiAnon

  2. I have to say that I've been very impressed with the folks I've met at WISD, including the current interim Superintendent Rick Leyshock. Unfortunately, a number of key people will be retiring after this year.

    However, I agree that it's hard to get a handle on what the ISD does, especially now that the state has been pushing for consolidation of services at the ISD level. I don't believe that's intentional; it's a side effect of having to provide a lot of services on a small budget. Time and money for maintenance of a really information-rich web site has not been high on any school district's priority list until recently. After all, many of the same folks who rail against lack of transparency will then turn around and howl about paying salaries to people who write and maintain the web sites.

    I agree that we as a state will need to take a close look at ISD governance if we want the ISDs to take on more and more responsibility. Right now, the ISD board is made up of people informally nominated by the constituent school boards. While they are elected by the constituent school boards, they must nevertheless go through the same process of getting citizen signatures on a nominating petition in order to appear on the ballot.

    Right now, the WISD board would appear to be accountable to the member school district boards, but my impression is that local boards don't give much thought to it after casting their votes. As the ISD's responsibilities widen, we should insist that lines of authority and accountability become more clear and direct.

  3. Obviously, Steve, some of my interactions with the WISD have been less than ideal. I have had some positive interactions in more "professional" realms, such as professional development for teachers. I believe that the difference in the way they treat outsiders is highlighted because the ISD is not used to dealing with the public. They have operated outside of the limelight and it is time for that to change.
    I would disagree with you that the WISD doesn't spend much time on their web site. They have quite a ROBUST and well-organized web site, and it takes more work to write up a "summary" of a board meeting than it does to just upload the minutes. It's just that they have not yet aligned their web site with information to the public, such as information about the new IB high school. I in no way mean to imply that they will do a bad job with the high school or any other project, but rather that they must share with the public their plans and how they are doing them.
    Where would we find more information about the WISD board nomination process? [For instance, how do you know they are required to get citizen signatures--it obviously was not included in the information they shared with me.] I know that at least two of the current WISD board members were formerly on other school boards, but I don't know about the rest.
    And by the way--whether any reader is a person who likes or hates charter schools--it seems they are here to stay, and I don't see the WISD working to do more than the minimum services for them. Although I definitely could be wrong, I would connect that to the fact that school boards nominate the WISD board, and it doesn't seem that there is a role for the charter schools to nominate or vote on board members.

    And Ypsi Anon, I haven't yet...but I should!

  4. There is a charter school next to WISD that they sponsor and a few years ago many of us parents begged the superintendant to provide some leadership, supervision, and mediation when there was a huge split in the school. Unfortunately, they refused to do anything and the infighting almost took the school down. It was shocking to see how groups of parents could literally control the school. I suspect it is quite common in charter schools where few outsiders are watching. But if the IB school is run the same way, there will be problems.

  5. Well, anon, charter schools are definitely fodder for another post. Or two. Or three.

    I will note that the WISD superintendent is changing--one just retired, and the current one is interim.

  6. @Steve,

    Like you, I have been impressed by many on the staff at WISD. I also like just about everyone I've ever met here in Ypsi. That makes it even more painful to witness and experience the poor educational, management, and financial issues they are responsible for. After all, they are good people. They're just not performing their jobs as well as we deserve.

    - YpsiAnon