AAPS BOE Retreat Focuses on Increasing Student Voice, Improving Community Relations

Mary Morgan, co-founder of The CivCity Initiative and The Ann Arbor Chronicle, attended the August 26 continuation of the Ann Arbor Public School’s Board of Education retreat. Her coverage of the meeting is below.


BOE retreat
All trustees, except for Board President Deb Mexicotte, were present at the 3:30 PM retreat continuation.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, the AAPS board continued its retreat from Aug. 19. They met from 3:30-5:30 p.m. in the principal’s conference room at Pioneer High School, prior to an executive session at 5:30 and a regular board meeting at 7 p.m. Board president Deb Mexicotte was absent. All other trustees attended the retreat, as did superintendent Jeanice Swift.

During the retreat, the board reached consensus that reports from associations – which are currently delivered at each board meeting – will be given only at the first meeting of each month, rather than at each meeting. There will be a new 4-minute time limit on each report.

Public commentary will remain at 45 minutes near the start of each meeting. Each person’s speaking time will be determined by dividing those 45 minutes by however many people sign up to speak. In addition to the 4-minute limit per speaker, there seemed to be support for a new two-minute minimum speaking turn per person. There was no consensus to add another public commentary slot at the end of the meeting, though trustees might revisit that option later.

The board discussed several strategies to make the public commentary process more efficient, such as putting the speakers’ names on screen so that speakers would know who’s next and get to the podium more quickly.

Regarding student input, superintendent Jeanice Swift told the board that she has asked the district’s five high school principals to choose four students from each school, one per grade, to serve on a student advisory board for her. She plans to meet with the group monthly. She also plans to start an alumni advisory group and a senior citizen advisory group. Trustees discussed the possibility of having an ex officio student representative on the board – as at least one student has advocated for – but thought the student advisory group would be a better approach at this time.

The board talked about the need to improve communication with groups that serve students from low-income families, including Peace Neighborhood Center, Community Action Network and others. A communication breakdown was recently experienced during the rollout of new online registration for high school students, using the InfoSnap system. Swift told trustees that she and her team would address this issue.

Trustees also talked about better communication with teachers, and how in general the board plans to be more visible throughout the district by attending events at schools throughout the year. They discussed the possibility of having board liaisons to each school, but did not seem to support creating those formal positions at this time.

Two major retreat agenda items – financial sustainability and board goals – were only briefly addressed during the final few minutes of the meeting. The issue of moving beyond a growth strategy for financial sustainability – answering questions like what’s the district’s millage strategy for the next five years and does the district need an endowment fund – will be referred to the board’s planning committee. And trustee Christine Stead, the board’s vice president, offered to draft a list of board goals for trustees to review.

Below is a more detailed report of the board’s discussion during its Aug. 26 retreat.

3:30 PM This is the official start time for the continued retreat, but only three trustees – Christine Stead, Patricia Manley and Susan Baskett – are here, as well as superintendent Jeanice Swift.

3:32 PM Trustees Andy Thomas and Donna Lasinski arrive.

3:41 PM Trustees are starting to sit down around the conference table. Still absent are board president Deb Mexicotte and trustee Simone Lightfoot. 

3:42 PM Stead calls the retreat to order. She announces that Mexicotte can’t make it to the retreat because she has a new job that is less flexible. [In mid-August, Mexicotte started work as the University of Michigan’s associate director of a2ru/ArtsEngine.]

Stead reviews the remaining items on the retreat agenda: 

  1. Public commentary.
  2. Student voice.
  3. Community relations: Rebuilding relationships with key stakeholders.
  4. School liaisons.
  5. AAPS financial sustainability.
  6. Board goals.

AGENDA ITEM: PUBLIC COMMENTARY

Stead summarizes the decision reached at the first part of the retreat on Aug. 19, when the board decided to have reports from all associations as part of the agenda once a month, rather than at each BOE meeting. Every association would have 4 minutes to give a report. Previously there had been no time limit. 

Swift notes that it’s customary to give guidelines regarding time limits. Lasinski points out that not every association will give a report.

The board reaches consensus that association reports would occur at the first BOE meeting each month, starting in September.

Regarding student performances at the board meetings: Stead notes that trustees had decided to try to “front load” performances at meetings earlier in the school year, so that in the spring – when the budget work occurs – the board would have more time for business items. She points out that it’s a challenge, because student groups are more prepared later in the year. The board had discussed having student performances only at one meeting each month, but rejected that approach. They want performances at each meeting.

Regarding public commentary, Baskett says she wants to know who is speaking so that she can associate a name with a face. She suggests that each speaker’s name and city/township where they live could be displayed on screen for everyone to see.

In addition, there will be cards that speakers fill out when they sign up to speak. Those cards will collect additional information, including mailing address, phone and email, as well as the topic that the speaker wants to discuss. Swift says she’d like to follow up with each speaker, so contact info will be helpful. 

The board then discusses other aspects of public commentary, including whether to include it at the start and end of each meeting. Baskett notes that she sits on another board that includes two opportunities for public commentary. [She serves on the board of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.]

Lasinski says she likes getting input before the board makes decisions, so she wants to keep public commentary at the start.

Trustees reach consensus to hold public commentary only at the start of each meeting. 

Baskett asks whether it would help with community relations to have a second opportunity for public commentary. Several trustees note that if there’s public commentary at the end of the agenda, probably no one would stay until then, especially if the meeting runs late.

Thomas says that even if there were public commentary at the end of the meeting, “the same people who yelled at us before would do it again,” so it wouldn’t be helpful. Baskett thinks it would show a good-faith effort on the part of the board to have public commentary twice.

Stead suggests putting that option for a second public commentary as a placeholder – one tool for community relations. 

The board next discusses the amount of time for public commentary. Currently they allot 45 minutes total, divided by however many people sign up to determine each individuals speaking time. The maximum time to speak per person is 4 minutes.

Swift notes that many boards require a 3-minute time limit.

Lasinski says that sometimes public commentary lasts longer than 45 minutes because there’s a gap between speakers – it takes time for people to walk to the podium. The board discusses several strategies to make the process more efficient, such as putting the speakers’ names on screen so that they’d know who’s next and get to the podium more quickly.

Manley wants to set a minimum time of 2 minutes per person, saying that you can’t really express yourself in less time than that. Stead adds that one option would be to expand the time for public commentary beyond 45 minutes. Lasinski doesn’t think that would help, noting that trustees have seen efforts by some speakers to “subvert the business of the board” and she doesn’t think that expanding the time would be helpful. She suggests possibly limiting the number of speakers to 25.

Stead notes that some people can state their opinion quickly, so maybe more people could speak. She doesn’t want to limit public commentary too much. Baskett agrees.

Swift points out that some boards will set an earlier cut-off time for signing up to speak at public commentary. And some boards set a maximum number for people to speak on a given topic. 

Another option is to ask people who are speaking on the same topic if they want to coordinate so that fewer people speak but each person gets a longer time, Swift says. Thomas thinks it would be useful to put that suggestion in the guidelines for public commentary that are posted online.

Stead notes that the board is hearing from the public that they need to deal with business items earlier in the meeting, but it takes time to get through public commentary. That extends the meeting, she says, but it’s only a real issue when there’s a contentious topic.

The board reaches consensus that there will be one opportunity for public commentary lasting 45 minutes, with a 4-minute maximum per person. Speakers will need to sign up by the start of the meeting at 7 p.m.

4:10 PM Simone Lightfoot arrives.

Lightfoot circles back to the topic of associations and the decision to put association reports on the agenda at only one meeting per month. She’s concerned that it would seem retaliatory toward one of the associations. [Her reference is likely to the teachers’ union – the Ann Arbor Education Association.]

Thomas says the board is responding to public demand for more streamlined meetings. Swift notes that people representing any association could always sign up for public commentary.

Lightfoot wants to ensure that the board is also looking at restrictions on itself, in terms of streamlining the meetings. Thomas notes that a few years ago, the board discussed the option of limiting each trustee to one speaking turn per topic, but trustees rejected that idea. He thinks they are doing a better job at being disciplined during their discussions. 

Stead thinks that making sure each trustee receives committee reports prior to the board meeting will also help the meetings to be more efficient. 

4:15 PM

AGENDA ITEM: STUDENT VOICE

Swift reports that during her first year as superintendent, there was a “student voice” component in her Listen-and-Learn tour. She met with 6-8 high school groups. It was her intention last year to set up student advisory groups, but that didn’t happen. 

So this year, she has asked the district’s five high school principals to choose four students from each school, one per grade, to serve on a student advisory board for her. These students would not just be valedictorians, she says. The intent is to represent everyone in the school, and to build student leadership. She’ll be meeting with them monthly, in meetings that will include other administrative team members based on what the students want to talk about. The meetings will probably be held during lunch on Fridays. She wants all 20 students to meet as a group.

Swift tells trustees that she also wants to form an alumni advisory group and a senior citizen advisory group. Former AAPS superintendent Scott Westerman has volunteered to help organize the group for seniors. Thomas jokes that he’d like to join that group.

Trustees and Swift then discuss communications from a young man who’s been advocating for the board to create a seat for a student representative. Stead notes that this issue has been brought up for several years.

Thomas reports that when he and Baskett were visiting other school districts as part of the last superintendent search, one of the districts in another state had an ex officio student member of the board. He describes it as an interesting idea and “one that I’m not opposed to.” Formalizing student advisory groups would be one step, then in a year or so the board might revisit the idea of having an ex officio student representative on the board. He says the emails he’s seen from the young man advocating for this change seem like a bit of an ego trip, though.

Manley notes that students can sign up for public commentary during board meetings. Lightfoot describes the issue as one that she’s not totally against, but it’s not a priority. Regarding the superintendent’s student advisory group, she wants to make sure that students are chosen who aren’t necessarily the ones that teachers like. Those kinds of kids tend to demonstrate leadership skills too, she says, even though they’re sometimes misguided. Swift says she’d love to get those kids in the mix. 

Lasinski stresses that trustees and administrators need to listen to the student voice that they already have access to. They actually hear from a lot of students, even though it’s not in a formal way. The question is are they taking action based on that input? She holds up a copy of the recent school climate survey report, noting that it includes feedback from thousands of students.

After further discussion, Stead summarizes the main points: 

  1. The superintendent will start a student advisory group this year, with an alumni advisory group to be started later in the school year. Swift will provide a list of members to the trustees.
  2. Trustees won’t pursue having an ex officio student representative on the board at this time.
  3. The board will highlight all of the ways in which they get input from students, such as the school climate survey. 

The board talks briefly about developing a middle school student advisory group as well. Swift indicates that she’s interested in that too.

4:40 PM

AGENDA ITEM: COMMUNITY RELATIONS – STAKEHOLDERS

Stead introduces the agenda item of community relations and how trustees might engage differently with community. She notes that she and Lightfoot held a couple of community meetings where people who attended could propose the topics they wanted to discuss. She points out that Thomas has held coffee hours in the past. There are many individual mechanisms, she says, but now the board should talk about what to do as a group.

Lasinski proposes adding a new group to the association reports that are given to the board. She wants to see regular reports from a collection of groups that serve students from low-income families – including Peace Neighborhood, Community Action Network, Arrowood, Avalon Housing and others. She thinks it is important for those organizations to be at the table, and to have the option of giving a 4-minute association report.

She points out that communication with these groups needs to improve – for example, she says they hadn’t been alerted in a timely way about the new online class registration (InfoSnap) that was rolled out this year for high school students. 

Swift says her administrative team needs to do a better job of reaching out to these groups. The lack of timely communication regarding InfoSnap “was a good wakeup call for us,” she says.

Lasinski stresses that it’s important for the board to hear from these groups formally, to show that the board is serious about getting input from them. Baskett doesn’t think the staff of these community groups would want to attend yet another meeting. Lightfoot wonders how the board could leverage existing organizations, like WACY (Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth) to achieve better communication.

Stead thinks it seems more like an issue for the administration, not the board. Thomas suggests assigning a trustee to each of these community groups to act as a liaison. Lasinski reiterates her intent to elevate these groups and give them a seat at the table. She says that according to the executive directors that she’s talked to, communication has been a problem for a long time.

Swift weighs in, saying either she or someone on her administrative team needs to meet monthly with those executive directors. There needs to be systematic structure in place to deal with communication. “I’m fixing it from my side,” she says. The Neutral Zone is another nonprofit that needs to be in the district’s “structural loop.”

Baskett cites transportation as another issue that needs to be communicated.

Stead suggests developing a complete list of organizations in this category, and perhaps putting it as an agenda item for a future board meeting so these groups can talk about their concerns.

Trustees then spend several minutes discussing their own experiences with registering their kids via InfoSnap, and the problems they encountered. They like the concept of online registration, but there’s room for improvement.

Swift notes that some of the information that’s asked for during registration – like what kind of home you live in, for example – is federally mandated.

Related to community stakeholders, Baskett says they shouldn’t dance around the elephant in the room – teachers are a key stakeholder. [This is referring to a contract dispute with the teachers union, and the resulting strained relationship between teachers and the administration/board.]

Thomas says the district got hit with an unfair labor practice complaint because trustees went out and talked directly to teachers. He wonders how feasible it was to actively engage with teachers when there’s a contract that says the union is the entity that negotiates.

Baskett replies that talking to teachers is not the same as negotiating. Stead asks if there’s anything they want to do as a board, like holding a special board meeting with teachers.

Manley stresses that time will help heal the relationship. Trustees will show that they’re building relationships over time by showing their appreciation when they see teachers, she says, but just holding an event for teachers won’t be effective. Baskett says that the proof of the board’s intent will be in their actions. In the past, trustees have held dinners for teachers, she notes. Manley isn’t sure the board should initiate that kind of thing.

Thomas notes that this Friday (Aug. 28) there will be a reception for new teachers. The district holds a reception for new teachers, and the union holds one too. Trustees can attend those events, he says.

Baskett adds that there’s a tour for new teachers she’d like to attend.

Swift tells the board that she’s launching a teacher advisory board – teachers can apply to serve on it, and there will be one representative from each school. It’s another way to get input from teachers, she says.

Swift tells trustees that she has appreciated the board’s support through a “rough spring.” She wants teachers to get their needs met in their schools, then go up the line if there are issues. 

Thomas says it’s something the board should stay out of. Lasinski notes that trustees should embrace the theme of caring, and make their presence visible throughout the district.

Stead reminds the board that just 9 minutes remain to cover some major agenda items – including board goals and financial sustainability.

The board then discusses the issue of school liaisons. Several years ago, individual trustees were assigned responsibility for specific schools. Stead asks if trustees want to do that again.

Manley reports that when she was a principal at Thurston, there were 2 trustees who were supposed to be liaisons to that school. One never came by, and that was a problem. Now as a board member, she’s interested in going to all schools. Would creating liaisons be a problem – would she end up stepping on someone’s toes?

Stead says that if there are liaisons, it would be important to manage the expectations of principals. It might be necessary to stipulate how many hours per week or month the liaisons would be expected to work with the schools.

Baskett notes that in the past, there was no real definition of what a board liaison did.

Lasinski suggests developing a shared board calendar that would show events at the schools that trustees could attend. Stead notes that more than a quorum can attend an event, as long as they don’t deliberate.

Baskett says that volunteers at sporting events need to be reminded that trustees can attend without paying. The board discusses how it would be helpful to have name tags or badges identifying them as trustees.

It seems like the board has reached consensus that there won’t be formal liaisons, but that trustees in general will aim to be more visible in the schools.

Stead points out that the board now has 2 minutes left to talk about financial sustainability and board goals.

AGENDA ITEM: FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

Thomas ventures that trustees discuss financial viability at every board meeting.

Stead thinks the topic should be referred to the board’s planning committee to develop a strategy for long-term financial sustainability. The idea is to move past a strategy that relies on increasing the number of students in the district.

Swift says the district doesn’t yet have a strategic plan for handling the growth that’s coming to them. She points out that there will be a facilities report this fall to help with that.

Lasinksi notes that the district will reach a limit in terms of school of choice, and that they can’t just rely on extra students.

Stead says that even if the district adds more buildings, at some point they’ll reach the state limit on net financial gain from growth. So what’s the district’s millage strategy for the next five years? Does the district need an endowment fund? Who are their partners? Those are questions the board needs to address with tactical planning, she says.

AGENDA ITEM: BOARD GOALS FOR 2016

Thomas says that the goal should be to “keep the ship afloat.”

Stead asks whether trustees want more focused advocacy at the state and federal level. Swift notes that advocacy should focus around K-12 students, saying that “not that every political fight comes to the schoolhouse.” The district’s critical mission is children, she says.

Lightfoot agrees, adding that it’s fair to say to parents and teachers that trustees are fighting for issues like discretion in how to use sinking fund dollars and other concerns.

Other possible board goals include availability and transparency for the community, and not just keeping the district afloat but continuing to make schools excellent, Stead says. Thomas suggests increasing fund equity as a board goal.

Stead stresses that the board is responsible for policy, not specific programs. She offers to take a stab at drafting board goals, then bringing them to trustees for review.

Lasinski asks what past board goals have been. Stead answers that the board didn’t have a set of formal goals in 2015. The last time the board developed goals was in 2014.

5:35 PM Deb Mexicotte arrives, and the board adjourns into executive session.

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