Monday, June 17, 2013

Reviewing the AAPS Budget Decisions

In another very late night meeting, the Ann Arbor school board voted on a budget. I tried and tried to keep my eyes open for it, but at 1 a.m. I had to go to bed. The board voted on the budget around 2 a.m. I think you already know my opinion of late night decisions--they often don't sit all that well in the morning. Also, there were a lot of last-minute calculations going on, and that can lead to mathematical errors. On the other hand, budgets can be amended.

First, the good:

  • The school board saved high school transportation. I think that is fantastic. Even though I don't think anyone spoke on behalf of high school transportation during that evening's public commentary, they saved it anyway.
  • They managed to save Pioneer's theater tech person while putting it on Pioneer Theatre Guild to raise more money. That seems reasonable, and I think the Guild will be able to pull it off--they have a good fundraising machine.
  • They managed to save middle school sports that were scheduled to be cut.
  • At the time of the school board meeting, the district had received 37 announced retirements. It seems possible to me that the district will be able to avoid most of the layoffs.

Second, the "I think this is good but I'm not positive" category:

  • The school board saved most of the reading intervention specialists. My question continues to be--does the program work? I haven't seen evidence that it does, or it doesn't. (That doesn't mean the evidence doesn't exist, by the way. It just means I haven't seen it.) I do wish they would share their evidence.
  • The school board settled on a mid-point in trying to figure out how much money they will get for best practices from the state. The possible numbers were $70/student, $40/student, and $0/student. Last year they budgeted for $70 (and qualified for it) but more school districts than expected qualified and so the state gave everybody less money. This year, the school board settled on a number between $40 and $70 and I think that was the right decision--however, if we get less than budgeted, that will further erode the fund balance.
  • The school board assumed that they will get concessions from the administrators' union, curriculum coordinators, and tech support staff unions equivalent to the 3% concessions from the teachers union and the cabinet members. That will probably happen, but I'll just note that it hasn't yet.
  • The school board assumed flat enrollment. Since they saved high school transportation, I am more optimistic that this is correct. Note, however, that the state is rolling back the entry dates for kindergarten (by a month each year for three years, until the birth date cutoff will be September 1). I hope that the estimates for reduced kindergarten enrollment are correct.

Third, the "I'm not sure this was the right thing to do" category: 

  • The board continued to choose to dip into the fund balance. I share Christine Stead's feeling that this puts the district in a more vulnerable position, because the state of Michigan is not working with the district's best interests in mind. On the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only parent who is tired of class sizes getting bigger, and fewer electives being offered. 
  • The board cut the physical education requirement to match the state standard. I don't have a problem with that per se, but: a) I'm really skeptical that this will save the money they expect it to save (which I think was 4 PE teachers, or $400,000) because those students still need electives, and other teachers still need planning time periods, and b) PE classes tend to be on the larger side already, and in any case, kids need PE. [In high school, I had gym four days a week every week of school, for four years.]

Last, the "this was clearly the wrong thing to do" category:

  • The district restored seventh hour, but only with a "you have to pay to take the class" option for those schools on the semester schedule (Pioneer, Huron, Community). This is wrong-headed in so many ways. First, before last week's board meeting the ACLU of Michigan had notified the board that they believe this practice to be illegal and unconstitutional. Yet the school board proceeded, risking a lawsuit and all of the fees associated with that, to bring in something like $100,000. [They estimated slightly more income, but in the last-minute rush, I don't think they put in any costs for running a pay-to-play program. So let's call it $100,000 in income.] The school board proceeded, despite the fact that it appears they will be allowing Skyline to continue with a trimester system, and under the trimester system, Skyline students will get three classes more a year for free than the other schools. And that might lead to a different kind of lawsuit. [One thing that could be worrisome about this whole issue--the new interim Superintendent, David Comsa, is the district's attorney. Did he tell the district not to worry about a lawsuit? I don't know, but if he did, I worry about that advice!]
  • Adding insult to injury, the board could have kept seventh hour, without any "pay to take the class" option, by accepting Adams Outdoors' offer to pay for three billboards on school property, for $100,000. But the school board rejected the offer, because they didn't like the way the billboards would look. Yup. I'm not a billboard fan, but the budget is very tight. Several years ago the district agreed to put up some cell phone towers to bring in income, and I thought they would look ugly too. But after a very, very short while, I didn't even notice them. Putting up billboards is not like making a deal with the devil. If it allows us to keep seventh hour without a fee, and without risking lawsuits? That says to me--"no brainer!"

And you know, school board, when it comes to these last two issues? You can still change your mind.


  1. You're right - those last two are stupid decisions.

  2. Hi Ruth, and all.

    I was browsing fro something else on the Michigan Department of Education web site and found some relevant information.

    An hour ago I sent the following letter to the BoE, Mr. Comsa, Dr. Green and Alesia Flye.

    Dear AAPS Staff and Trustees,

    In spite of the legal advice your spokesperson Ms. Margolis claims the BoE and AAPS has sought, I believe that your recent action to require a charging Huron and Pioneer High School students $100 per semester during which they take a 7th class is not permitted under Michigan law and State Department of Education rules. Please see:

    In particular, the following excerpt is relevant to recent changes in AAPS policies:

    I. General Fees
    A. School districts may not make charges for any required or elective courses such
    as for:
    (a) General or registration fees
    (b) Course fees or materials ticket charges
    (c) Textbooks and school supplies

    B. School districts may charge fees for extracurricular activities when students are
    not graded or evaluated and academic credit is not given, or for any activity in
    which participation is not required for obtaining a diploma. Provision should be
    made on a reasonable basis so that students without financial means are not

    Clause A above also seems to prohibit the existing AAPS practice of charging families to enroll a high school student in an on-line class if the student is enrolled in 6 hours of face-to-face classes during the semester.

    Clause B would seem to prohibit charging pay-to-play fees for sports because academic credit in the form of 0.5 credits of elective PE is offered by AAPS for participation in any HS sport. Clause B also prohibits pay-to-participate fees for choir, band, and drama competitions or performances when participation is graded or otherwise required as part of a credit-granting class. I am not certain if this practice has been implemented anywhere in AAPS, though the recent decision to have the Pioneer Theater Guild fund the cost of the Theater Technician seemed to contemplate a fee to participate in drama class productions as well as membership fees in the PTG.

    Athletic pay-to-play fees are specifically addressed later in the document.

    III. Interscholastic Athletics Participation
    A. Fees for participation in interscholastic athletic activities are legally possible if
    they are extracurricular in nature, students are not required to take them,
    and no grade or credit is given.

    I'm hopeful that you will consider this information and adjust AAPS budget, scheduling and academic credit policies to conform with Michigan law and State Board of Education guidelines before the next school year begins. It would be unfortunate to trade the estimated $160,000 the 7th hour fees would raise for $500,000 or more spent defending these new and existing policies from a lawsuit.

    Best regards,

    Ann O'Connell

  3. I don't even see any comment on the cutting of 7 FTE staff in special eduction for a measly saving of $125,000, for cutting over $500,000 of services to the most needy kids. Also these services are required by federal law, so the filing of due process complaints or a lawsuit could easily wipe out these savings, and cause even more expense. I guess hardly anyone cares about these students, including you. Very, sad....

  4. Anon, you make a good point about the special education cuts, and I should have written something about it. It does highlight how many components there are in the budget reductions and the unintended consequences of some/many of them.

    In my defense, I think I pay a fair amount of attention to special education but the truth is that it is a complicated area that I don't know all that much about. I have offered before, on the AAPAC (special ed.) list that if anyone would like to guest blog occasionally on special education issues, that would be terrific. Maybe that person is you!

    So for instance, I'm not really that clear about which staff are being cut and whether that will in reality affect services. I did hear SISS Director Elaine Brown say at the board meeting that caseloads would increase but not to what she thought was an unreasonable level. You might disagree with that, and I don't have any expertise around this.

    Your second point, that 3/4 of the cost is borne by federal/state funds and so you cut $500,000 worth of services to save $125,000 is very salient as well, because it would seem there are more direct ways to get that same $125,000.

    As I think about these cuts, I generally set them up (in my mind) against the cost of losing general education teachers--which averages about $100,000/teacher. So then the question would be, would it be worth cutting $500,000 in services to special education in order to save 1.25 general education teachers? The answer to me is "probably not," but I don't know that much about special education, as I said before.

    So if you're asking, "which category would you put this in?" I would put it in Category 3, "I'm not sure this was the right thing to do."

    But I sure wish you hadn't said that I don't care about those students. I do.