Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanks, Mark Maynard and Madame Bartels!

Today I would like to thank two people.

1. This month, I had the occasion to hold a conversation with an family from French-speaking Africa, and I was able to do that because of the French I learned in high school--which wasn't exactly yesterday! No, my French wasn't perfect, but I was able to converse comfortably. And for that, I want to thank Madame Bartels, my primary high school French teacher, wherever she may be. Merci, Madame!

Picture taken from the Facebook Water Street Commons page.

2. I would also like to thank Mark Maynard for his work to engage the Ypsilanti community and report on Ypsilanti happenings--the good, the bad, and the fascinating. I love his interviews with Ypsilantians, but I am especially impressed by his work to make the Water Street Commons a reality. I love driving past the site and seeing people work on it. Until some real development happens, the Commons can create a beautiful, visual presence along Michigan Avenue. If you want to follow Mark Maynard's blog, here is the link.

If you want to follow--or help with--the Water Street Commons, you can find them on Facebook.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Principal Principles, Perspectives, and Publicity

Pioneer Perspicacity 

(I was looking for P words--and I had to look perspicacity up, but it's a good choice because essentially it means you are sharing your perspective!)

It turns out that nowadays, when I go out on a Saturday night, people come up to me and ask me about the latest school news--news which, in fact, I hadn't even heard. . . what happens to you when you go out on a Saturday night?

Friday afternoon, Pioneer parents got a short letter from the school district:
Dear Pioneer Families,I have  notified the Pioneer community today that Ms. Cindy Leaman has agreed to serve as Principal of Ann Arbor's A2 Virtual+ Academy beginning January 6, 2014. 
Ms. Tamber Woodworth will serve as Principal for the remainder of the school year. Ms. Woodworth has agreed to return to Pioneer where she served previously as both a class principal and principal prior to her retirement. 
I know we will all work together to support our students at Pioneer.Thank you,Jeanice SwiftSuperintendent
I hadn't heard about it because I'm not a Pioneer parent.

But of course I was interested!

1. You might recall that filling the position of Pioneer principal was the subject of much controversy last fall, when Pat Green didn't fill the position for quite a while, and wouldn't talk about when she would fill it either. Not only did the interim principal have a long-term sub filling his classes, but the cloak of secrecy made parents mad, especially regarding the timing of filling the position. A little bit of communication regarding timing would have gone a long way!  In any case, 51 weeks ago (just under a year) Cindy Leaman was moved from Clague Middle School to fill the Pioneer position.

2. Since it's been just under a year, of course there speculation about this latest move. Talking to Pioneer students and parents, their opinion of Cindy Leaman has ranged from "she's fine" to "she's fine unless you engage with her in any way" to "she's like Dolores Umbridge." (I know--harsh, right? Principals get the brunt of people's opinions, and often it's not in a good way.)

3. Tamber Woodworth will be the interim principal. She has served as interim principal in the past at both Pioneer and Ann Arbor Open, and I think she was a permanent principal at Tappan as well. At Ann Arbor Open and at Pioneer, she seemed to not try to make too many changes while she was there as an interim. That worked well at Ann Arbor Open. She is being brought out of retirement for this position! (And I think there are some restrictions in state law on working for the district you retired from, so she's probably a contractor.)

4. I'm not going to speculate about whether, for Cindy Leaman, the move to running the new Virtual Academy is an upgrade or a downgrade. But as far as communication goes, it's my opinion this whole thing was mishandled. First of all, in general I think that principal moves at any of the schools are significant enough that they should be shared--by the district--with the entire listening audience (probably through AAPS News), in addition to the letter home to Pioneer families. 

In particular, in this case, the Virtual Academy is a brand new entity for the district, and so I think this position is actually adding a principal position to the district. And people don't understand what the Virtual Academy is. (My understanding is that Michigan law now states that students anywhere can take online courses anywhere in the state, and if the district doesn't offer online classes then students will go elsewhere and take their money with them--but that may be oversimplified.)

My point is--please--
Share information about principals with the entire district.
Share more, rather than less. Educate parents, and they will feel more comfortable, and less panicky, about changes. Who is Tamber Woodworth? Why was Cindy Leaman chosen to run the Virtual Academy (does she, for instance, have a background in technology)? What is the Virtual Academy?

Past Principal's Possible Plagiarism

Meanwhile, last week, on Facebook, I got another piece of news: that Sulura Jackson, the former principal at Skyline, was accused of plagiarism in her new district! [By the way, in the illustration the Indy Week chose to use, there is a picture of Skyline's first graduation, and my daughter is the one on the left.]

At the Indy Week, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Billy Ball writes,

What they [teachers] found is startling: Multiple documents obtained by the INDY that show Jackson—before and after her arrival at Chapel Hill High—lifted entire passages and letters from books, online articles and teaching resource guides. She used those passages without citation in staff memos, letters to students and even recommendation letters for colleagues, frequently passing them off as her words.
. . . In some cases, Jackson, who won a Michigan secondary school association's award for top high school principal of 2010–2011, used uncited text pulled from various sources. In others, she seems to use entire letters, such as an online welcoming letter for students posted by an Arizona principal. Sometimes she seems to have attempted to disguise the copied text by changing a single word while retaining the overall form and structure. Other times, entire passages were printed unchanged.

Sulura Jackson at Skyline graduation. Photo from the
Ann Arbor Public Schools website.
And as if that weren't (quite) enough, the friend who posted it on Facebook said that he had noticed Sulura Jackson doing the same thing during the first year that students were at Skyline! And (he's a person who saves things), he sent me an email with the piece in which he noticed the copying. He says he didn't say anything at the time because he didn't want to make any trouble for his daughter.

He wrote me that in the second Skyline newsletter,

When I read the first paragraph of Sulura's letter it was clear to me that she hadn't written it. It took under a minute on Google to find that it was from a tourism press release (I think it was from "pure Michigan" or whatever it was called back in 2008).
Here are the first few lines of the paragraph:

When autumn arrives in Michigan, the state slowly explodes into a frenzy of color; the entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. There is no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along Michigan highways, country roads and coastlines.

And here is a similar passage, attributed to, the state's web site:

It's when 19 million acres of woods slowly explode in a frenzy of color. It's when an entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. It's when autumn arrives in Michigan. And there's no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along our highways, country roads and coastlines. So let's head out to the forests. And let's prepare to be amazed. On the fall color tours of Pure Michigan. 
So as you see, it's not exactly the same--but it's close.

My question is, "Is this plagiarism?"

My friend said to me, "That's not plagiarism! How many ways can you write a cover letter or a condolence letter? The real issue is probably that the teachers don't like her!" Which could be true--there were certainly plenty of teachers who didn't like her at Skyline.

As for the suggestion that Jackson cite sources: It would be really weird to cite sources in a letter that goes into a school newsletter.

On the other hand--if Jackson got hired in North Carolina based in part on her capacity to communicate in writing, and she didn't actually write the stuff, then there is certainly some misrepresentation there. If a student turned this in, would it be considered plagiarism?

I would have to say, though, that in the Indy Week article, the thing that bothers me the most is the thing that always bothered me when she was Skyline principal. Jackson never was willing to admit to being wrong, even when she changed or modified something because she was wrong. So, too, in the Indy Week article she says,

Reached by the INDY Monday, Jackson acknowledged she will use form letters, books and articles to inform her writings, but she denied any wrongdoing."I'm not under the impression that I can't use that," Jackson said. "This is not anything that I'm selling. This is not anything that I'm using for personal gain."

So what do you think? Is it plagiarism? 

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Missed Opportunities: Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw IB/WAY/ECA Consortium

I wasn't really paying attention to the big brouhaha as to whether the Ann Arbor schools should sign the contract to continue to participate in the International Baccalaureate program, the WAY (Washtenaw Alternatives for Youth) program, or the Early College Alliance. But now I am. And mostly what strikes me is that there have been several missed opportunities. Sure, I know that hindsight is perfect, but looking back and evaluating is also a good way to learn.

So here are five missed opportunities.

1. Missed Meetings: The Ann Arbor News reported that the Ann Arbor school representatives missed many of the consortium meetings. I don't know if Supt. Pat Green or Deputy Supt. Alesia Flye was to blame for that--maybe it was both of them. They're both gone now, so I'm not sure if it matters if we figure that out. Going forward though, if we have a seat at the table, we need to take it. It's pretty clear that we can have more influence if we are there early in the process.

2. Anti-union contract: Someone called me to say that he was worried that the contract the Ann Arbor school board was discussing was anti-union. Given that the contract (click on the link to see it) specifies that if a teacher is tenured in a district and goes to work for the IB, WAY, or ECA schools they are not operating under or accumulating tenure (among other things), you could describe it that way fairly, I think. But here's the thing--this same contract was already voted on by the Ann Arbor schools for this current year in August--and by the other school districts as well. Does the Ann Arbor Education Association or the Washtenaw Education Association not care, or did they just miss this? They probably could have influenced the terms and conditions...

3. Failure to Track: When the Ann Arbor school's Count Day numbers came out, and they were below expectations, much of the attention went to the number of AAPS high school students who were enrolled in the IB, WAY, and ECA programs. And the district seemed surprised by this. To my mind, either they weren't surprised, but wanted the public to feel that they were (which would be misleading), or they were surprised. And if they were surprised, then I have to ask why that is. You might remember that my son applied to the IB program at the Washtenaw International High School--and he found out that he was accepted sometime in late winter or early spring. Now surely, as consortium members, the district could find out how many Ann Arbor students had gotten in to--and later, decided to go to--these alternative programs. The question is, why didn't they take those numbers into consideration as they constructed this year's budget?

4. Transportation Thinking: I don't think the school board and administration really took into account the way that threatening to cut high school transportation could affect the way students looked at schools. I'll probably never be able to prove this, but to my mind, when the district said--at the same time that students were looking at high schools--that high school transportation might not be available, it changed the equation for many parents. I know for myself that I was intimidated by the idea of transporting my son to the IB school. On the other hand, if I lived far from my district high school, and would have to transport my child anyway, then I would not be comparing "drive my child to one school or have him take a bus to the other" but rather "drive my child to school A or school B?" So even the threat of the transportation being cut may have influenced the debate for students at the time when the choices were being made.

5. Going it alone: I believe the ECA, the IB program, and the WAY program are all very worthwhile. But Dexter--which decided to do its own IB program, and which decided not to join the WISD transportation consortium--may have done the best job in looking out for Dexter. I am glad to see the Ann Arbor school board now considering doing its own IB program, even if the consortium IB program continues.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Exchange Student: Question #1

As I've mentioned, we have an exchange student living with us. Occasionally, I will share some of her questions about the U.S. educational system.

A recent question:

Why do American teachers give extra credit on tests and for homework?


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

School Finance: Can We Change Proposal A?

This discussion took place in the comments section of this blog post. I thought it was worth sharing more widely. Many thanks to Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools for providing such great detail!

CG said...
Is anyone talking about making a campaign to amend the Proposal A section of the constitution? It seems like that's what it would take to fix this situation.
Steve Norton, MIPFS said...
There is always some talk about changing Proposal A, especially now that nearly 20 years has passed since its adoption. But it's a complex issue, and changing the constitution might not be the best way to fix school funding.

What I'm hearing most about right now are some proposed constitutional amendments (in the Legislature) that would restrict use of the state School Aid Fund to K-12 education only. (Currently, some of it is being used to pay for higher education - a use that is allowed under the Constitution but was clearly not anticipated by the authors of Proposal A.) As we saw last year, constitutional amendments are hard to sell to the public, but this one might have momentum. However, it would not truly solve the problems.

The funding system created by Proposal A has a lot of pieces, not all of which are in the Constitution. Different people dislike different parts of it: some upstate residents are angry that per-pupil funding has not yet been fully equalized across the state; some districts are frustrated that they cannot vote to increase their own taxes to support school operations; most people like the limits on the growth of taxable value of property but many - especially those in real estate - do not like the fact that taxable value resets to SEV when a property is sold (the "pop-up tax").

There are really two approaches to changing the funding system: giving local districts more control, and changing the funding stream. A lot of districts, typically those with high property values, would love to be able to increase their own local taxes to fund school operations. However, across the state, most districts have a pretty modest tax base and would not benefit much from that (and they worry it would increase inequality and reduce pressure to increase funding for all schools). It would be very hard to move any but the most limited proposal along these lines through the Legislature, though it can be changed in statute and does not need a constitutional amendment.

The other approach is to change the funding stream - and this can also be done in statute. Increases in the 6 mill State Education Property Tax are difficult - the constitution requires a 3/4 super-majority in both houses of the Legislature to do this. However, most of the state School Aid Fund comes from the sales tax and the income tax. Changing the rate of the sales tax might take a constitutional amendment (and would be undesirable for other reasons), but extending the tax to services can be done by the Legislature with a normal change in the law. Since services have been the growing part of the economy, and retail sales have not grown as fast as the economy, this would fix one of the built-in limitations of the current funding system. Similarly, the formula for earmarking income tax receipts to School Aid can be changed with normal Legislative action.

But recently, we've been going in just the opposite direction. As part of Gov. Snyder's proposal to end the Michigan Business Tax and replace it with a much smaller Corporate Income Tax (passed into law in 2011), the state School Aid Fund permanently lost $750 million per year that had been earmarked from the MBT but was not replaced. This helped turn the dip in school aid caused by the recession into a permanent state of affairs.

The true battleground is tax policy. If we want to fund education adequately state-wide, we need to change the funding stream to education. There is no mystery about how to do this. What is lacking is the political will - in the Governor's office and in the Legislature - to even discuss raising revenue for the benefit of education.

Steve Norton
Executive Director, Michigan Parents for Schools
CG said...
Thank you, Steve, for this--very informative. How can interested people (like me) help?
Steven Norton said...

That's a good question: how can interested people help?

There are several layers to this. One is local, and it has to do with getting the community re-engaged with our local public schools and reminding people that we have a responsibility to our community and our future when we consider options for our schools. We're not customers, we're owners - and that implies both authority and responsibility.

But on the state level, residents of the Ann Arbor Schools region need to be a little creative. Unlike parents in much of the western and northern parts of the state, our state legislators are almost universally supportive of more funding for education and community control of our schools. Voting for state-wide offices is important. But perhaps most important is to take the lead in shifting the debate on education policy.

Ann Arbor is in a special position to lead on this issue, because we are an affluent community that cares about quality education but wants it for all children, no matter where they live. We don't have a problem sharing resources; we just want to be able to keep what is best about our schools at the same time. This gives us the opportunity to take the moral high ground: what we want for our children is what we want for all children. My organization has taken precisely this position on hot-button issues like the Education Achievement Authority, and as a result we were able to bring together groups that don't usually work with each other, from both upstate and western Michigan and Detroit. We need to break down the regional barriers that have fractured the parent community and prevented us from uniting behind a common purpose.

How to do this? Well, all Ann Arbor citizens can help back up our state lawmakers when they argue for sound education policy in Lansing; we can also reach out directly to lawmakers from other regions. Parents and citizens can participate in state-wide efforts to unite those who care about authentically public education, giving strength to the efforts of organizations like Michigan Parents for Schools. We can and should form alliances with people of goodwill in all parts of the state. And we can use the intelligence and energy of our community to change the public discourse about education all across our state. The current trend to denigrate community-governed public education is based on some core (flawed) ideas; we need to spread other ideas that remind people why our nation has always put a top priority on democratically-governed public education.

It won't be easy or quick. The current situation, where education is seen as just another consumer good and market competition its salvation, has been decades in the making. If we are to turn it around, we must all look beyond the walls of our own schools and the borders of our neighborhoods, and ask others to do likewise.

Steve Norton
Executive Director, Michigan Parents for Schools

Sunday, November 10, 2013

iPad Technology in Schools: What's the Highest, Best Use?

The other day, Amy Biolchini's story about the Chelsea Schools and their iPad problems caught my eye. In "Students evading security software, gaming on iPads post challenge at Chelsea High School," Biolchini writes that,

Officials at Chelsea High School are learning there’s an iPad application for just about everything—except for keeping students from gaming during class.
After the school shifted to one-for-one computing this fall with iPads in the hands of each of the 839 students, administrators are working through challenges inside and outside of school.
A program loaded on to the student’s iPads that filters Internet access has made it difficult for students to work on the devices outside of the school building.
“The biggest challenge has been the whole filter piece,” said Superintendent Andy Ingall. “We certainly want kids to be protected, but it’s a challenge. Access at home has been a big challenge for a pretty good-sized group of kids.”
Nine weeks into the implementation, students are now able to access the Internet at home on their iPads. But now administrators are turning to another issue that’s arisen: students are finding it easy to get away with playing games on the iPads in class.
The reason this caught my eye is that a couple of weeks ago I had read an article in Slate magazine about the roll-out of iPads in the Los Angeles United School District. And that process--which is a $1 BILLION program, by the way--has also not gone so well. Essentially, it has taken almost no time for students to be able to hack the iPads, which were set to essentially be Pearson curriculum delivery devices. Pearson (a for-profit textbook manufacturer, among other things) has contracted with Apple to put its copyrighted material on the iPads. Conveniently enough, they also provide standardized tests to go with them! AND because the Pearson contract is directly with Apple, and not with the school district, it seems to be almost impossible to find out how much money Pearson is making off of this. But I digress, because my main point is this:

From the Huffington Post:

It took just a week for nearly 300 students who got iPads from their Los Angeles high school to figure out how to alter the security settings so they could surf the Web and access social media sites.
But the Slate article, entitled Kids Should Hack Their School Provided iPads, had a slightly different perspective. The subtitle? "That's how they learn." Writes Katherine Mangu-Ward, 

Last year, 40 tablet computers were delivered to the children of two remote Ethiopian villages. The villagers were 100 percent illiterate—the kids had never seen road signs, product labels, or printed material of any kind.
Technicians from the One Laptop Per Child program dropped off a stack of boxes, showed a couple of adults how to use the solar chargers, and then walked away. Within minutes, the kids had cracked the packaging open and figured out how to turn the tablets on. Within weeks, they were singing their ABCs, picked up from the English-language learning software installed on the tablets. Within five months, some kid figured out that the tablets had built-in cameras—they had been disabled for ethical reasons—and hacked the Android operating system to activate them.
So, frankly, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock when a few hundred of the tech-drenched children of Los Angeles figured out how to “hack” the $678 iPads they were given by their school district, just one month into the new school year.
The article goes on to say:

But why would students gaining mastery over their digital devices be considered a “runaway train” at all? The iPads were loaded with software from the textbook giant Pearson, so perhaps the fantasy was that high school students would be content paging through glowing versions of their textbooks.
But the whole point of introducing current technology into the classroom is to help education catch up with the rest of the world, which has been utterly transformed by fast computers with fast Internet access.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology in education, traditional schools tend to use fuzzy math. Give ’em iPads, the thinking goes, and the test scores will soar. The intended mechanism isn’t always clear, and the vision becomes even more muddled when the inevitable committees, unions, and concerned parents get involved. The result too often is restricted access to semi-useless tech crippled by proprietary software deals and censored Internet.
Implementing bold ideas like “flipping the classroom”—having students watch lectures at home and spending their classroom hours doing problem sets, engaging in group discussions, or getting one-on-one tutorials—means letting kids use the relevant tech on their own time and in their own way. It means trusting them with access to devices like the ones they might someday use at work. 
 In the Chelsea schools, the cost was around $575,000 and was taken from technology funds, from the 2012 bond.
Technology director Scott Wooster said falling technology prices coupled with leftover money that had been budgeted for computer replacement cycles put the district in a position that administrators felt they could make the iPad purchase.
So what are the plans for replacement cycles?

While the teachers are rightfully concerned with gaming going on in classrooms (a concern I share somewhat, but really--what did they expect?), I found a couple of other things concerning in Biolchini's article on the Chelsea schools. (And I have no idea about most of what is on the iPads. Is it Pearson--or other--textbooks?)

1. There is an app called iBoss on the iPads. It not only filters the internet, it is a tracking device.
If it gets to the point where we need to regulate what students are looking at or downloading, iBoss keeps an account of that. The only time that we will check that is if a parent calls us, or is a teacher in class notices a student off-task and is looking at sites that maybe they shouldn’t be then we can pull up their history,” Kapolka [Chelsea High School principal] said.
You might feel that students need tracking. I myself am more concerned with "Big Brother" than I am with students doing some gaming. However, in the article, one of the students asserts that lots of students have been deleting the iBoss app.

2. Sophomore Alayna Schweda said,

On one hand, your studying materials: you don’t have the your second time of writing them down in notes, so it’s a little harder to remember, and it’s kind of a big transition.
So now we encourage students to study things but they don't take notes on them?

3. What's the penalty for gaming?
Taking the device away if a student is found gaming is the school’s solution now. Students will receive two warnings for misuse before the device is completely taken away from them.
So if the textbooks and the classwork and the homework are all on the iPad, and you take the iPad away, how exactly is that student going to be able to keep up with the classes? This reminds me of some of the research on student suspensions, which indicates that when you take kids out of the classroom, they fall further behind.

My takeaways from this:

1. Administrators and teachers are often blinded by shiny new technology. I'm not saying that technology can't be used for good in classrooms. Of course it can be, and some teachers do. But most, don't.

2. Technology can often be a distraction. There is a reason the Socratic method has lasted as long as it has. Questioning, and discussions, are fundamental to teaching. To the extent that technology can support discussion and understanding, that's great--but often, it serves to distract from that.

3. If one is going to use technology in the classroom, then one can't be afraid of the technology. Fundamentally, I think the idea of "controlling" the students using the technology is at odds with students using the technology.

4. Beware Big Brother. Who controls all the information that gets input into the iPad or computer, when students answer math questions or write an essay? Does that information go back to the textbook manufacturers or is it only used locally? I think it's fair to ask what is on the iPads (or other technology), and how that fits into for-profit educational models. Certainly, Apple and Pearson stand to make a boatload of money (or two boatloads! $1 billion dollars, if the deal--currently paused--eventually goes through). I think there are some civil liberties issues here.

5. Clarity of purpose, use, and replacement planning is essential. It doesn't seem to me that either Chelsea schools or the Los Angeles schools have that. Who is paying for these and what is the replacement cycle? What is their purpose? How will they be used differently from textbooks? (Because iPads are very expensive textbooks.) What happens if a student breaks or loses an iPad?

When we can answer these questions, then we might be ready to include the technology in the schools.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ypsilanti Community Schools Perspective: Election Day Blues

A guest post from Ypsi Anon:
Unlike Russell Brand , I vote. 

I vote every chance I get.  I am convinced that my vote is the most important of all the votes cast, and that if I miss an election, bad things will happen and it will all be my fault!

I also believe that if I don’t vote, I don’t have a right to complain about politics, regardless of whether my candidate or issue won or lost, and I really don’t want to hide my opinions.

I like the concept of being represented in local government by someone who’s “one of us.”  Even when I disagree with the representative’s position, I try to convince myself that each person voted in is trying to make our community a better place.

One year ago, the voters in Ypsilanti and Willow Run took a bold leap of faith—or was it of desperation?—and cast their votes in favor of consolidating the two school districts.  Also on the ballot were candidates for the school boards of each district.  They became winners with an asterisk, never serving a single day in the old districts, because our elected school boards were quickly dissolved as part of the consolidation process, and a new board was appointed by the WISD board.

Citizens had (and still have) varying degrees of understanding of what would happen during the transition to a new school district.  One big change was that we lost our locally-elected representatives.  Many people knew this would happen, but not as many knew that the next chance we would have to vote for our school board would be TWO YEARS LATER.  Yes, for two years our appointed school board has no accountability to the public, but to the superintendent instead.  That was made clear from the start. 
In frustration, some people said they couldn’t wait to vote in a new board in November, then were stunned to learn it wouldn’t be THIS November. [Ed. Note: New state law says that school board elections can only be held in November of even-numbered years. That is just one more example of the micro-management of the state legislature when it comes to schools.]

Two years.  Two years of being disenfranchised (and I mean that both in the sense of not being able to vote and of feeling powerless).  Two years of people giving up hope that they have a say in what happens to our schools.  Two years to crush any lingering activism that remains here.  A lot of damage can happen during these two years.  Who will want to run for the board by the time we have that election?

Today is Election Day.  There is nothing and no one to vote for in Ypsilanti.  We have no voice.

It is going to be a long year.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ann Arbor & Saline: Vote on Tuesday!

If you're like me, the first reminder that there is an election on Tuesday came in a school email that reminded me that there is no school (at least in Ann Arbor) on Tuesday. Many
of the schools are also voting sites.

I think I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that there are some school-related items to vote on (plus some other items, including, in Ann Arbor, city council...)

Taken from

Saline: Non-homestead Millage Renewal. Find out more here (Saline Schools), and here (Saline Post). If this is not renewed there will be a nearly 16% cut in school funds.

Ann Arbor: Sinking Fund. Find out more here (Ann Arbor schools), and here (Ann Arbor News).

Sinking Fund Discussion

Sinking fund monies pay for infrastructure. I asked Liz Margolis for a complete list of what the sinking fund monies were spent on in the past few years, and was told it would be posted on the schools web site last week, but I don't see it.

The arguments that I have heard for the sinking fund:

  • Schools need every penny they can get. Money keeps getting cut from schools.
  • Sinking fund monies get spent on things that need to happen anyway (for example, replacing a roof or a furnace) and if the sinking fund isn't supported by the voters then that money will have to come out of operating funds--which is the area that has been hit hardest by state cuts. So by supporting the sinking fund you effectively allow more money for expenses like teachers and you protect the classroom.
The arguments that I have heard against renewing the sinking fund: 
  • People are tired of funding "things" around the school (e.g., technology, furnaces). One would prefer to fund personnel, photocopies, etc.
  • The school board is going to use the money for things people don't agree with--an example being spending current sinking fund monies on video monitors at school doors.
On the "con" side, as far as the first point goes, let's just be clear--the school board is not allowed to put forward a millage for us to vote on that would support general operating costs, such as personnel. If they could, they would. (Why? Proposal A. Look for a post about that sometime soon. Maybe even this week.)

As far as the second point goes, I personally feel this is a valid point. It is the same issue, by the way, that came up last year with the technology bond. In thinking about the technology bond, here was the issue: Yes, teachers and kids needed new computers; the schools needed updated technology infrastructure; and in an ideal world it would be paid for from operating costs (as ongoing expenses) but as far as school finance goes, we are living in a much less than ideal world. 

On the other hand, by providing those new computers we were making it easier for the district to administer standardized tests which I personally don't support. So even though I did end up voting for the tech bond, I am sometimes sorry that I did.

I wish I had the list of things that the sinking fund has been used for in the past, but I think it's safe to say that for the sinking fund, the majority of expenditures will be a) legitimate; b) necessary; and c) things that most of us would approve of doing. 

Some expenditures, however, will likely be on items about which we disagree. The proposed security measures are one example of this

And in a related blog post, you can both read about the added Haisley playground accessibility features (funded by the sinking fund) and--in the comments--some discussion of one person's negative perspective on the sinking fund. I think that essentially shows both sides of the story. 

If you own a house--which I do--and actually, you probably know this even if you live in a leased dwelling--you know that houses and buildings need "refreshing" periodically to run well. But whether a family "refreshes" by making do with some patched-up fix-it job, or getting the low-budget minimum-necessary item, or choosing the high-end marble finish, depends on a mixture of budget and perspective. In the schools, that perspective includes how much heavy use something will get (will kids be jumping on it every day?) and how long you want that something to last. (As an example, we have some very old boilers in the school district, and some of them are still working, and working well. But every time they break, then there are some decisions that need to be made.)

So in the end, I think, it comes down to whether you trust the school board and the administration. Because ultimately they are going to be the ones deciding on the expenditures that will be paid for out of the sinking fund. If you trust them, you will probably want to support the sinking fund. And if you don't, then you might not. But if you don't, then maybe we've got bigger problems.