Wednesday, February 29, 2012

News Hits

Milan schools are thinking about whether they should drop the Big Reds name and the Native American logos associated with it. I guess another alternative would be to keep the name (which arose from their red uniforms!) and change the logos (which arose from the name Big Reds).

I just found out that the Washtenaw County parks have more than one accessible playground. At Independence Lake park there is an accessible playground and fishing pier. Rolling Hills has a new accessible playground. Rolling Hills also has a new braille description of a walk in Sassafras Woods, available for a loan.

Ann Arbor school's technology millage campaign is kicking off this week. Read more about it in this article. Or if you prefer, look at the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Campaign website.

The Michigan Islamic Academy is suing Pittsfield Township over its denial of the Academy's rezoning request for property on which they had planned to build a school, based on religious discrimination. The Council on American Islamic Relations has joined the lawsuit, and the U.S. Department of Justice has opened a formal investigation as well.

Last, but not least! The groups collecting signatures to put the emergency financial manager law on the ballot have collected enough signatures to bring them to Lansing to be validated. They have collected over 218,000 signatures and need the state to certify 161,000 of them as legitimate in order to get the voter referendum on the November ballot.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dreaming of Desegregation, Elections, and Barbers

Two weeks ago I was at the 20th anniversary event for the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan. The evening included a showing of the Oscar-nominated short documentary, The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. No, the movie didn't win the Oscar for short documentary. It was, however, very moving (and worth your time)--and in its honor, I have two thoughts on the second-to-last day of Black History Month 2012 and the day of the Republican primary.

I was--literally--toddling around my house at the time of the civil rights movement. So the history of the civil rights movement is just that to me--history--even though many of the struggles live on today. This documentary brings that history alive. In particular, the barber (James Armstrong) gave me a renewed appreciation for how groundbreaking the election of Barack Obama was. .  . and the path that connects those civil rights activists with his election. The documentary shows some moving footage of the day of the 2008 election, and it honestly did get me excited for the 2012 election. When the "foot soldiers" describe the difficulties they had in registering to vote, it is a reminder to me of how much we should cherish that opportunity. So often history is told in a dry manner. Not in this case.

And part of that history involves the desegregation of the schools. I've written in the past about efforts to desegregate the Ann Arbor schools. In Birmingham, James Armstrong's children were part of the desegregation effort of the Birmingham schools, and there is historic footage of those children walking to school, as well as contemporary footage of one of them as an adult. There is also discussion of the church bombings in Birmingham. Really, there is a lot packed into a short film!

I'm hoping that you will see The Barber of Birmingham, but whether you do or not, it is important to remember that school segregation--though banished by law--still exists in many many schools around the nation. To keep that history alive, I'm including here a video produced by the Baltimore Sun about the history of school desegregation in Baltimore.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chance Encounters and All-Day Kindergarten

Finally, the Ann Arbor schools have joined the other county school districts s in the rush to create all-day kindergarten--if the districts didn't make the switch, they would lose more state money. Of course, all-day kindergarten costs money too.

I don't like the state requiring schools to provide all-day kindergarten without providing more money for it, and I do worry about kindergartens being too academic, but the trend toward an academic kindergarten has been very evident for years. There was a big change in the tenor of my oldest son's kindergarten class and my youngest son's kindergarten class. (There are seven years between them.) My oldest son's kindergarten class was much more play-based. Sure, skills are important, but little kids acquire skills through playing.

But on the other hand--I am very happy that the schools are going to offer something that private schools have been offering for years. Half-day kindergarten was a pain in the neck. After years of full-day day care, it seemed like almost nothing, and I still had to pay for almost full-time day care. For many years, some other schools had used alternate-day kindergarten--but not Ann Arbor.

At the time that I was looking for a school for my oldest son, I was very attracted to a local, private, parochial school. There were two key attractions--the immersion language program (which was only a true immersion program beginning in first grade), and the full-day kindergarten. I was really struggling with the choice, and even though my husband had his heart set on public school, I was thinking. . . well perhaps for kindergarten. . . and then we could switch.

In a chance encounter one day, I ran into a colleague who had three older children. In the course of catching up, I described my dilemma, and Cheryl said, "Ruth, when you make your decision, you really have to look beyond kindergarten. Kindergarten is only eight months long!"

Cheryl was right. But for that chance encounter, I might not have realized how fleeting kindergarten is. At the time, it seemed like a huge step!

I know now that a lot of parents initially choose a private school for a full-day kindergarten option, and some of them never leave those private schools. But for that chance encounter, I might have had three kids go through private school, at least for their elementary years.

Therefore, I'm glad that in this area, at least, the public schools have leveled the playing field. I hope this will allow more families to start their kids' academic careers in public schools. And perhaps. . . one can hope. . . that full-day kindergarten will also allow more time to play, and do project-based learning, and still allow teachers to cover those academics.

Monday, February 13, 2012

MIFA Theater "One-Acts" This Friday and Saturday

This year, the MIFA One-Act State Competition is being held at Dexter High School on Friday and Saturday, February 17th and 18th. You can come watch if you like--and perhaps cheer on our hometown schools of Skyline and Pioneer. (No other county schools advanced to states.) The shows are 45 minutes long and the shows are free.  (Many of these shows are abridged from longer shows. For instance, Sweeney Todd was just the full-length musical at Huron High School last week. . . the version that John Glenn High School is doing, like all of these one-acts, cannot exceed 45 minutes.)

[Update 2/16/2012: There is a really nice writeup of last week's regional competition at Skyline High School in Community High School's newspaper, The Communicator.  The Communicator is an award-winning paper that engages in serious journalism. I think you will enjoy the article.]

Here is the tentative lineup.

Friday, 2/17/2012:

10 a.m.          Holland--The Diviners
11:20 a.m.     Avondale--The Fall of the House of Usher
1:35 p.m.       Olivet--Property Rites
2:55 p.m.       Skyline--Amadeus
4:15 p.m.       Anchor Bay--Children of Oedipus
6:20 p.m.       John Glenn--Sweeney Todd
7:40 p.m.       Lakers--The Charge is Murder

Saturday, 2/18/2012:

9:00 a.m.       St. John's--Parade
10:20 a.m.     Groves--The Ice Wolf
11:40 a.m.     Pioneer--Spring Awakening
2:10 p.m.       Chesaning--World War Z
3:30 p.m.       Grand Rapids Christian--Dancing at Lughasa
4:50 p.m.       Midland--Quilters

Sunday, February 12, 2012

About that state budget proposal. . .

Bridge, News and Analysis from the Center for Michigan, reports that school funding is not actually increased, but cut:

Let’s start with the way funding for K-12 was described. The description in the budget document is that the recommendation for FY 2013 is a 2.5 percent increase, and the “planning budget” for 2014 is a 0.8 percent increase. The problem with that description is, when you add up what the figures for this year, for FY 2013 and for FY 2014, total spending for K-12 declines from $12.74 billion in 2012 to $12.69 billion in FY 2013 — and declines again to $12.6 billion in FY 2014.
So how is a recommendation to spend less an increase?
Read the rest here.  (The blog has some other interesting articles too.)

Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools notes:
I'm doing a line by line comparison of the governor's budget proposal to the current year budget. Finding some interesting tidbits in the Senate Fiscal Agency summary of the current appropriations...

Want a gauge of what kind of funding might be necessary to offset the impact of poverty on our schools? The budget provides additional funding to each "at risk" student, defined as those who qualify for the Federal free lunch program. (Hold-harmless districts are not eligible for this, regardless.) The budget funds this with $318 million. Theoretically, districts could receive an extra 11.5% of their foundation allowance for every qualifying student.

BUT, fulling funding this program this year would cost nearly $497 million [yes, that is half a billion dollars] during the current fiscal year. So qualifying districts get a small fraction of the theoretical total. Yes, you read that right: giving districts an 11% bump just for kids who qualify for free (not reduced price) lunch would cost us half a billion dollars as a state. Not only does this say a lot about the number of children in poverty, but it puts in perspective the resources we would need to commit if we were truly trying to counter the impact of poverty. [The original post said $5 billion but in Steve's comments he notes that was based on a typo in the state budget--still , half a billion is a lot of money, and is less than is budgeted.]
 If you wish, you can join their facebook group here

Note also that the governor's proposal continues to fund colleges out of the School Aid Fund.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Transportation Lessons: 2010-2012


In ninth grade, I had an algebra teacher who always wore cowboy boots (I grew up in New York! That was not usual). About mistakes, he had this to say, "It's okay to mistakes. But it's preferable to make a different mistake every time."

That story is meant to say: I know that hindsight is perfect, and foresight is imperfect. So the point of this lesson is to use that knowledge to improve decision-making in the future.

Transportation Lessons: What Can We Learn? (Or: More Proof of the Importance of Evalutation)

Our object lesson is the transportation consolidation that took place over the past two years. You may recall that back in 2009-2010, the Ann Arbor schools (and Ypsilanti and Willow Run) each had their own buses and bus drivers. And all of the county's districts were looking for ways to save money--including on transportation. After much thought, Dexter went to a "one-tier" bus system (all schools start and end at the same time of day, so they can do one run through a neighborhood instead of two or three). Lincoln bus drivers took major pay cuts in order to avert consolidation.

Ann Arbor bus drivers also offered major concessions as an alternative to consolidation. But remember--Ann Arbor is the biggest district in the county, and it is right in the middle of the county. I think the school board felt that if Ann Arbor didn't choose consolidation, then consolidation couldn't work. That, by itself, brought some additional pressure to the Ann Arbor schools.

However--the biggest incentive, by far, was the money savings that were promised. As described by deputy superintendent Robert Allen in April of 2010, in an article that David Jesse wrote,
Hiring a private company to run the district’s busing operations would cost $7,019,214, said Robert Allen, the district’s deputy superintendent for operations. Joining with five of the county’s other traditional districts to form a consolidated busing system would cost the district $6,578,274.

Both those options are cheaper than the district’s current busing system, which costs $8,718,669, Allen said.
In other words, the savings were estimated to be over two million dollars! [I think it was understood that the savings would be a little bit less if fewer districts joined in--which was, in fact, what happened--and in a later article (October 2011, Ann Arbor Chronicle) Robert Allen says the final savings were estimated to be closer to $1.5 million. Still, that is nothing to sneeze at.] It was understood that the bulk of savings would come from reduced staffing costs, despite the fact that the estimates were based on the idea that service levels would remain the same. The reduced pay for bus drivers was ostensibly based on a market rate study.

So on the one hand, I don't blame the school board officials and the school administrators for getting a little bit starry-eyed at the thought of saving all that money!

On the other hand, there were some warning signs that promises from privatization and consolidation don't always turn out all that well. 

Somebody Evaluated Food Service Privatization, But Did We Pay Attention?

Food services had been privatized in Ann Arbor a few years earlier. Had the savings from that approached the promised savings? Not according to University of Michigan researcher Roland Zullo, who is also an Ann Arbor Public Schools parent. Prompted in part by the specter of privatization of Ann Arbor schools custodial and transportation staff, he undertook an evaluation of the food services privatization. (Earlier he had done a larger study of food service privatization.) According to this (very interesting) New York Times article (12/3/2011),
Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found in 2008 that Michigan schools that hired private food-service management firms spent less on labor and food but more on fees and supplies, yielding “no substantive economic savings.” Alarmingly, he even found that privatization was associated with lower test scores, hypothesizing that the high-fat and high-sugar foods served by the companies might be the cause. In a later study, in 2010, Dr. Zullo found that Chartwells was able to trim costs by cutting benefits for workers in Ann Arbor schools, but that the schools didn’t end up realizing any savings.
[An aside: this, by the way, is consistent with the findings of the AAPS Privatization History blog post that I wrote in March 2010.]

In Zullo's March 2010 review of Ann Arbor food service (read the full report here), he reported that there were initial savings the first year, but the savings evaporated after that. And he says,
By losing their AAPS employment status, food service workers lost their state pension benefits, had their health insurance co-pays skyrocket by 500%, and lost union representation. New employees are offered wages at about $9.00 per hour.
It Was Consolidation, Not Privatization

But wait--the Ann Arbor school board did not choose privatization. They chose consolidation with another public entity, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.  Employees who chose to apply for jobs with the WISD would--if rehired--be able to keep their state pension benefits, and they would be able to unionize if they wanted (in fact, they have voted to affiliate with the Michigan Education Association, or MEA).  In fact, one thing that the board appears to have taken away from the food services privatization discussion is that many people lost their pensions, and that was a bad thing. I know from conversations with board members that they saw consolidation as different from privatization, although I'm not sure that the bus drivers saw it very differently. Just read, for instance, my interview with Andy Thomas when he was a school board candidate earlier this year.

So How Has Consolidation Worked So Far?

The first problem was that only three districts agreed to consolidate.
There were quite a few service problems in the beginning, and in fact Ypsilanti ended up giving a private bus company, Trinity, a $180,000 contract in the first year, because the WISD couldn't keep up. (I still see a lot of Trinity buses in Ypsilanti, so I assume that they still have some kind of contract.)
I have heard alleged--in other words, nothing that I have substantiated--that bus drivers who were active in their unions were not re-hired.
And the WISD reported to the Ann Arbor school board, in October 2011, that turnover rates were astoundingly high--over 40%.
Most of us know that even with lower staffing costs, high turnover is going to increase costs and probably reduce service quality. High turnover requires increased training and recruiting, makes it more likely that drivers will make mistakes on routes (because they are new), and means that students are always seeing new drivers and/or substitute drivers.

Partly because of the complaints, the Ann Arbor school board asked the WISD for an evaluation of the first year (2010-2011), and it took the WISD several months into the 2011-2012 school year to provide it. If you want, you can read the full report here.

But here is the summary:
Total savings were not quite $619,000--just over 40% of the expected savings.

According to the WISD, unemployment compensation costs; higher than expected gas prices; workers' compensation claims; and a retirement rate increase were the primary reasons that the savings were so low. Aren't those things that should have been expected and included in the initial budgeting plan? It looks like we got the "pie in the sky" budget (hence the starry eyes) when we should have gotten the plain pie budget.

The report also makes clear that whereas before, many people were school bus drivers as a primary job, that has changed. For most people, these are secondary jobs now--and when they find a better job, with more hours/no-split shift/more pay, they take it and leave the school buses behind. Remember--the bus drivers did offer concessions to the district. They simply were not deemed to be enough.

The projected savings for the Ann Arbor schools for 2011-2012, according to Robert Allen, are about $1 million. But those savings are largely a function of all of the cuts that they made to busing schedules at the beginning of this year, and not of consolidation.

More recently, Ypsilanti and Willow Run have said they may completely pull out of the WISD consortium, leaving Ann Arbor as the only district in the consortium, making it not a consortium at all. I assume that is because they are not getting the savings that they expected. Should this be a shock? No.

So I was glad to see the Ann Arbor Chronicle report that in light of these changes, on January 25, 2012 the school board directed the administration to
...examine and make a recommendation on the following transportation options: improving busing within the current framework of the WISD; consolidating busing with Ypsilanti and Willow Run outside the WISD consolidation; bringing busing back into the AAPS budget with bus drivers remaining public employees; bringing busing back into the AAPS budget but privatizing bus drivers; eliminating busing entirely; or collaborating with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) to transport AAPS students.
Hindsight is Perfect

If we go back to the preface--hindsight is perfect.
Looking back, do I think it was a good idea to privatize? No. I think we could have gotten those same savings with salary concessions from the bus drivers and revamping the bus schedules--with much less disruption to both the school district and to the employees' lives.  (I admit it--I was always skeptical, and I wrote about that here.)
In fact, on June 24, 2010, I wrote that:
Regarding the teacher contract, kudos to the negotiators. It really is a creative collaboration. However--the teacher contract makes the vote to consolidate bussing--which means that workers lose their jobs with no guarantee of re-hire, or even of seniority preference in hiring--all the more disappointing. . . It is disappointing because it is clear--based on the teacher contract--that the district has the capacity to develop creative agreements that serve workers well. Yet in the case of the transportation workers, they chose not to do so.
As I read back over my notes though, I think I know why they chose not to do so. It's not simply because transportation is not considered a "core service." I think it's because transportation departments have a reputation for being difficult to run. They've got all those buses with maintenance; lots of parts, supplies, and gas; and difficulty scheduling multiple routes, special education needs, and staffing. Maybe they thought the WISD could actually do a better job--even though that turned out not to be true!

It's Better to Make a Different Mistake Every Time

And since it's better to make a different mistake every time, as we look forward to another round of budget cuts, what should be done differently?

If privatization comes up again (and I will bet that it will), what questions should the school board and administrators be asking that they didn't ask last time? Let's articulate those questions now. 

One good thing that did come out of this--although the Ann Arbor schools did not ever have a major problem with buses passing state safety inspections, the Ypsilanti and Willow Run schools sometimes did, and their pass rates have improved dramatically, as I note here. They sold the buses to the WISD for $1, and the agreement is that they will be sold back to the districts for $1 if they leave the consortium.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What Can We Expect for School Aid Funding Next Year?

As usual, Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools has a very cogent analysis of the upcoming budget possibilities. (His summary, as noted in the title: Will schools get more money? Don't hold your breath.)

I like it so much I'm just cutting and pasting the first paragraph, and then linking to the original.

The latest projections show that revenue to the state School Aid Fund, which supports K-12 education in Michigan, will increase 2.7% next year, compared to a 4.3% drop this year. But will local public schools get a funding increase? There will be a lot of politics at work between now and the start of school next fall, and little can be taken for granted. While Governor Snyder is likely to use any school aid surplus to make one-time “pay for performance” payments, there is significantly less money available to do that this year.
Keep reading more here.