Thursday, October 20, 2011

AAPS Board Candidate: Andy Thomas

Many thanks to Andy Thomas for responding to the questionnaire (and being the first one to turn his responses in to me!) If you have further questions for him, you can put them in the comments and perhaps he will answer them. I believe all of the candidates are also willing to answer questions independently if you send them an email or make a phone call to them.
To parents who are wavering between sending their child to the Ann Arbor Public Schools and a charter or private school, what would you say to convince them to try the Ann Arbor Public Schools (besides that they would save money if they are considering private school)?
AAPS offers a wide choice of educational experiences unmatched in Washtenaw County.  From  our neighborhood elementary schools to the innovative curriculum at Ann Arbor Open, from the many opportunities offered at Huron and Pioneer, to the more intimate environment of Community High, from the specialized services offered at Roberto Clemente and Ann Arbor Tech to Skyline’s four career-track magnet programs and the world-class academics of the new International Baccalaureate program, Ann Arbor offers a tremendous range of choices, and outstanding educational programs in multiple disciplines.  Introductory Spanish and instrumental music are offered in all our elementary schools; additional foreign languages and advanced algebra are available in our middle schools.  Our high schools feature numerous advanced placement classes, outstanding programs in the arts and humanities – and a Grammy Award winning music program rated best in the nation.
What specific ideas do you have for engaging parents and taxpayers in AAPS decision-making and governance beyond the individual child-school level?
There are many opportunities for parents, students and community members to participate in AAPS decision-making.  Four community groups – AAPAC, PTO Council, Black Parent-Student Support Group, and Youth Senate –meet regularly with District staff and present reports  at all regularly scheduled Board meetings.  The District has made a practice of scheduling community forums around major areas of concern, including the budget and hiring of the new superintendent.  Community members also participated in the development and revision of the District’s strategic plan.  I would continue these community outreach efforts, but would also encourage outreach specifically aimed at groups who traditionally have not been highly engaged with our schools, including our low-income communities, our foreign-speaking population and various minority groups.  Much of this could be done through establishing regular meetings at various community centers.  The District also needs to do a better job of responding to inquiries from the public in a timely and meaningful way.  The District needs to improve its customer service on all fronts. Personally, I intend to continue engaging the community as much as I can by attending events and community meetings as well as having regular “coffee hours” with constituents.
What ideas do you have for making the AAPS web site more user friendly for parents, staff, students and taxpayers?
The web site underwent a major overhaul last year, resulting in a much cleaner appearance and more logical design.  Unfortunately, there is still a lot of room for improvement.  If you are looking for very general information (such as a copy of the bus schedule, or a listing of schools and their web sites)  it is pretty easy to get.  But if you are looking for more specific information – MEAP test results --  it is very difficult to find (you have to know to look under the “Academics” tab and then under “Assessments”.  And certain information is simply missing.  The staff e-mail directory, for example, is not functional.  The information relating to strategies for closing the achievement gap is nowhere to be found (or if it is, I can’t find it)  There are other gaps.  I would offer three concrete suggestions for improving the site:  First, the buttons that direct people to relevant content (parents, students, staff) need to be more clearly marked as gateways to information. More of the site content ought to be available through those gateways, and we probably ought to make one for the general community as well.  Second, there needs to be a site map.  And third, there should be an organizational chart, with names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Describe your personal approach to district-union negotiations, not just for teachers but also for administrators, custodial staff, etc.  What is your primary goal?
In the face of economic uncertainty, it is important to establish and maintain positive relationships with our unions.  The AAEA, in particular, has really stepped up in terms of supporting innovation, including the U of M partnership, revisions to the teacher evaluation process, and efforts to control health care expenses.  My primary goal is to engage in a partnership with our bargaining groups in which both sides recognize the fiscal constraints, and work together to create win-win solutions.  I do not think it is appropriate or helpful to include BOE representatives in actual contract negotiations, or to hold open negotiation sessions.  My approach would be to give overall direction to our superintendent with regard to what we wish to accomplish, and ask them for regular feedback on the progress of negotiations.
Do you generally support Rick Snyder’s approach to education and education reform?  Do you support any of the listed reforms that he and the legislature have made/proposed?  Such as:
a.     Emergency manager legislature
b.     Changes to the School Aid Fund, including funding colleges as well as K-12 education from the SAF
c.     Changes in the rules around charter schools, including removal of caps on number of charter schools
d.     State-driven teacher evaluation system that erelies on standardized testing  
NO, NO,  NO and NO.
The Emergency Manager legislation seems designed to subvert local control and focuses exclusively on cutting costs rather than providing services.
The use of School Aid Funds for purposes other than K-12 education is a grievous betrayal of the public trust, and a violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of the law as enacted by the people under Proposal A.
We already have a surplus of charter schools, and the record of charters in improving academic performance is spotty, at best. We should focus our efforts on helping traditional school districts serve their students better.
The State is mandating a “one size fits all” evaluation model that is impractical and invalid (just how do you use the MEAP to evaluate a music teacher, or an art teacher, or a PE teacher, or a foreign language teacher, or for that matter, a high school physics or chemistry teacher?) – another example of the State trying to micromanage districts.

At this point, would you call the privatization of transportation services a success or a failure?  (NOTE: This refers to the decision to give transportation services to the WISD, not to the level of service chosen last spring).  If faced with the same question today(should transportation be privatized, and if so to whom), what kind of decision would you make and based on what information?
First, a clarification:  Transportation has NOT been privatized. “Privatization” means contracting services to a private sector for-profit company whose chief motivation is maximizing financial return, rather than serving the best interest of our children.  Transportation has been consolidated under the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and is thus still subject to public control and scrutiny. 
Many have advocated the consolidation of services (such as transportation) for some time as a way to reduce cost and improve efficiency.  Last year, the transition to WISD went very smoothly, and in fact, many parents told me it was actually better under WISD than under AAPS.  This year has been much more problematic.  WISD has not stepped up to meet the challenge.  We need to work closely with WISD, apply pressure to improve service, and hold them more accountable.  Having said that, many of these problems have already been worked out, and the level of service is improving each day.  I would still make the same decision to consolidate services, based on the amount of money that can be saved through consolidation.  We are the Ann Arbor School District, not the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.  Our business is education, not transportation.  If you read the entire strategic plan, as well as all the back-up documents, you will not find a single reference to transportation.  Every dollar we save on transportation is a dollar that can be used for our primary mission, providing the best possible education for our children.
What was your most influential K-12 school experience (good or bad)?  How does it influence your approach to the school board?    
It all goes back to the teachers.  When I attended public schools some 50 years ago in St. Joseph, Missouri, we had none of the technology we have today.  Text books were often old and out-of-date.  We had little in the way of a performing arts program.  We had no swimming pool or fancy athletic facilities.  And yet I feel I received a very solid education, mostly through the efforts of a small number of truly extraordinary teachers.  There were more than a few average-to-mediocre teachers, as well, but it a few was a few great ones who taught me how to write coherently and persuasively, to know how to ask the right questions, to love and appreciate great poetry and literature, to be able to solve empirical problems efficiently and objectively, and to see the complexity and ambiguity of national and world events from multiple points of view while challenging the assumption that our side is always right.  Times change, technologies change, the base of knowledge increases exponentially, but these are still the factors that make a great education.  We must never forget the importance of great teachers, or the lasting impact they can have on many lives. 


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