Monday, October 27, 2014

2014 AAPS Board Candidate: Hunter Van Valkenburgh

Read more about Hunter Van Valkenburgh at:

1.    Staff morale has been an issue in the school district. How do you think the board should monitor and respond to staff morale issues, if at all? Given that the majority of district staff are teachers, should teachers be treated differently (better OR worse) than other staff people in the district?

I am in favor generally of a more collaborative model for dealing with all employee issues, whether they deal with compensation levels, working conditions, or relationships between departments and job categories.  No one should be given special treatment, whether they are mopping floors or figuring out the budget of the entire district.  One thing that might improve morale would be treating all employees as if they were members of a cooperative venture, rather than the top-down, take-it-or-leave-it way they have been treated in recent years.  Sacrifices in compensation from the highest paid employees, while they would not balance the budget, would go a long way toward improving morale among those at the middle and bottom.

2.             What is your position on the amount of standardized testing currently conducted by AAPS (Too much, just right, too little)? What is your attitude toward parents opting out their students from standardized tests that are not state-mandated? What is your attitude toward parents opting out their students from standardized tests that are state-mandated?

We over-test our students, the biggest waste being the NWEA-MAP.  The test may provide some data to teachers for tailoring individual learning plans, but that information can also be gotten more quickly through teacher-created assessments in the course of instruction.  Plans to use the MAP as a teacher evaluation tool are misguided and wrong even in the opinion of the test’s authors.  I fully support any parents who have their child(ren) opt out of such a test. It can amount to 12 mostly wasted hours per year.  While I could not advocate for students to opt out of a mandated test as a board member, I am privately in favor of the movement to reclaim the test process as a means to help schools rather than punish them. If it takes an organized, mass opting out to make the point, I would keep my kids home.  The MEAP and its successors could be used as a rough gauge of school performance to guide school officials at the state level in helping districts who are performing poorly.  It should not be used to reduce funding and/or to punish teachers with pay cuts or demotions.

3.             Aside from the budget, what are your two top priorities for the Ann Arbor schools?

It is hard to pick priorities “aside from the budget”, because every setting of priorities is limited and controlled by the funding available.  With that said, for every decision to come before the board, I would ask myself, how is this going to affect class size and instructional time? My two top priorities are decreasing class size and preserving arts programs.  More individual attention from teachers is the single more important factor in high academic performance.  In addition, practice in music and other arts are shown to be important for development of the brain, so they need protection from cuts on a practical level as well as aesthetic.

4.             What is your opinion regarding the annexation by AAPS of the Whitmore Lake school system? If you had to vote today, how would you vote? What's good about the annexation and what challenges do you anticipate if the annexation is approved?

I plan to vote no on the assumption of Whitmore Lake’s debt.  What is undisputed is that the district would be physically larger, with more buildings, teachers, and students.  Whitmore Lake teachers would get more pay, which is the only aspect of the plan I approve of.  It is unknown what benefits WL students would reap, as they are supposed to remain in the same buildings with the same teachers.  What is disputed is whether that larger district would be better, or whether we would be incrementally impoverishing Ann Arbor students by taking in a distressed neighboring district with poorer performing schools.  Dr. Swift estimated in July that the transition would cost up to $4M, but the state grant is only $1.4M.  There has been no explanation about where the difference went or how it would be funded.

The proponents of the annexation cite its value as a strategy for growth, but their model is dependent on the extension of district borders to more neighboring districts than we have currently, to allow us to poach more students from those districts under Schools of Choice.  That strategy means we would be “rescuing” Whitmore Lake, but then attempting to impoverish Pinckney and other surrounding districts.  Is the long term plan to annex Pinckney too?  Will we eventually swallow up the entire county?

Some voters are rejecting the measure on the basis of not wanting to subsidize WL’s refusal to pay more taxes with our own tax increase.  That is not my attitude, as the $88 or so will not be that much to pay if it really improved things for AA  and WL students.  On balance, however, I don’t think the plan will work out as its proponents do, and it will more likely strain our district more than it improves it.

One aspect of the annexation that is seldom discussed is that it would bring a bloc of anti-tax, mostly Republican voters into the district.  Out-county hostility to school millages is already costing us, with the failure of the last WISD enhancement.  Including those new voters might hurt our ability to renew our essential taxes and force us to cut back more than we wish.

5.             Hindsight is perfect, but whether you are an incumbent, or not: Name one decision that the school board made in the last six months that you think was a very good decision; and name one decision that the school board made in the last six months that you wish had been decided differently. (Incumbents may wish to say how they voted on that issue. It's ok if you changed your mind after the fact...)

I have to go back more than six months, but I think the decision to invest in the STEAM program was a good one.  People are excited about the educational opportunity, and teachers and parents I have talked to are happy about the way it is working out.

The decision to privatize custodial services was a big mistake and unnecessarily cruel. There were already complaints about the conditions of some buildings when school began, and many of the workers re-hired by CGA have since left for better jobs. The explanation that the custodians’ offer to form a cooperative was “too late” seems disingenuous in light of the fact that food service firms were given three opportunities to submit bids in a process that stretched from January until late July. The custodians, by contrast, had 10 days between the request for proposals and the announcement that, essentially, they were all fired.  It seems like a plan to get rid of a union by central administration that some board members supported without question.

6.              Assuming that you are elected, name one or two other board candidates that you would like to see serve beside you, and explain why.

I appreciate Susan Baskett’s experience, judgment, and values.  She voted against privatizing  the custodial services, and she was the lone dissenting vote on hiring Patricia Green, whose disastrous tenure first inspired me to run for the board.  In addition, she is less inclined to make long-winded flowery speeches and waste meeting time.

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