Thursday, June 26, 2014

4 Reasons Why You Will Mostly See New Custodians in the Ann Arbor Schools Next Year

With the rapid privatization and outsourcing of custodial services in the Ann Arbor schools to GCA (assuming that goes through), you can expect that most of us will not see the same custodians in our schools in the fall.

Here are 4 reasons why.

1. Some of them will retire.

2. Some of them are very angry at the way they have been treated by the school system, particularly given the fact that they have taken pay cuts over the last few years, and they were given very very little notice that this would happen. Some of them would therefore prefer to take unemployment and look for other jobs.

I spoke to someone in that situation. She said to me, "I bought a house in Ann Arbor, I pay Ann Arbor school taxes, and now I'm treated this way?"

3. Most custodians would have their pay cut if they go to GCA Services--not to mention that they will lose their retirement benefits in any case.

4. It is not in GCA's interest to hire the majority of the custodians back. One person told me--I have not verified this yet--that if they hired more than 50% of the custodians back they would need to recognize the AFSCME union. (Even if this is not true, though, it is obviously true that if the custodians were happy with their union, the more custodians they hire from the union shop the more likely the custodians are to try and organize. GCA is recognized as fairly negative to unions, so that is not something they will want to do.)

[See, for instance:  GCA Services Enters Federal Consent Decree to Remedy Wide Ranging Accusations of Labor Law Violations]

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014, some of the labor groups held a press conference before the school board meeting. You can listen to what custodian Toni Lemons had to say here.

[I think you will have to download it. This was my first try at embedding an audio file but I am not yet wholly successful.]

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Guest Post! Helen Keller and Education for People Who Are Blind: Ann Arbor Library Exhibit

I was on my way into the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library for this school board meeting when I noticed that there was an interesting exhibit.

Hall Braille Writer. Picture by Patti Smith.

The Exhibit & My Interest in Helen Keller

Called Child in a Strange Country: Helen Keller and the History of Education for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, the exhibit is up through Wednesday, June 25th (coincidentally, the next school board meeting), in both the lobby and on the third floor of the library. So yes--that means you can see the exhibit before you go into the school board meeting! Convenient, huh?

Most people don't know that I have had a special interest in Helen Keller ever since Skyline High School did The Miracle Worker as its very first play, when everybody in the school was a ninth grader. My daughter played the role of Annie Sullivan, and as a result, I learned a lot about Helen Keller.

Guest Blogger Reviews the Exhibit--With Pictures, Too!

"Wait," I thought--"I know somebody who teaches children with visual impairments, and she's a blogger. I wonder if she would review this for me? And she did, and she took pictures, too! 

About the guest blogger: Patti Smith is a special education teacher of the visually impaired and learning disabled. She lives in Ann Arbor with her fiance and their two cats. She also blogs at

Thank you, Patti! And I hope the rest of you enjoy the review and pictures, and then are motivated to go see the exhibit.

One of the things that I do in my job as a special education teacher is to try to show people what it is like to have a disability. Of course, a ten-minute demonstration in no way compares to a lifelong condition, but it’s often an eye-opening experience for the participant.

Moon Type. Picture by Patti Smith.
Because I work with students who are visually impaired (and some who are deaf-blind), I am often asked about Helen Keller. Most people have seen the movie and remember the “water, Helen, water” scene at the end. What many people don’t know is that Helen lived a very full life—meeting with presidents, becoming an advocate for women’s rights, having deep and fulfilling relationships, and traveling around the world. Perhaps most importantly, she taught the world that students with disabilities can be taught and can go on to do great things.

Currently, the Ann Arbor District Library has an exhibit on Ms. Keller. On loan from the American Printing House for the Blind, the exhibit features a brief history on Helen’s life as well as a larger display of the educational tools that are used to teach students who are blind and visually impaired.

A Braille slate writer. Picture by Patti Smith.
The exhibit features everything from the earliest tactile books to the latest Braille writers. The original tactile books were raised letters embossed on paper. In the early 1800s, Boston Line Type was developed by Samuel Gridley Howe. This system used angular Roman letters and did not capitalize its words. Around the same time the Lucas Type was developed, using a raised system of straight lines, curved lines, and dots that was based on shorthand. William Moon developed a system that reduced words to their simplest forms and read from left to right on one line, right to left on the next. These codes, while useful for reading, all shared the same problem—there was no simple way to write using any of them.

A tactile modern puzzle map of the U.S. from 2001.
Picture by Patti Smith.
The raised dot code known as the Braille Code eventually became the standard system for people who are blind. One could both read and write using the six dot code. This code includes all letters of the alphabet, numbers, scientific notation and math (the Nemeth Code), and almost 200 short form words and contractions.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of how far we have comes in terms of special education. In Helen’s day, most students with disabilities were not educated. Today, we have students who are deaf-blind sitting in classrooms alongside their peers and learning the appropriate curriculum. It’s cliché to say “you’ve come a long way, baby," but if the shoe fits….

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why Play Nice, Play Fair? No Need In Right-to-Work (For Less) Michigan

Last week, a lot of bad stuff happened at the Ann Arbor school board meeting.

The two most disturbing actions?

1. The school board voted to outsource the custodians' positions to GCA Services (owned by the private equity firm Blackstone) effective July 1, 2014. Yup, that's a fortnight from now. (Trustees Lightfoot and Baskett voted against this.)

2. The school board voted that if the teachers didn't accept a salary freeze through a Memorandum of Agreement (union/board) by July 23, 2014 (that's Monday), the school board would terminate the union contract. This would have the effect of freezing the current wages and at the same time, when the contract was (presumably) renegotiated, many of the terms and conditions in the would not be allowed under the new work rules in Michigan--in particular, tenure and seniority rules. This measure was approved unanimously.

Welcome to the brave new world of school funding cuts and more cuts.
Welcome to the brave new world of a right-to-work state and union busting.
Welcome to the brave new world of taking our tax dollars and using them to fund for-profit, private firms.

State Funding

In better news: at the board meeting, Christine Stead did a nice job of explaining the vagaries of state funding (the conference committee budget basically hobbles Ann Arbor, Dexter, Saline, Ypsilanti Community Schools, and some others) and helps a few local school districts (the lowest-funded districts, like Milan, Whitmore Lake, and I believe Manchester). The state budget also sends a lot of money to for-profit charters and virtual schools, which get $175 in additional funding per pupil vs. $50 for Ann Arbor. [On Stead's blog, you can read about the AAPS presentation this week to the State Board of Education as well as some proposals for ways to improve school funding.] Their ideas--good ideas--are to have charter schools also have to pay state retirement, and to allow local school districts to ask for local tax levies for operations--currently that is not allowed under state law. And the district did join the superintendents of other districts in a press conference that day. Ann Arbor is a huge donor district (most of the taxes we raise go to support other districts) and yet we are getting the lowest increases in funding.


Anyway--back to the custodians.

In 2010, during another round of privatization discussions (we've been through this with food service and transportation, remember) I posted this on this blog:

At the budget meeting that I went to, several people at my table raised concerns about privatization. They wondered what the actual (not projected) savings were when the food service was privatized (the facilitator didn't know). They talked about how satisfaction (on the part of people who eat the lunches) had gone down. And they wondered about the effects on the "lunch ladies."
"Well," our facilitator said, "I believe that the new company hired everyone who wanted to be hired, for the same wages, and the only thing they lost was retirement benefits."
It's more than a little bit troubling to hear someone who makes more than $100,000/year (the facilitator referred to above is an AAPS administrator) talk about someone who is living on $25,000/year and say "they only lost retirement benefits." I'm pretty sure if I talked about yanking her retirement, she would be pretty upset, and she's not living near the poverty level.

Retirement costs, in fact, are the main reason for privatizing (since the custodians already gave major concessions a couple of years ago). Basically, if somebody is an AAPS employee, AAPS has to pay their retirement costs (state law)--and if they are not, they don't.

I found Jeanice Swift's letter to Ann Arbor parents about the custodian privatization to be disingenuous. [Read it here--with my comments.] I'm still not clear why she felt she needed to respond to the emails she and the board were getting about custodians losing their jobs and face pay cuts with "everyone gets an interview" and "pay cuts will not be as significant as perceived." An interview is not a job, and if you only make $25,000 a year and you get a 10% pay cut plus lose your retirement? I think that's pretty significant. Saying, "all the other districts are doing it too?" My parents didn't take that as a good reason to do or not do something. Speaking for myself, I'd prefer the honesty of  a letter that said simply, "this sucks and it's because of the state legislature's decisions, and we are trying to keep the cuts away from the classroom."

The other very disturbing piece of this has to do with the timing. The outsourcing was approved by the board as a special briefing. Any time you see the words "special briefing" you know that means that they are not following their own approved process. They are rushing things through. While I feel O.K. about that for ordering the Huron High School band uniforms, which would be done anyway and for which the money was already set aside (another item on the agenda), I'm not O.K. with that for decisions like outsourcing custodians. [I've written about this before in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. I'm starting to see a pattern here.]

The custodians had come to the school board with a proposal for a worker-owned co-op, and the board--with straight faces--tried to tell them that if they had only proposed that a little earlier...oh gee they really wished they could do it but their counsel told them that since the RFP had closed they couldn't...

Since it's a special briefing item, though, you know the board was working on a ridiculously short timeline. The union was told about the RFP and the agenda item less than a week before the RFP made it on the agenda.  The RFP was posted for only a week. How long do you think the top 3 companies knew that the RFP was coming? A different timeline could have led to a different result.

[By the way, teacher Chloe Root has started a petition out asking the board to reconsider. Sign it here.]


How about those teachers? 

We might describe the resolution passed by the school board as a Faustian bargain--on the part of the district.

Last year, with Superintendent Pat Green, the AAEA (teachers' union) agreed to a salary freeze, advertised as "one year only." At the time, I wondered about that--figuring that the state's school aid fund probably wasn't going to look better next year, so why make a one-year only plan? But Pat Green was on her way out, and I believe she only cared about getting the budget out the door, whatever it looked like. I don't know what the teachers' union was thinking.

In any case, Jeanice Swift walked into a situation where now she had to ask the teachers to again take a salary freeze, and my guess is that the teachers' union was not too happy about that. There is, really, an alternative to a salary freeze though--and it's having larger class sizes. Parents wouldn't be too happy about that, we already know it is one reason people have left the school district, but it exists.

Apparently, the teachers' union has not been all that willing to concede the salary freeze again. And yes, it's true that the teachers have had many types of cutbacks for many years. So after going into executive session, the school board came out and voted--unanimously--to terminate the teacher contract unless the teachers agree to having a total wage freeze, as agreed to by a Memorandum of Agreement by this Monday, June 23d. Under termination, teachers still get the a wage freeze, but lose some of the items in the contract.

And here's where Faust comes in--maybe. Several things have changed in state law in the past couple of years, including right-to-work and some changes in the teacher tenure law. There are items in the contract that cannot be retained if the teachers' union loses this contract and starts a new contract--primarily around tenure, seniority, and right to work/union dues.

So the school board--and the Superintendent--are essentially bullying the teachers and forcing the teachers to say "uncle." But that's at the risk of having much worse relations with the teachers in the future. Could this have been avoided?

Maybe it's not such a risk. I have a perception that the teachers' union is dispirited and disorganized. Expect the number of retirements to rise...


Let's Privatize the Teachers

Now if you are wondering: why don't they just privatize the teachers? Could they privatize the teachers? That's what the charter schools do. Retirement costs are the main driver of the reason to privatize, right? The districts  have already outsourced the substitute teachers, the food service workers, the school bus drivers... Everybody knows the "first they came for the Socialists" passage by Pastor Martin Niemoller, right?

They would, probably, if they could--and maybe soon they will be able to.

But for now, they can't. I had to ask Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools about this--and it turns out that he had been wondering too, and had looked it up (thank you Steve for being an education policy wonk!!). This is an excerpt from his email, and my takeaway is that "the devil is in the details."

Under current law, school districts must hire teachers directly - i.e., teachers must be direct employees of the school district. The language is a consequence of this part of the revised school code:
380.1231 Hiring of teachers; teachers' contracts generally.Sec. 1231.
(1) The board of a school district shall hire and contract with qualified teachers....
Unlike other sections that cover background checks, etc, this section does not mention or include public school academies (charters). In the sections that create charters, they are given explicit permission to hire outside individuals or firms to provide comprehensive services to and operate the charter. Thus, outside management companies may be hired by charters to run the schools, including hiring teachers.
In an attorney general opinion from 1997 (? I think), the AG determined that direct employees of any school board, including the boards of charter schools, MUST participate in MPSERS. However, contract employees MAY NOT participate in MPSERS. 
Since charters are allowed to contract out instructional services, they can avoid paying into MPSERS on those employees. Local school districts are not allowed to do that, and so they must therefore pay into MPSERS for teachers and all direct employees. 
This is the reason that even "self-managed" charters like Ann Arbor Learning Community technically "lease" their employees from a private firm, which allows them to classify teachers as contract employees and thus avoid paying into MPSERS on their behalf. Very, very, few charters participate in MPSERS. 
By the way, the original version of the charter uncapping bill, SB 618 of 2011, included a new section (section 1231A), which would have allowed local school districts to contract out for teachers. That provision was not removed until the bill got to the Senate floor, as part of a compromise to get it passed. (Emphasis added.)



I dream a world, where those same cuts need to happen, but the district shares the possibility with the custodians that this might happen three months in advance. Then the custodians have time to organize the employee-owned co-op. They lose their retirement, but they get to maintain their dignity. We get to keep our money from going to fund yet another for-profit business. That requires the timing to be different, and I believe it could have been different.

I dream a world, where the district asks the teachers' union to find those same cuts as a salary freeze or in some other way, and gives the union time to figure that out.

I dream a world where the district's timelines for working with employees are more reasonable, and where the district doesn't try to hide things from the public, or push important items through on special briefings...

Wait--that's not my REAL dream.

In my REAL dreams, all schools are adequately funded, Michigan is not a right-to-work-for-less state, AND the school board uses reasonable timelines.

That first set of dreams? They could be a reality, if the school board and the superintendent would decide to treat their employees with respect, and not as commodities.


Lingering Question

Was this a conscious choice on Jeanice Swift's part, to shorten timelines in order to keep the public and the employees out of the process? Or did everything take longer than she thought it would and with a new finance person and her first budget, everything got done at the last possible minute?

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Consider Running for School Board

Did you like what the AAPS Board decided about the budget, the custodians, or anything last night? (I have no idea at the time of this writing what they decided...) Do you want the power to influence the direction the school board takes?

Maybe you should consider being a school board candidate.

Board of Education Prospective AAPS Candidate Information Meeting - June 12, 6pm

The Ann Arbor Public Schools will have four seats open on the Board of Education - four year teams each starting January 2015. The election will be held on Tuesday, November 4, 2014.
In Ann Arbor, prospective candidates are invited to an information session with current school board members and members of the AAPS Administration team to learn what the duties and responsibilities of a Trustee are as well as have the opportunity to ask questions of current Trustees and the Administration.

All Local School Boards: Election Information and Timeline

NOTE: This will be the very first election for Ypsilanti Community Schools! Good candidates are especially needed! 

Also note: Due to new state law, school board elections can only take place on even-year November elections, so don't miss the opportunity!

July 22, 2014 – 4pmFiling due for November Board of Education Affidavit of Identify and nonpartisan nominating petition. (A $100 nonrefundable fee may be filed in lieu of a petition)
July 25, 2014 – 4pmWithdrawal deadline
November 4, 2014Election Day

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

AAPS Budget Vote Wednesday 6/11/2014: Custodian Outsourcing, State Budget Realities

A Packed AAPS Day on June 11: Planning, Executive, Board Meetings

This coming Wednesday, the Ann Arbor school board is expected to vote on a budget. Front and center will be the question of out-sourcing the positions of custodians.

That question finds itself on the agenda of the Planning Committee first, at 9 a.m. on the 11th.
Location: Balas Administration Building, Main Conference Room
Members: Christine Stead (Chair), Glenn Nelson, Irene Patalan
Then in the evening there is an executive session at 5 p.m. According to the agenda, the purposes of the executive session are:
Closed session of the board for the purposes of:Section 8(h) - considering material exempt from disclosure under attorney/client privilege informationSection 8(c) - strategy and negotiation sessions connected with a collective bargaining agreement, requested by the Superintendent.
 I'm not sure what is going to be part of the discussion there, but it could be related to the custodians since there is a union contract for the custodians (personnel issue) involved. And in addition, the district's budget proposal involves salary freezes for every staff person, and so really there are several unions involved.
Location: Ann Arbor District Library - 4th Floor Conference Room A
343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor

The regular meeting will begin early, at 6 p.m.

Ann Arbor District Library - 4th Floor Conference Room A
343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor

This meeting will be Broadcast live on CTN Comcast Channel 18
Replays: Thursday @ 1:30pm, Saturday @ 8am, Sunday @ 1pm

Custodians and the Expense Side of the AAPS Budget

The "fun" will begin with public comment. Right now the Custodial RFP, the Food Service RFP, and the Budget are all scheduled for special or second briefings, and then they are on the Consent Agenda. 
So, first of all:
1. The Custodian RFP has been on a very fast course. The RFPs were due on Monday and the vote is scheduled for tomorrow. The goal is to decide on the cost savings in the budget. This is a special briefing.
The Custodians, meanwhile, have come up with an idea of a "worker co-op" that would save most of the money from the budget [the bulk of the savings come from the district not having to pay for retirement costs]. In fact, the custodians assert that it "could save AAPS more money than it currently projects to save in the draft 2014-15 Budget (first reading) by eliminating 100+ AAPS jobs as there would be additional savings from not having to set aside an $200,000 for unemployment compensation currently shown in the budget."
Let's ask the school board to put the expected savings in the budget, but to table voting on the RFP to see if they can work something out with the custodians. They don't need to vote on the RFP the same night as the budget, and I have argued before that process is really important and the board shouldn't try and rush things through with "special" briefings. [And there are 4 special briefings at this meeting: the custodians' RFP; A2Tech and STEAM construction projects; the Pioneer High School cooler; and MHSAA membership resolution. Really? Do all four of those need to be special briefings?!]
Read about the custodians' idea here in their pre-proposal

2. Second of all, an astute reader noted in the comments of this blog the other day, 
Reader comment on this article:
Last Year's Candidate, Brian Osborne, Takes Superintendent Job in New Rochelle, NY

As you see, key decisions are embedded in the budget.
In any case, there is a lot to look at on the expense side of the budget. Email your thoughts to:

And/or show up for public commentary or to listen to the budget discussion! It's sure to be an interesting...and long...night.

On the Income Side of the Budget:

A budget was voted out of the state conference committee, 4-1, and according to Gongwer: 

This would provide a $50 per-pupil increase to all districts, with a new equity payment of up to $125 per pupil for districts with a foundation allowance less than $7,251.
The effective minimum allowance would be $7,251 with the basic at $8,099.
The budget in total is higher than what Mr. Snyder and both chambers originally suggested. It is a 4.1 percent increase from the current year budget at $13.87 billion ($114.9 million General Fund, a 51.1 percent decrease).

According to MIRS: 

And Rep. Brandon DILLON (D-Grand Rapids) said lawmakers were moving backwards. Dillon added that under the plan a cyber school in his district would see a $175 per-pupil increase while Detroit public schools would see a $50 increase. 
[As an aside--this proposal--which will probably be signed by the Governor--also says that state schools will need to use the MEAP next year, rather than Smarter Balanced. That's going to be a lot of work in a short time for Michigan Department of Education employees.]

So, I can't really tell--because I can find the agenda for the board meeting [here] BUT AT THE MOMENT THERE ARE NO DOCUMENTS ATTACHED [and yes, I am shouting because it is less than 24 hours before the meeting]--or at least if they are there I don't know where to look for them--

So, I can't really tell based on the last budget documents presented, but I *think* that the district was using the Governor's proposed budget numbers and I *think* the conference proposal is a few dollars better than that--but I'm not sure...

Tomorrow--will you be at the board meeting?

If you can't be there...will you email the board your thoughts?

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ann Arbor Chronicle Column: Students and the Body Politic

Do you spend your time thinking about what it means to have a free press?

Then you might like my latest column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle: Student Press and the Body Politic.

And in this column, I talk a lot about the Washtenaw Community College Voice, the Dexter High Squall, the Community High School Communicator, hometown high school newspaper, the Rye High Garnet & Black! (I could only find links for the latter to the 2011-2012 issues.)

Let me know what you think!

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Last Year's Candidate, Brian Osborne, Takes Superintendent Job in New Rochelle, NY

Last year's superintendent candidate Brian Osborne has taken (is officially going to be offered tonight, I believe) the Superintendent's position in New Rochelle, NY.

New Rochelle is in Westchester County (my home county); has a school population that is about 45% Latino; and over 60 languages are represented in the schools.

Brian Osborne, as you may recall, was offered the superintendent of Ann Arbor position, and turned it down.

Jeanice Swift then accepted it. Which reminds me--we are coming up on her one-year anniversary now. What do you think so far? [I'm pretty happy.]


If you are interested in Brian Osborne and New Rochelle, here are some links:

From New Rochelle Talk: New Rochelle Expected to Name Brian Osborne as New Schools Superintendent (They quote my earlier post extensively.)

Maplewood Online Forum: Superintendent Brian Osborne's Resignation Letter

Maplewood Online Forum: Superintendent Leaving

And by the way--the cost of living is a lot higher in the New York suburbs, looks like their last superintendent got about $279,000 in salary. That is much higher than he would have gotten here, and given the salary cap on superintendents in New Jersey, that is also much higher than he would have gotten in South Orange-Maplewood.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

June 2014: Infographics, Podcasts, and Partners--Maybe?

June Experiments

Last June, you might recall,
I joined a post-a-day "blogathon."

I had the goals of challenging myself to see if I could do it, and also seeing if it would increase my readership. It did both. I also learned some interesting blogging tricks and ideas, and I met some bloggers internationally. (I had guest posts from Singapore and Japan!)

But--it was exhausting. I do, after all, have a full-time job and kids.

So this year I am going to give myself a slightly different challenge, because--really--the reason that I started this blog had more to do with me than with schools.

Quick recap:
I was intrigued by blogging, but didn't fully understand it.
I felt the best way to learn about blogging was to learn by doing.
I searched for a topic and landed on local schools because
a) I already knew a fair amount about them and about education in general, and
b) I felt I wouldn't run out of things to say.

But--there are some blogging techniques I have not learned yet, and since this blog is supposed to be educational for me as well as for you, during June I am going to try to:

a) create at least two infographics, and 
b) record two podcasts or videos and post them.

Maybe I'll do more, but I'm hoping this will keep things fresh and fun--and by posting this, I'm hoping to keep myself accountable. [If you are good at this stuff, let me know because I may need to ask you some questions!]

I know that you are wondering--how can I cheer Ruth on?

Well. . . comments are nice.

Also--if anyone is interested in guest posting or coming on as a regular contributor, please let me know.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I have made this offer before, but I'll just point out that:

a. My youngest child is in high school. I could really use more information about the elementary and middle schools, and I also see that my time on this blog will have a natural end. . . you may be a few years behind me.

b. I don't have any kids utilizing special education services. I never have, in fact, so everything I learn about that system is from friends. . . but maybe you do have direct experience.

c. I do have teaching certification and an education background. But I am not teaching in any local school--public, private, or charter. But maybe you are.

d. I live in Ann Arbor and my kids have attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Let me tell you, the Ypsilanti, Dexter, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Manchester, Chelsea, Milan and Lincoln schools are crying out for more attention. And that's without even mentioning the need for coverage of charters! I'd love more out-county coverage.

e. History. Are you a history buff? There are lots of interesting stories in the education files at the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti libraries, as well as in the local history society files. Would you like to shine a light on some of these stories?

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