Monday, November 7, 2011

Reflections about the 2011 Ann Arbor School Board Election

I've been asked by a couple of the candidates whether I am going to make endorsements for the school board election. The answer is no--I'm not really endorsing anybody. But obviously, I am going to vote for two somebodies, and so I'm going to share my reflections about who I'm considering voting for. These are not endorsements, in the sense that you might have different opinions. Please, vote your own opinion.

In addition, I agree with a recent anonymous commenter on this blog, who said, "I'm humbled by all the candidates' passion for and committment to and willingness to put in massive time and effort in service to the AAPS. . . To the candidates who don't get elected this cycle, I hope that you keep your voices heard, and stay involved in the conversation, and consider running again in the future."
I mean, people have asked me to run for school board, and I tell them, it's a lot of hours, and a very small amount of pay--therefore, I very much thank those who are willing to run. And it also raises a separate question--a few years ago the school board voted to reduce the number of people representing us (and I honestly don't remember if we got to vote on that or not) but this makes me think we should reconsider that question. For a school district the size of Ann Arbor's, what is the optimal school board size?

Having said all that, I am going to give one anti-endorsement. In other words, there is one person that I'm going to ask you not to vote for, and that person is Albert Howard. No, it's not because he didn't answer my questionnaire. It's because his blogger profile says this:

Albert Howard is the creator of Operation "King of Islam" which seeks to ban the Quran and all mosques in North America, Europe and Canada. (emphasis added)
As far as I'm concerned, anti-Muslim sentiment has no place in our public schools (or public discourse, actually. . . neither does any rhetoric that is anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist, get the idea).
So, there are five other candidates. Some of the questions that I asked in my questionnaire were designed to help me figure out who to vote for (the summaries of two of their debates can be found in the Ann Arbor Chronicle as well, here and here, and you might find them helpful).
I think that all five of these candidates have some good ideas. They've all been willing to engage with me, and I believe with other people as well.
Ahmar Iqbal:
I like Ahmar's idea of moving school board meetings from school to school (if it is possible to still tape them), and of having some standing committees which involve parents and taxpayers. However--for me, an overwhelming issue is whether or not somebody supports Rick Snyder's educational reforms. At the beginning of the school board election run, I didn't know that Ahmar Iqbal was a strong supporter of Governor Rick Snyder. He was. I didn't know that he doesn't think the school board should have much of a role in 'pushing back' against the governor's education reforms, which I find hugely problematic. He wrote me, "Obviously these are state level issues and as a school board trustee, we have to focus on managing our resources with the programs desired by the community and of course stipulated by law and regulations."
Well, I am looking for school board trustees who are willing to engage at the state level and push back against these reforms, and I will not be voting for Ahmar Iqbal

Which leaves me with four candidates to choose from.

My favorite, right now, is Patrick Leonard. I like that he has really done a lot of research about the issues facing the schools, and has been able to turn information into analysis (read these comments for a good example of that). I like that he understands technology and social media, and that he is responsive by email. I like that he's a recent (but not too recent) graduate of Ann Arbor schools--I think that perspective will be useful. And, not that you can read everything from my questionnaire, but I really liked that he directly answered my questions, and not the questions that he wanted me to ask. He's pro-union, and I think he understands the nuances of Rick Snyder's approach, when he writes, 
"No. I don’t support his [Rick Snyder's] business-model approach, a philosophical belief that competition in the public sector will improve achievement. I have found that this approach has an adverse affect on student achievement, because it creates competition between teachers, teaching to the test, and only focuses on quantifiable measurements for performance evaluations."  
In the debates and the questionnaire Patrick Leonard has shown that he has an analytic mind. I think that will be helpful on the board. So if you want to know who I'm voting for, I am definitely voting for Patrick Leonard.
Which leaves me with three more candidates, and I'm still not positive which way I'm going with them--but I am leaning in one direction.
Larry Murphy:
Larry Murphy (I think it will show up as Lawrence Murphy on the ballot) is a small-business owner and my sense is that he decided to run because he wants to make sure his kids have good schools. That is a good reason to run for school board. I like the lesson that he took from tutoring his own child, that the teacher/student ratio is extremely important. I have had a few back and forths with him, and from that I've gleaned that he doesn't have the sophisticated understanding of what is happening at the state level, and that's the bad news. On the other hand, in those back and forths I've learned that he is able to listen to someone else's perspective (namely, mine), and change his opinion as he learns new information. And that's a really good thing. I think he's wrong that charter school caps don't matter for districts like Ann Arbor's, and his answers to questions lacked some specificity.

Simone Lightfoot:
Simone Lightfoot was first appointed to the school board, and based on her past service I know that her heart is in the right place. She cares deeply about student achievement, and at certain school board meetings she has been the only one asking really hard questions about student performance. I like that she puts out the notion that "no child is expendable." Her personal experience with being dismissed as a student (one my sister also had) is an important motivator. She really "gets" the problems with Rick Snyder's changes to state education law.
She also is attentive to constituents. She and Susan Baskett were the only school board trustees to meet with the Arrowwood parents about transportation. Which was important, but then I'm left with the question: why couldn't she recruit another board member, or two, to a meeting so they could have really tried to address the parents' concerns as a school board? Is this a reflection on her lack of standing with the rest of the board, or her organizing ability? [Side note: this transportation problem really blew up, in my opinion, because the school board wouldn't meet with the constituents. And it's not a small problem either, because--for example--there were quite a few students who had chosen to go to Skyline High School as a school of choice, and withdrew because they couldn't get there.]
She also seems to have difficulty managing the high in-flow of emails, but by phone she is responsive. I felt that her answers to my questionnaire were way too non-specific (for instance, on how parents and taxpayers can get involved)--on the other hand, an anonymous commenter said (s)he liked them.

Andy Thomas: 
Andy Thomas also was first appointed to the school board, and I believe that his heart is also in the right place. I appreciated that he voted against Patricia Green's salary. He very much understands the state-level issues, and I think he will definitely "push back" against state mandates. He is clearly supportive of the teachers. I don't know why he wouldn't go to a meeting with the Arrowwood parents (I should have asked him that last week!). I sometimes find him a little bit defensive about things that the district has done. Maybe I should read that as pride in the work of the district (which is good), but still--there are a lot of holes in what the district does. I found his answer to my question about parent/taxpayer involvement beyond the individual/school level sorely lacking, and here is why. He wrote,
"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."
AAPAC is for parents of special education kids, the PTO Council uses representatives from school PTOs (and both work off of a "school representative" model). So as a parent who doesn't have a child with a special education designation, isn't active in the PTO, and isn't the parent of a black student, it's a little unclear to me how I would have that input that I'm looking for. I don't think there are many opportunities to participate in decision-making above the school level at all.
On the other hand--I am strongly influenced (in a positive way) by the support of the teachers' union, and of the director of Michigan Parents for Schools, for Andy Thomas, and maybe that's why I'm leaning towards him.

So, in summary, I have a day and a half left to think about which of these candidates should get my vote.
I'm still thinking about:
  • who will be most effective on the issues I care about
  • who will understand that I--as a parent and taxpayer--am an end user, and an intermediate user, of the school system
  • who will push back on Rick Snyder's educational agenda
  • who will care about the teachers, but also all the other people who work in and for the schools
  • who will listen to me when I have a problem
I'm interested in your thoughts, too. (Put them in the comments.)


  1. Thank you so much for your analysis. It very much reflects my own. I would add that I take issue with Murphy's anti-tech-millage stance as similar to Iqbal's "we have all the money we need" stance. Denial of the deep cuts to schools from Lansing, and denial of the need for new revenue streams, is naive at best. I would be much more likely to vote for one of these two candidates if either would pair their good ideas about resource allocation (which I agree with), with hard work on increasing revenue (which they seem to have little interest in or see no need for).

    My first vote is also going to Leonard. I was wonderfully impressed by his performance at the debate. My second vote will go either to Thomas or Lightfoot, and probably Thomas, as his priorities more closely match my own, and he has shown the abililty to make hard choices. Also because he's very responsive to constituants, even if we don't always agree.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more in your assessment of Patrick Leonard. As a community we would be very lucky to have this young, creative mind on our school board.

    Every time I have emailed the Board, Simone Lightfoot has been one of the only ones to respond to my inquiries. I find her personable, knowlegeable, and I like that she is the one to ask the hard questions. Thomas is nice, but we need someone who can push back and I believe this is Simone.

  3. There are different ways of "pushing back." Most folks have no real idea what it means to be a trustee or to govern in the way a trustee governs. There are numerous publications on this subject, so it isn't hard to learn if anyone is interested. But, remember, it takes a majority of seven votes to reach a decision. If a trustee's way of "pushing back" or advancing his or her agenda makes his or her brethren (or the District) look bad out in the open, the approach tends to make that individual an outcast among seven piers, less capable of advancing what may be an important issue or idea. If you want to sell an idea, you need to do it in a way that doesn't leave folks so upset with the way you have treated them that they will not listen to you in the future. That approach would make for a long four years for everyone involved. I think all the trustees recognize the things the District could do better, and no one wants to sweep them under the rug. But an individual like Andy Thomas gets the work done behind the scenes without any undo embarassment to anyone. People appreciate that approach and are much more willing to do the right thing as a result.

  4. Wakefield, just so that everybody is clear, there are seven board members on the Ann Arbor school board, so a majority of members would be four members (not seven). Your point about not embarrassing others, however, is well taken. At the same time, while I'm not interested in having people make others "look bad," I want to make sure that decision-making and the discussions that lead up to the decision-making take place in the public eye. And sometimes that might make some people uncomfortable.

  5. I see the ambiguity: but a majority of seven votes is still four votes, isn't it? I was educated in public schools . . . .

    You're right: the Open Meetings Act requires that decisions be made in public. But all that leads up to them? We live in the real world where transparency has to be balanced against other desirable goals. For example, I could put a baby monitor in the Superintendent's office, but it might be against the law.

    I'm not sure we have anything close to the right balance yet, but people are trying. All I'm saying is that if one trustee, not selfish, but impatient about the items on his or her agenda, pushes so hard that it makes others (who care just as much about the same goals) look bad, it might not be the best way of getting things done.

    And, Ruth, I am hugely appreciative of your efforts on all our kids' behalf. You accomplish more than most just doing what you have been doing.

  6. The Ann Arbor board was nine members for historical reasons. They also had three year terms, so 1/3 of the board was up for election every year.

    Somebody came up with the idea of reducing the board to the state standard of seven. I was opposed to this, but it was voted on district wide and passed a few years ago. I am pretty sure this action is irreversible.

    Legislation which just passed the State House and Senate moves all school board elections to November of even years. So this will be the last odd-year election for school board members.

  7. Whoa! How have I missed the whole Albert Howard thing? I clearly need to pay more attention to AAPS politics.

  8. Yes, Ben, pay attention to AAPS politics!

    Larry, thanks for the information. Is the action irreversible because the state standard for school boards is seven?

  9. My concern about the change to school board election dates is that it will make it much harder to maintain the non-partisan character of the board when it will always be elected in a major even-year November election.

    Then there is also the problem that with the current 4-year terms, a majority of the board would be up for election every other time (currently, the board members face re-election 2, 2, 2, and 1 at a time). I wonder about the motivation for this change, since many municipalities already have elections on odd years and this change in the bill will save districts like AAPS little or no money.

  10. For many years, school districts were very insistent on maintaining their own standalone annual elections, despite the cost. When the June elections were abolished, more than 90% of school districts took the May-election option.

    Me, I thought odd-November would be a good time to have school elections, along with city elections, but territories outside cities don't normally have odd-November elections, so school districts would have to pay for them.

    What happened is that, now that the schools are essentially state funded, people in the Legislature are impatient with the idea of schools spending money on having separate elections. Both the House and Senate refused amendments to allow for odd-year elections.

    The old Ann Arbor system was kind of neat: school board members were elected three-at-a-time every year. In other words, one-third of the board was always at stake.

    Of course, it did mean that liberal and conservative slates would win in alternating years, because whichever side was down 6-3 would be motivated by their grievances against the incumbents. Indeed, incumbents didn't get re-elected, because their terms would come up in an election dominated by the "other side."

    What ended that pattern was a teacher strike, which forced the two sides together.

    Yes, seven member school boards are the state norm. I haven't looked at the law on this, but I'm pretty sure that, once you have seven, you can't opt for some other number.