Constituent Questions RE AAPS School Board – Christine Stead

MLive is offering a live chat with candidates for 24 hours on Thursday, October 23rd.

I would like to offer a different format: if you have a question for me regarding my platform, voting record, or future vision for the AAPS and how I would envision continuing to serve Ann Arbor Public School District constituents, please submit your questions here.  I will happily address any question anyone might have.

Thank you.


AAPS and WLPS Annexation: Updated Information

Our Superintendent, Dr. Swift, has provided important updates to questions that were open when we voted to proceed with the work such that both communities could vote on this important topic and that state leaders had an opportunity to improve the situation for the Ann Arbor community, particularly, since the current laws were not appealing for our community to proceed with annexation.  Under current law, our taxes increased and our foundation allowance decreased.  We recognized that this is an unacceptable situation for Ann Arbor, which we specifically expressed to state leaders during our BOE meeting on July 30th.

Since then, there have been some changes.  I will reference our Superintendent’s blog, as she does such a nice and thorough job covering progress to date.

Briefly, we are close to having our concerns addressed, but not across the finish line yet.  Taxes are likely to go up $25 annually for a home valued at $200,000 in Ann Arbor.  While this is not a lot, it is an increase nonetheless.  However, it is better than what the current Treasury’s policy would require.

In addition, if the House is successful in passing a bill this week or next, the combined foundation allowance of the new district would be $9,145 – which essentially brings in $2.7M of incremental revenue to the expanded district.

We were awarded an additional $1.4M in grant funding to assist with transition costs related to the annexation.  We will also have an opportunity to apply for the next round of grants in the same category, should the annexation be approved by both communities.

What is important to me is the following:

  • To be successful as a traditional public school in Michigan with the current legislative leadership in Lansing, we must be growing.  A stable or shrinking district requires substantial cuts to operating budgets that are inconsistent with maintaining high quality programs.
  • The WLPS annexation would be aligned with our growth strategy that we embarked on over a year ago.  Further it would make AAPS the 4th largest district in the state, allowing for some additional operational efficiencies to taxpayers in Michigan.
  • Should AAPS continue its growth strategy, we will need to acquire or build new space soon.  We are already building on two campuses.  The acquisition of three under-utilized buildings would be an incredibly economically efficient way to address capacity related to growth.
  • If the annexation is successful, we essentially maintain our neighborhood school model that we currently have and the children in Whitmore Lake will not be deprived of an opportunity to be educated locally.  Further, we have an opportunity to enhance programming in Whitmore Lake that may bring back families that have sought other opportunities in the last few years, as general operating funds to traditional public schools have been so dramatically cut.
  • If the annexation is unsuccessful, a very likely scenario is that WLPS will be dissolved soon.  If so, AAPS could be assigned some or all students in that community; however, we will have no additional funding support and we will certainly have additional transportation costs and capacity needs.  This will be an additional strain on our general operating budget that could be significant at a time when we still are funded less than we were in 2003 in terms of foundation allowance dollars (not adjusted for inflation; that would mean we are under-funded by $20M a year).

This is an opportunity to grow, maintain high quality education and make AAPS stronger.  If the state can address the foundation allowance issue, this will be a very compelling opportunity for Ann Arbor AND Whitmore Lake to become one district, yet again.


AAPS Increase in Enrollment – Just the Beginning

A year ago we set out on an expansive effort to reinvigorate the AAPS.  Our Superintendent and her team worked tirelessly (90 community meetings, several reports and BOE meetings, etc.) to develop community-relevant programs that would take our education environment to the next level.  As a result, we had two ribbon-cutting ceremonies this fall for very new programs and campuses and several other new programs and initiatives.

We budgeted for an increase in 400 students.  Last night, our preliminary enrollment estimates exceed that number (425; which still can change).  This may be the largest increase in students in any traditional district in Michigan this year.

I want to congratulate our team: Dr. Swift and her leadership team; our Principals and Teachers; our families and students – this is a huge achievement for everyone – and all of us will benefit from it.

However, this is just the beginning.  We will continue our work to reinvigorate our programs.  Last night’s BOE meeting covered the many STEAM programs that are either in place or starting across the district at all levels (including being one of the first public schools to have Project Lead the Way in elementary schools).  Skyline’s Principal gave a wonderful overview of their magnet PLTW programs and how STEAM is infused throughout.  However, we also heard from our middle school teacher about the wonderful programs they are doing – including developing roller coasters which integrates science (physics), engineering, math and now business/finance.  This program has been going on in the AAPS for 9 years!  Our colleagues from Singapore will be visiting us in November.  They will be learning from us as well.

Our increase in enrollment is a huge vote of confidence in the AAPS.  But it is just the beginning.  It is an opportunity to work harder on behalf of our entire community.  I look forward to the work ahead and a brighter future for AAPS!

A Closer Assessment of the State’s Color Coding Accountability System: Destructive, not Just Misleading

As I sit at my AAPS BOE meeting, I am trying to find the humor in the state’s color coding system intended to provide a ‘simple color code’ so families can make good choices on behalf of their students.  Laughable: 2 of the 4 ‘green’ (highest-ranking) schools in Michigan are closed.  Destructive: there is an inverse relationship between proficiency results and the color-coding.  Please see the table below for an example, thanks to the analysis of Trustee Andy Thomas:

Color Coded Ranking and Proficiency Comparison

Ashley high school was rated Green, but has no proficiency scores in math available.  This is one of our state’s 4 highest ranking schools in the color-coded system.  Mayville is ranked near the bottom in the top-to-bottom ranking and <36% of their students are proficient in math; however, they are ranked ‘lime’ – which is supposed to be a family’s sign that this is a good school.  In contrast, Pioneer High School is 93% (near the top); 80.9% of its students are proficient in math; but it is ranked ‘red’ – which is supposed to be a family’s sign that this is a bad school.

In comparing Pioneer with other ‘lime’-rated schools, this trend is maintained.

Color Coded Proficiency Comparison

It is hard to imagine that this accountability system is sending the right message to our state’s families.  Rather, this seems to be part of a more concerted effort to destroy our traditional public schools – especially those that are diverse, large schools.

Our BOE has already sent this report to the State Superintendent.  We will also be sending this to our esteemed chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, as they consider changing this system to a letter-graded approach.  If they use the same methodology, but substitute grades A – F for Green – Red, respectively, we have not changed the message to our families.

It is sad that our legislators continue to get away with this kind of poor policy-making.  I do hope we can elect new legislative leaders on November 4th that are truly interested in helping families across our state make good decisions for their children.


Start of 2014-15 Academic Year

The 2014-2015 academic year at AAPS has officially begun for our students!  This is the most excited year yet.  There are many new programs that we are launching this year – and more to come!

Dr. Swift’s Welcome Message

Dr. Swift’s welcome message issued today lists out the many exciting things happening in the AAPS (excerpt below):

“2014-2015 is already shaping up to be an incredible year as we continue to extend and enhance the quality for which Ann Arbor Public Schools has long been known. The Ann Arbor name represents quality teaching and learning experiences and top-shelf academic programs. AAPS educational outcomes, including ACT, Michigan Merit Exam (MME), and Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) consistently place AAPS among top-performing districts in Michigan and across the country.

Rich and plentiful performing arts, elective and extracurricular opportunities abound. After-school, Rec & Ed, athletic, and other enrichment offerings continue to make Ann Arbor Public Schools the envy across the region. The wide variety of opportunities available for students illustrates the Ann Arbor community value of providing a quality ‘whole-child’ learning experience.

AAPS expansions this year include:

-additional Preschool and Young 5s Classrooms,

-phase one of World Language expansion featuring the addition of Chinese, Arabic, and Sign Language offerings across several schools,

-opening of two new school programs:

Ann Arbor STEAM at Northside, K-8 and the Pathways to Success Academic Campus,

-continued technology infusion and enhancements across all AAPS schools, and

-K-12 International Baccalaureate Programming transitioning into Mitchell Elementary, Scarlett Middle School, and Huron High School over the coming three school years.

The most important resource we offer for students and their families in AAPS, however, are not our incredible programs – they are our amazing and talented educators – our teachers and leaders are caring, competent, and committed. You will find that they are exceptional, A+, and that they embody the AAPS mission to:

“ensure each student realizes his or her aspirations while advancing the common good,

by creating a world-class system of innovative teaching and learning.”

AAPS schools also benefit tremendously from a highly engaged, supportive network of parents, community leaders, non-profit organizations, business and higher education partnerships that support and ensure educational excellence in our Ann Arbor community. In Ann Arbor, we are fortunate to enjoy a ‘village’ approach to ensuring quality education for our children.

Our continuing goals this year include ensuring frequent, accurate communication, continuous improvement in levels of responsiveness, problem solving, and quality delivery throughout the organization. We value face-to-face opportunities for community outreach and engagement, and we will soon share more about our 2014-2015 community engagement focus that will take us to every school neighborhood again this year to continue our community conversation. Please watch for more details coming by mid-September.

We are a school district growing and innovating our way forward; we are an organization on the move. We commit ourselves to serve as educators who lead, care and inspire across every classroom, for every child, every day.”

-Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift, Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Swift’s sentiments expressed today.  I want to thank the teachers and administrators that spent so much time over the summer preparing our schools for all of our programs.  Our facilities and custodial staff have done an enormous job preparing our buildings.  The schools I have visited so far today all look impressive.

AAPS Attracting International Families

During a visit with a new family to the Skyline community today, I wanted to share that this family moved to Ann Arbor so that their children could attend school here.  They moved from Singapore and are new to Ann Arbor as of 3 weeks ago.  During a Spring 2014 visit, they felt that Skyline was the best choice for them.  This was an interesting conversation, given the AAPS trip to Singapore this summer, thanks to our partnership with Toyota.  There are so many great things happening across our district!  It’s exciting to get started on a new year.

Board of Education Work

While teachers and administrators are doing their work, the Board of Education continues with its own work.  We will release a letter to the State Superintendent of Schools, Mike Flanagan, next week that describes our experience with the recent color-coded accountability system and highlight other data that could be more informative for families (which I believe was the intent of this system).  A group of us continue to work with state leaders to improve the near term value for Ann Arbor of a possible annexation of the Whitmore Lake Public Schools, while preserving their opportunity to attend local public schools.

Best Wishes – Great Year Ahead!

Best wishes for a wonderfully successful 2014-15 academic year in the AAPS.  A special thank you to all of our AAPS community – students, families, teachers, administrators, staff.  It’s going to be a great year!

M-TAC Rally a Success!

It was a pleasure to be part of the M-TAC rally last night on Liberty Square!  Dr. Swift was exemplary in her knowledge of where we are and what needs to be done.  Representative Jeff Irwin did a wonderful job discussing the state political challenges, as well as his understanding of how we have worked to improve things and where the problem lies.  Our other representatives were there as well.  Lisa Brown was also very inspiring in a pragmatic manner that folks could relate to.

MTAC legislators

Quinn did a fantastic job in organizing the event, keeping everyone fired up and I really loved his ‘largest classroom’ activity where we tried to fit as many people in a small part of the square to mimic what Governor Snyder has done with the EAA, where 100 kindergartners are in one classroom – the activity made the point of just how constructive that environment is to an education.

Further, it was great to see so many wonderful teachers and staff there.  I was also happy to see Donna Lasinski at the event!

Stead and Lasinski at MTAC


AAPS Rating by MDE: State Response to NCLB Waiver vs. Accurate Assessment

The recent rankings by the state’s latest tool to ‘rate’ schools is difficult to understand and the color-coding is misleading.  Keep in mind that this color-coding system has been under legislative debate ever since its inception two years ago, with several legislators pushing for a grade scale system.  The color-coding system follows on the heels of the top-to-bottom classification system (Priority, Focus, Reward Schools).  All of these coding systems are part of the state’s waiver for No Child Left Behind requirements.  Every state has done something to achieve a waiver, including Michigan.

Read the AAPS Superintendent’s blog about AAPS’ recent score here.

Dr. Swift notes some key components that our public should be aware of when reading through the color coding system.  I will highlight a couple of them:

  • AAPS is rated on many more subgroup categories than smaller districts because we are a larger district (and therefore have enough students in more of the subgroups than a smaller district might);
  • In several of our poorest ranking areas, the scoring was driven by student participation in testing, missing by a few students in several cases.

The ‘faith’ that our community should put in these systems is limited. Our BOE has worked with the SBE in the past to improve the top-to-bottom ranking system.  As a result, districts that were scoring 95% or higher on the MEAP went from focus schools one year to reward schools the next (Wines Elementary is a good example).  Another example of how misaligned both systems are is in Allen Elementary: Focus School, but Lime.  Also consider our ‘red’ ranking at Skyline and Pioneer: Pioneer with a long history of excellence and Skyline establishing itself with excellent magnet programs and top student performance and graduation rates.

What should be important to families is the education environment and the outcomes their child is likely to have in that environment.  The teaching staff, administration and families in a community are important.

While the AAPS has much work to do in improving performance in all of our subgroup student categories, progress is being made.  Further, a Bridge report found that at-risk student populations are much more likely to perform better in the AAPS than would be expected (#8 of all schools in Michingan; #3 of affluent school districts). There is some merit in considering other sources and rankings, especially when trying to hone in on at risk student performance.

Certainly districts need to be accountable and families should be able to make choices on clear information.  And yet Michigan education leaders introduce new systems every other year, which take years to refine so that they are clear and can make sense.  I don’t believe we are there yet with the color coding system; I also am not sure it will survive another year as the state looks to consider yet another change to a grading scale system.

At the end of the day, we deliver our education locally – to our community.  We are working to provide the resources and supports that are needed, especially for our at risk student populations.  Providing adequate resources is a particular challenge in a public education environment that grossly undervalues traditional public education.  Nonetheless, we will continue our work with our community and continue to make progress.



AAPS Annexation of WLPS: Possibilities, Milestones and What We Know Today

The annexation opportunity is simple, yet complex.  The opportunity is essentially one in which AAPS becomes a larger district, thereby allowing Whitmore Lake residents to continue to be able to educate their children in their community.  There would also be an improvement in programming.  The specific programming would not be completed by November 4th (election day).  Rather, we would need to conduct an assessment of what set of programs would be most important in the community and work from there to initiate new programs – magnet programs, STEAM, arts, AP, computer science, etc. – all of these are possibilities.  This assessment would likely occur during this year if we were to move forward with the annexation, which would be effective July 1, 2015.  Assessment, planning, hiring, infrastructure work – all of this would need to be done in order to launch new programs in the Fall 2015.

Why The Fast Timeline?

Both boards believed it was important to have this opportunity voted on by our communities in a general election; not a special election for several reasons, including: broader voter participation and no additional expense to run a special election (no additional cost to taxpayers, which would be needed if an election is held later).  In order to meet the November timeline, the following deadlines are in place:

  • Letter of intent to annex is due to State Superintendent Flanagan on August 1, 2014; (submitted)
  • Letter of approval of annexation is due from State Superintendent Flanagan on August 1, 2014; (letter of approval was received on August 1, 2014)
  • Application of grant funds available for consolidation or annexation is due to the Michigan Department of Education on August 1, 2014; (submitted)
  • Approved ballot language must be completed by each County Clerk by August 12, 2014;
  • General election date is November 4, 2014.

What Are the Tax Implications?

  • The state currently requires school districts that are participating School Loan Revolving Fund (SLRF) to levy themselves 7 mills to service the debt.  WLPS is doing this now, and will have a 7.95 mill for their bond debt that they will have 2014-2015.  If combined, the district would have to levy 5.35 mills, which would effectively pay off the debt in one year.  We are asking the state if it is possible to either a) forgive the debt, which would mean no millage increase for Ann Arbor, or b) allow our combined district to spread the millage burden over several years (5 to 8 years).  The current loan is for $20M.  If we were allowed to spread out the millage burden, it is possible our millage rate would only increase by 0.5 mills (so from 2.45 for 2014-15 to 2.95 in 2015-16, which would be the same for the following two years and then start to decrease again, assuming our property values continue to increase at 2% each year).  If property values increase at a faster rate, the effective millage rate will be less.
  • For WLPS residents, their net homestead mills would increase by 0.3341, which includes the primary residence hold harmless millage of 4.4442 mills; sinking fund of 1 mills; decrease on debt for property of 4.51 mills and decrease on recreation mills of 0.6 mills.

What is ‘In It For Me’?

  • WLPS: This is essentially an opportunity to do what the state has prohibited most traditional public schools from doing: invest in education so that they can survive.  With more foundation allowance, there will be more financial resources to pay staff, invest in new programs, attract a talented education staff and improve the quality of education available to their students.  It also means protecting the district from dissolution, which they are essentially one year away from (the state has already opined on this fate for them).  A dissolved district would hurt everyone in that community: children, families, home owners, businesses.  A stronger district would improve home values, draw economic activity and improve the overall quality of life in the community.  It also allows them to pay off their debt and keep their children educated locally vs. being broken into 3 new district areas (likely Brighton, South Lyon and Ann Arbor).
  • AAPS: High quality education in small learning communities is good for everyone.  Being a larger entity would allow us to achieve some additional economies of scale, but having three buildings with capacity would also allow us to continue with our growth strategy and offer small learning communities to those interested in that environment.  There are other incentives that we are also aggressively pursuing with the state in order for this to be a ‘win-win’ for both communities, which includes: higher foundation allowance so we are not losing money to go through with this annexation (which currently we would be: $8/student FTE); additional incentive foundation allowance of $500/student to allow for sustained program improvements; transition assistance from the consolidation grant fund of $4.3 million, which would allow us to adequately invest and launch new programs – and run them efficiently.

What We Don’t Know

  • Incentives from the state: we heard on Wednesday night that there was bipartisan support and interest in this annexation being pursued.  They would help change laws, provide incentives and fast-track anything we might need.  We will see what they actually can provide, but right now they need to do more so that this is a collective ‘win’.
  • Enrollment for WLPS in 2014-15: any significant decrease in enrollment could be problematic for WLPS, with $48,000 in fund equity.  They are very close to being in deficit.  Hopefully this opportunity will inspire folks to stay confident and help participate in new program design, but we will see.
  • Sustainability: ultimately, all traditional public schools have been under attack.  We know we need changes in Proposal A, but until we get them, we will continue to be under attack.  There are no guarantees and the current legislators have been wildly aggressive at underfunding traditional public schools, creating massive incentives for for-profit charter schools while being lax in quality requirements, and creating a huge mis-alignment in pension funding such that charters don’t have to participate, which puts an increased burden solely on traditional public schools.  Will our state change its tune?  Is there recognition of the direct link in economic viability with the quality of education available in a community?  While we don’t know exactly the jobs children today will have, we do know that they will require more sophisticated skills and we need a way to provide them those skills.

Maybe we will see positive activity on behalf of our collective community from many fronts: state and local government and local communities.  That is the opportunity.  For one, I am inclined to support the more positive future where this is a ‘win’ for everyone and children can be educated locally in a high quality setting.  That’s something worth working for, which I will continue to do as I serve on the subcommittee that has been working on this effort.

Please email me or call me with your thoughts and concerns.


AAPS BOE: Student Performance, Audit Outcomes & Co-op Opportunity

Last night’s 7 hour BOE meeting included several important items that are central to the work of the AAPS – so let’s start with why we are here: educating our students.

Student Performance

Student performance measures were still good, showing progress in some very key areas (disaggregated groups showed significant improvements, especially African American students).  However, much remains and we discussed some of the programs and supports that we had put in place that were having a real impact – the Behavioral Interventionists showed many student stories to this effect, as well as an overview of the programs that they had developed.

Graduation rates (2013): 86.78% (4 year cohort)
Graduation rates (2012): 87.44%; 5 Year Rate: 90.19%

While down slightly, the overall rate is an improvement from 2011’s 83.57%.

MEAP Scores

MEAP results showed gains in most areas, including relative to state gains.  African Americans showed very strong growth in reading, math across many grade levels.  We still have much work to do for economically disadvantaged, ELL and others – we know this.  However, the program supports we have put in place have demonstrated some success (including sustained reductions in suspension rates, assisted by our Behavior Intervention Specialist Program).

Across all grade levels, AAPS outperforms the State in Reading by 8 – 22 points; in Math by 27 to 33 points.  When we benchmark AAPS across the county, similar sized districts, and high-performing districts, we are among the top performing districts (keep in mind the comparison with a charter is with one building vs our 31).  Our data is even more impressive when we recognize that 25% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

I’ll publish more on this when we have the report available, when MME is released,  and/or I can put some data in charts.

Audit Outcomes

Plante & Moran shared the outcomes of our performance audit that they conducted this year at our request.  They reviewed the following areas:

  • Compensation
  • HR
  • Finance
  • Facilities
  • IT
  • Energy
  • Enrollment
  • High school scheduling
  • Central Office organizational structure

They noted that we have reduced FTEs by 321 since 2004/5, while student enrollment stayed relatively the same.  We reduced Class 1 employees (Balas, the Cabinet, etc.) by 27%; Secretaries by 54%; tech support by 36%; Principals by 5% and teachers by 8% (I am omitting some categories).  Their findings showed AAPS to be very much in line with similar districts for instructional costs.  We are a few % points over in key areas – areas that I argue we are investing in because we know we achieve better student outcomes.  For example, by maintaining small learning communities in our 21 elementary schools, we certainly have higher administrative costs – and we also certainly have better outcomes for all students.

Where they did identify opportunities, we have already put plans in place to address them:

Some examples: Administrative costs were 72% of the average, while total operations & maintenance were 121%; other support services were 124%; compensation was very much in line (min as low as 95% of the average; max as high as 133% of the average in one category); operational staff costs were lower than the average, but so was their productivity; paraprofessional costs were higher (152% in minimum salary for special ed).

Finance and IT: there are opportunities to realign services and reduce some costs; need to revise policies and procedures to do this, as well as leverage new software that we have just implemented (New World); this should also help with HR.  As a district, we can be more efficient by moving our paper processes to streamlined electronic processes.  Process redesign would be likely to help.  The consultants noted that outsourcing IT had not demonstrated cost savings – so this work will likely be our own.

Facilities and maintenance costs were showing that we were too low in Supervisors, but also our staff were not as productive as our region or state (e.g., grounds FTE in AAPS have 50 acres vs. 81 and 75 in the state and region, respectively).  Energy was another area where we are high: $1.61 per SF vs. region’s average of $1.24 and the state’s $1.11.  We have been saving here, but we changed contracts for this area as well this year; hopefully we can bring those costs down as well.

Most areas where we have opportunities, we also have plans in place as part of this year’s work to improve operational improvements; however, there are more areas to improve.  Most importantly, we have a good administrative team that is interested in doing this work.  When the full report is available, I include a link to it.

Co-op Opportunity

First, let me say that the co-op idea is a good concept.  The fact that Zingerman’s is exploring this option substantiates that this could be a good idea.  Second, we need to be able to offer a living wage for folks to live AND work in our community, but are unable to in the political and funding environment we find ourselves in.  Third, the work of the community, BOE and Administration is to work toward substantive changes made in state funding so that we can invest in our schools to ensure a high quality learning environment.

The co-op idea that was discussed so much recently is still really just that: an idea.  Last night the BOE issued a resolution to describe why we could not consider the revised document that the co-op group had prepared at the end of the day on June 26.  There are many issues with the process used and the document itself; all of which are outlined in the resolution.  Further, there are serious financial flaws in the proposed fee that make what was proposed unrealistic.  Noteworthy flaws with the document include:

  • Submitted outside of the bid process and the negotiating team;
  • Untimely and nonconforming (to the RFP);
  • Submitted by a non-material person (community member; not part of the negotiating team or part of the new co-op organization, since no organization structure and/or key personnel were identified as part of that structure).

Beyond issues with the document, process, etc., the bigger issue is funding.  The kinds of reductions we must make in operations continues in our state’s political climate.  In Ann Arbor, we must work to create other funding opportunities so that, at least in this community, our public schools can better reflect our community’s values.  That is our work ahead.

In the meantime, I do hope that those interested in forming a co-op of any kind can review the resolution, learn what would be needed, learn from what Zingerman’s is doing and continue to be creative.  The district must comply with laws that govern our RFP processes, how we employ people, etc.  At the same time, I know we are all looking for creative ways to sustain our education environment.



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