League of Women Voters Board of Education Candidate Forum: 9/27/16

League of Women Voters Board of Education Candidate Forum (September 27, 2016): CTN Studios, 2805 S Industrial

Sally Allen, League of Women Votes – Ann Arbor Area (LWV), introduces the moderator,  John Chamberlin. Because there are eight candidates, they have split the candidates into two groups. Each group will have 45 minutes to answer questions posed by the LWV. Each candidate will have two minutes for an opening statement, 90 seconds to answer the questions asked, and one minute for a closing statement.

First group: Jeremy Glick, Incumbent Simone Lightfoot, Jeff Gaynor, and Rebecca Lazarus.


Glick: his student experience inspired him to run, wants to bring that experience to the board. Wants to ensure education standards continue to be high. Wants to incorporate student voice more into evaluation process. Bring student perspective to close the achievement gap.

Lightfoot: she is honored to have served on the board for the past seven years. Looks to continue the growth the district has seen over under the leadership of Superintendent Jeanice Swift. Important they continue on the path, managing that growth in a smart planned way. Student achievement.

Gaynor: recently retired after 38 years as a classroom teacher, 30 years of those in AAPS. He has been proud of the Michigan standard of education up until the last decade or so. He details his experience as a classroom teacher throughout the district. He has been proud of the schools and the parents and students. Morale is down, students coming in to middle school in a daze. The district is focusing on marketing more than education.

Lazarus: Mother of two at Logan Elementary. Wants clean, safe, well-maintained schools. Equal access to programs in schools. Has a wide ranging background. Logan PTOC rep, serves on bond technology committee. Wants the district to spend its dollars wisely. As a trustee, she will work to be accessible.

What is your overall assessment of the current state of education in  AAPS? What are some areas where you think we do an excellent job? What would be your priorities as a member of the Board?

Lightfoot: The state of education is “great.” Graduation rates have increased over the past five years. Suspension rates are down. The district has worked hard to introduce new programs: IB, Project Lead the Way. Facilities are growing. Hiring teachers, providing raises for teachers two years straight. Improve: facilities and achievement. There is still a gap.

Gaynor: AAPS has an excellent community of caring students, parents, and staff. Have managed to keep an arts program, pay-to-play sports. Under the state cuts to public education, there has been a slip of services. The district has not treated its lowest paid workers well. Morale among the staff is low, as teachers no longer have the autonomy. Test scores are up, but not test scores to help education.

Lazarus: Her family chose Ann Arbor. Graduation rate is great. She is amazed by academic achievement shown in the district. Once here, though, she realized there were areas to improve on. Privatization of services has affected pride. Students are going to schools that aren’t maintained, not clean.

Glick: state of AAPS is “pretty good.” Improvement: achievement gap. Need to make sure students are given opportunities no matter their background. He would look at ways of reversing privatization of services, while maintaining quality of service.

Some teachers are upset over the new evaluation system. They say it requires more testing of students than the state requires, is extremely time-consuming, and keeps them from the work of teaching students. Do you agree this is a problem, and if so, what changes would you want AAPS to make?

Gaynor: This is a serious issue on a number of fronts. Began with admin breaking teacher contracts. And then they imposed the evaluation which far exceeded state law. Says Rep. Adam Zemke had used AAPS’s old evaluation system as a

teachers want to keep their jobs and in order to keep their job, they are teaching to get the numbers up. It does not serve students well.

Lazarus: Not comfortable speaking about this, as she needs to learn more. From what she has heard from teachers, they have not been happy about it. As a parent, she wants the teachers to enjoy teaching and not be teaching to a test. As a parent, it is something she would like to do more research on.

Glick: Hasn’t experienced teachers teaching to the test. Would like evaluation to not be used in a punitive way. Would look to incorporate student feedback.

Lightfoot: disagree that teachers are teaching to a test. AAPS students continue to excel, despite the changes in testing year to year. The district will continue to teach students to be critical thinkers. District attorneys were telling board teacher contracts were no longer valid. Not the board’s desire to take on the teachers. Have worked and continued to work with them. There were some teachers who couldn’t be moved no matter how bad they were. Need the accountability.

AAPS recruits and accepts students from outside the district through its Schools of Choice program. While this generates revenue for AAPS, it draws students from neighboring districts, including Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), and thus undermines the quality and sustainability of that district. What will you do as a member of the board to ensure that AAPS is not actively increasing inequity and segregation in our county? 

Lazarus: obviously, people are voting with their feet. Don’t feel there is segregation going on. Parents have a right to send their kids where they want. Traditional model is a “little hard to handle.” Schools need to be more business-like, be more competitive, provide the resources and programs to attract those students.

Glick: SOC is interesting issue. Not something trustees chose, but something they have to work with. Need to look at numbers we can take, need to work towards a future where we can interact with districts in county without poaching students from each other. Not most favorable in his mind.

Lightfoot: Program created at state level to drive for-profit education. Wants to push back at segregation. We very much are conscious of geographic, age span of buildings. Very measured how schools are opened up for SOC. In support of conversations across the district. Would like more mutual fighting back against Lansing.

Gaynor: Agree with Lightfoot about the effects of SOC has had on districts. Bridge Michigan issues article saying policy has increased segregation in many areas across the state. Six-seven hundred YCS students, which is helping AAPS bottom line, but affecting fabric of Ypsilanti community. Pleased board did not offer space-available transportation to SOC students. Comes back to testing: teachers are asked to do pre and post testing.

A recent analysis of the growing problem associated with the lack of affordable housing and inequity called for school district consolidation as one avenue for rebalancing equity across the county’s urban core, and adding to the long-term sustainability of the region. What is your position on AAPS merging with or annexing neighboring school districts, including YCS, as was considered with Whitmore Lake Schools.

Glick: We have a responsibility to voters and students in our district first. An issue of funding, amount of services, buildings. At the present moment, the present growth may allow for something like that down the line.

Lightfoot: We may be moving towards that given the way the legislature is moving. There’s so much to change in the state law. Staff salaries, buildings, property taxes to assume. There’s a lot of work. Suspensions, test scores, that would come with consolidation of a school district.

Gaynor: Serious issues. Much of what’s in state legislation is there to destroy public education. Need to be more vocal in working against Lansing. As a social justice advocate, he cannot participate in a system where it’s us against them.

Lazarus: Before anything could be consider about a consolidation, we would need to look at how we’re managing our own district. Can’t take on more debt, more responsibility. Would be for a merger/consolidation if there could be a win-win situation.

Schools like Community High School and Ann Arbor Open are highly desired programs in the district. How can that kind of alternative education be expanded to the district at large?

Lightfoot: Yes, STEAM has a waitlist, as does Open and Community. As a trustee, you know there are constantly moving parts. It’s not one versus the other. We have great room for more programs. First priority is managing the programs we already have implemented. right now, our focus is mastering what we’ve already put in place.

Gaynor: taught at Open at Bach. He knows the value and he knows the resistance it got from the administration at the time. When skyline was opening, the idea initially was to structure it to have more of an appeal to different students. When STEAM was opened, it was because of the dwindling enrollment at Northside and it was because the administration didn’t do the work they needed to do to work out the programs. With both STEAM and IB program, teachers were shut out by both the admin and the board.

Lazarus: programs like Open, Community, and STEAM are loved by parents. It’s important the district look at ways of providing equal access. Programs like that are expensive to deploy successfully. Supports expanding those programs.

Glick: AAPS is a unique district. So many of our schools are a building by building environment. As a Skyline graduate, saw how students were able to get more individualized programs.


Gaynor: didn’t retire when expected. When he needed to teach students directly. When he tried to do projects and was told he wasn’t following the pacing guide, he wasn’t teaching anymore, he was following a script. Saw the board making unified votes without listening to the community. There needs to be a change.

Lazarus: Sound fiscal management, reduce waste, provide safe, well maintained buildings, provide state of the art resources to staff and students. Register to vote and

Glick: won’t sit up here and attack the current board. So much is them dealing with what they are getting coming down to them from the state. Believes he can offer a unique student perspective.

Lightfoot: Wants to continue meeting the challenges of maintaining an unwavering record of showing up and communicating. Proud of seven-zero votes. Two weeks between meetings. Plenty of time for public to communicate.

Second Group: Harmony Mitchell, Incumbent Deb Mexicotte, Don Wilkerson, Hunter Van Valkenburgh

8:00 PM Two minute opening statement, 90 seconds to respond to questions, one minute for closing statement


Mitchell: She’s nervous – she’s not a politician, and she’s nervous for her children because she sees what Lansing is doing to public education. Moved here five years ago from Washington, DC. She specifically moved to Ann Arbor for her children to get an excellent education. She wants to see AAPS fight the state and push back against the conservative agenda. She wants to be the kind of leader who listens to the community, who stands up for those who are most vulnerable, Wants to be the kind of leader who inspires her kids to say her mom worked to make AAPS better.

Mexicotte: has lived in Ann Arbor 30+ years. Looking to be re-elected to a fifth term. Has 20+ years at UofM with student engagement and now artsEngine. A few years ago, when they were looking to hire, passionate, talented, forward thinking. Has done so much under Swift’s leadership. Want to be part of that change and gain moving forward. Brought a wealth of opportunities to students and wants to be part of that moving forward.

Wilkerson: district parent. Students at STEAM@Northside. Ensure able to differentiate learning in AAPS. PTO president, board of PTO council, member of Blue Ribbon Committee, millage campaigns. He’s loved his experiences. Internal audit and IT consultant – wants to leverage his background so AAPS can continue to deliver excellent education. Support teachers, support student development, focus on financial stability.

Van Valkenberg: self employed attorney. Wife: Aina Bernier, teacher at Open, two students. Darkside to STEAM and IB. Implemented as pilot programs. Teachers were fired and then asked to reapply for their jobs. Privatized: food service, transportation, yard maintenance, substitute teaching, janitorial services. Unwittingly falling into the right wing agenda and he would like to reverse those.

What is your overall assessment of the current state of education in  AAPS? What are some areas where you think we do an excellent job? What would be your priorities as a member of the Board?

Mexicotte: AAPS is excellent. Would put her kids through the district again in a second. Continue to build financial stability. Academic leaders – implement programs with our excellent staff that really impact student achievement. Successfully impacted discipline and achievement gap. Improve: want to continue improving teacher compensation. Old infrastructure that needs improvement. Increase rainy day fund.

Wilkerson: Likes the trend on differentiation. Focused on 21st center skills. Important to continue to differentiate, focus on neighborhood schools. Want to make sure everyone in district has access to those programs. Focus on community dialogue, so people can ensure their children are getting the education they desire. Focus on financial stability.

Van Valkenburgh: Magnet schools are very attractive to lots of people, including the people of YCS. Would like to reexamine how we are using SOC and how we are impoverishing our neighboring districts. Focus too much on data collection and testing. Pay too much for testing (NWEA-MAP). New teacher evaluation is a disaster – hated by teachers and admin alike.

Mitchell: love that her children are happy at AAPS and that they are learning. They are learning to a test, though. She’s met with lots of teachers recently. Excellent staff who should be able to keep their jobs, live in Ann Arbor. Focusing on this conservative agenda which takes away from the depth of our education system. Takes away from what public education should be. Want to see greater engagement and that the excellent staff feel that way.

Some teachers are upset over the new evaluation system. They say it requires more testing of students than the state requires, is extremely time-consuming, and keeps them from the work of teaching students. Do you agree this is a problem, and if so, what changes would you want AAPS to make?

Wilkerson: Teacher eval process needed to be updated. Now focusing on state mandates. AAPS is leader in teacher eval, partnering with state, and now we’re implementing. Feels like its in the right direction. Need to work with teachers, understand the shortcomings. Need to focus on making sure teacher eval process is aligned with delivering an excellent education.

Van Valkenbugh: disagree vehemently with some of what Wilkerson says. Rep Zemke used AAPS’s previous eval to develop state model. And now district process is much more onerous. Now teachers must be evaluated on all 76 criteria of the Danielson model. Not worked out collaboratively with teachers, data not useful for students. Creating incentive for gaming the system. If teachers were “highly effective” got a $150 bonus.

Mitchell: related story of her mom, a DC teacher, talking about a new evaluation process in DC and how uncomfortable it made her, not because they were not doing their job, but because of the process. Now AAPS teachers are now evaluated in all 76 criteria. Also places undue burden on the admin.

Mexicotte: new teacher eval is the next step in the Danielson model. Developed in conjunction with the teachers. This is the next step required by the state to ensure effective teaching. Evaluation might be new, but is not overly rigorous. Will take some time to determine those best ways of implementing, how best to use principals and teachers’ time. Extending the gold standard of the previous evaluation system.

Schools like Community High School and Ann Arbor Open are highly desired programs in the district. What are your feelings about expanding that kind of alternative education to the district at large?

Van Valkenburgh: highly in favor. Community is the jewel. Open works on a similar model, and the people who go there love it. The project based work and the open teaching is very attractive. Got a suggestion from a constituent to open a Montessori model, which was developed for a low-income population.

Mitchell: has a daughter who goes to Community. Reminds her of her own high school. We like to think of ourselves as individuals. Just to go to a high school where everyone is doing the same thing, to be different, to color outside the lines, speaks to some people.

Mexicotte: Community, Huron, Pioneer, Skyline, Pathways – all have features that are appealing. Excellent choice across the district. K-8 STEAM program was an expansion. The board is looking at an additional K-8 program. IB program is on the Southeast side of town – Mitchell, Scarlett, Huron. Project Lead the Way at every school in the district. So committed to those ways of learning.

Wilkerson: Differentiated learning and community schools is what makes AAPS so attractive. Great ways to help the student thrive. There are other potential opportunities. Some kids love having neighborhood schools.

AAPS recruits and accepts students from outside the district through its Schools of Choice program. While this generates revenue for AAPS, it draws students from neighboring districts, including Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), and thus undermines the quality and sustainability of that district. What will you do as a member of the board to ensure that AAPS is not actively increasing inequity and segregation in our county? 

Mitchell: spoke to a friend who lives in Ypsilanti about how their schools are suffering. Asks herself if “we are doing right by our neighbors.” So happy to hear the board not offer bussing to SOC students. But SOC still

Mexicotte: AAPS became a SOC district pretty late, after Ypsilanti, after Saline, etc. When decided to move forward with an aggressive SOC program, we paid attention to who it was we were drawing back to the district. Many of the students who we receive from Ypsilanti weren’t in YCS, but in charter or private schools. Concerned that that now might be changing. Working with YCS board to help mitigate and to see how we can collaborate.

Wilkerson: community that values inclusivity. Education in AAPS is delivering best education as possible to students. Can see impact is not a huge to communities around us. When focus on delivering excellent education to students, gets to the bottom of job. Find ways of partnering with districts around AAPS and WISD.

Van Valkenburgh: applauds what Mexicotte is saying, to the extent that it is true. Heart of the matter is SOC law out of Lansing. Would like board be more active, collaborating with other boards such as Birmingham, Bloomfield. Pressure Lansing to fund public education, repeal SOC law, which pits districts against each other. Competition creates losers.


Mexicotte: it’s been a privilege serving the community for the past 13 years. Whether she is elected or not, she is proud of working for this district. If re-elected, will work to represent each student. The board will continue to send resolutions to the state, as they have.

Wilkerson: continue to support teachers, focus on student development growth, community outreach, financial stability. Thanks the trustees for their service and his fellow candidates. Asks viewers to do their research.

Van Valkenburgh: all agree we have an exceptional school system. Many of the problems have to do with money, and what is coming down from Lansing. But many of the things are not out of Lansing, such as the teacher eval. The board has made decisions that they weren’t forced into by the state.

Mitchell: “I hear you. I have the same concerns.” She would listen to the community and bring their concerns to the forefront. She wants to make sure AAPS continues to be the excellent educational system that brought her here. Wants to fight against Lansing.

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3 thoughts on “League of Women Voters Board of Education Candidate Forum: 9/27/16”

  1. Thanks so much for covering this forum. It’s great to have some way to figure out who to vote for – or against in school board elections now that I don’t serve on any citizen / parent committees.

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