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Posted on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 1:53 p.m.

Ann Arbor school board candidates clash on vision of leadership

By Danielle Arndt


Ann Arbor school board challenger Dale Leslie adjusts his microphone while incumbent Deb Mexicotte shares her views with voters during Tuesday's League of Women Voters candidate forum.

Danielle Arndt |

Incumbent Deb Mexicotte and Dale Leslie, her challenger in the Ann Arbor school board race, faced off on the issues Tuesday night in a moderately spirited candidate forum.

Leslie, a graduate of the district whose family owned Leslie Office Supply in downtown Ann Arbor, was aggressive in answering questions posed to him during the live televised event, which the League of Women Voters hosted from Ann Arbor’s CTN Studios.

There is one four-year term seat on the Ann Arbor Board of Education up for grabs in November's election.

The school board candidates discussed their positions on technology in the classroom, class sizes, customer service and various aspects of curriculum. But it was their underlying differences of opinion on leadership that caused the most friction.

Leslie criticized his opponent’s leadership abilities and the board's leadership as a whole, while Mexicotte touted the school board's accomplishments under her leadership.

Toward the end of the forum, the moderator from the League of Women Voters asked both candidates to answer the one question they wished the league had asked them.

Leslie said he wished the women had asked him about the void in leadership he sees in the district. He cited the board’s No. 1 goal for the year, which was to build a stronger relationship and sense of trust among trustees, as an example.

The Board of Education set this personal goal for itself, as well as looking at ways to improve the district’s financial position, as the two goals it would attempt to conquer in addition to the traditional work of the board.

“(This goal) can only mean one of two things. Either A) they didn’t know this type of condition existed on the board ... or B) they knew about it and didn’t do anything about it. … Either way, it’s poor leadership that's being exerted,” Leslie said.

Despite Leslie's attack strategy, Mexicotte refused to play defense against Leslie’s offense.

“I’m running on my record,” Mexicotte said after the forum. “I don’t know what people would expect me to get aggressive about. I’m passionate about education and about the work of this board. But my experience and my record speak for themselves.”

Mexicotte has served on the Ann Arbor school board for nine years, the past three as president. She said AAPS has successfully maintained programs and a fund balance through all her years on the board — a feat not many districts in Michigan can boast anymore.

The question she had hoped the League of Women Voters would have asked her was how the district has worked to close its achievement gaps among minority, low-income and special education students.

"In the time that I have been on the board, we have made substantial gains in closing those gaps and in some cases have made gains of 30 and 40 points in terms of our standardized testing in certain areas," Mexicotte said. "...That has been a real effort of the board and will continue to be until those traditional gaps no longer exist."

Leslie also expressed his view on the achievement gaps that are present at most of Ann Arbor’s schools.

In August, 27 of Ann Arbor’s 33 buildings were named to the Michigan Department of Education’s Focus Schools list. The list called out those schools with a significant gap between the top 30 percent of student performers and the bottom 30 percent of student performers.

"Unfortunately, our superintendent has seemed to have dismissed these educational findings by the state as pure poppycock," Leslie said. "I think we need to invite the state to come down and explain why we were so deficient in this area and give us their view."

The candidates saw eye to eye during a discussion on class sizes. Both stated class sizes is an area that must be looked at. The candidates highlighted the importance of finding new ways to generate revenue in order to be able to afford smaller class sizes again.

The topic of a liberal arts education sparked some additional testy remarks. The candidates were asked how valuable a liberal arts education is in today’s technological society and whether these values were supported by the Ann Arbor Public Schools' curriculum.

After highlighting in his opening statement a belief that the district must better rise to the challenge of educating today’s youth, Leslie honed in on his concerns about the district’s curriculum.

He described how at a meeting in August, the board of education voted to replace Ann Arbor’s 10-year-old biology books.

"I was just astounded. … Five years old in a computer age is an eternity and yet we were using a textbook for a critical science that was 10 years old," Leslie said. "And my opponent said in a rather off-the-cuff way, 'I've been asking for a list of publications in the district … but no one seems to honor my request.' It's not a matter of whether someone feels like they can give us that info, I would demand it, if I were on the school board."

Mexicotte said providing students a range in education is more important than ever. She described how conversations about the benefits of arts and humanities are taking place all over, including in medical schools. Arts integration builds problem solving and creative thinking skills, she said.

"Medical schools are now realizing that students who do not have strong humanities or strong interpersonal skills, who (don’t) understand both Shakespeare and neuroscience, are just not doctors that we really expect moving forward into the 21 century," she said.

Mexicotte said the district has worked hard to keep its arts and humanities programs strong, award-winning and well-resourced.

The candidates also were asked about their positions on redistricting and whether such an action was necessary to improve diversity in the schools.


Ann Arbor school board candidate Dale Leslie flips through notes he prepared for Tuesday's League of Women Voters forum prior to the event getting under way.

Danielle Arndt |

Both Leslie and Mexicotte agreed diversity is a strength of the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ and is something the community as a whole values and wants to protect. Neither candidate saw a need to redistrict to maintain the current diverse population.

Mexicotte stressed the importance of stakeholder input and the role of working collaboratively with the district’s administration when she addressed a question about how she would make the district better for 10 years down the road.

She said in 2006, the district drafted its current eight-step, comprehensive strategic plan. It was a joint effort among the board, the administration and all of its community stakeholders, and includes guidelines for the advancement of technology and how it will be used in the classroom, for cleaving to global standards of achievement, for how the district will maintain its facilities, for implementing personalized learning plans and more, Mexicotte explained.

"That strategic plan is a road map to 10 years from now. If we follow it and carry out each piece of it, we are going to be in great shape in 10 years," she said.

Leslie described his 10-year plan for a better district as a give-and-take partnership with the community.

"I’d like to see us more active in the community," Leslie said. "I’m in Kiwanis. We used to have a representative of the public schools that participated in our club. … We need to have an attitude in the district that we’re here to serve the public. That means that whatever they give to us, we’re going to give back to them in some sort of public service."

Live forums for other Ann Arbor races, including the mayoral race, the race for county prosecuting attorney and the position of sheriff, will continue Wednesday and Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on CTN Channel 19.

Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at



Tue, Oct 23, 2012 : 5:42 p.m.

I am still undecided on this race, but I will point out that I think it was unfair of to run the extremely unflattering photo of Mr. Leslie at the top of the page.

Shaniqua Jones

Thu, Oct 18, 2012 : 5 p.m.

As an employee of the district I do not feel that the Superintendent or the Board of Education supports its administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals, office professionals, etc. There is a RENEWED lack of communication starting and encouraged by Dr. Green. She is not interested in anything employees have to say; the ONLY person with whom she maintains a positive relationship is Deb Mexicotte. When you get rid of Deb then Dr. Green is NEXT. When the head falls, the body is next!


Tue, Oct 16, 2012 : 7:01 p.m.

The board member with the most common sense seems to be Susan Baskett. She is the only member of the board that did not vote for that enormous salary Dr. Green received and so far has done nothing for our district but try and weed out the most needy students within the system. She an go back to PA with her BS. I wonder how Deb Mexicotte can run on the premise closing the achievement gap when she supports closing and moving programs like Roberto Clemente that have a 40 year history of doing just that, Saving lives and closing the gap. Bye Bye.......................


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 1:30 a.m.

Susan Baskett did oppose the salary, but I don't hear her opposing Dr. Green these days. The gap is getting smaller, and it needs to keep getting smaller.

Jack Panitch

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 4:30 a.m.

There may be no one more important to the ongoing mission of the Board of Education Trustees than President Mexicotte. She is a visionary leader with a demonstrated ability to work through the issues effectively and move the Board of Education forward in keeping with the Strategic Plan and in partnership with both the District and the Community. If she is willing to contribute her talent and energy to another four-year term, all I can do is express gratefulness. I won't go so far as to say she's irreplaceable: one of the best measures of a leader's skill is building an organization that will do better than survive once the leader is gone. Other trustees could step up to the presidency and do a credible job. Emphasis on credible. Each would have to learn on the job, and it isn't easy. These are all hugely talented folks with their own strengths and experience, and they all contribute selflessly and tirelessly to the good of students first and foremost always. I would expect to see some measure of net success under any one of them. But President Mexicotte is a natural: grace under pressure, unbelievable candle power, dynamism, judgment, wisdom, thick skin, approachability, selflessness, the complete package. Anyone out there thinking we need change for change's sake, I gotta ask, how well has that worked at the state level for education policy? Plus, the bit about the new "focus school" designation and the reliability and fullness of the state-level political acumen that went into its roll-out is a topic I would be happy to talk about in greater detail. It should suffice to say here that there is data, readily available on the MDE's own web-site that clearly and unmistakably establishes the program as a simple shift in political emphasis akin to a caramel-coated exploded-corn-based substance.


Mon, Oct 15, 2012 : 12:33 p.m.

Wow . . . that's not how we see it in the schools. It's not about change for change sake. It's about poor decisions and the need to vote out individuals who do not represent the community as a whole (as opposed to special interests). She needs to go. So does Ms. Green.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 3:40 p.m.

It's all about $$$$$$$$ and politics like so many other things.

Joel A. Levitt

Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : noon

I hoped to find some creative and exciting thinking reported in this article -- I didn't. The candidates don't seem to be focused on the variety of new approaches being tried across our country. As an example, the following is the one that most appeals to me. We all value the cultural breadth and antidote to discrimination that diversity brings to our schools, but there is a price. Given our finite financial resources, the price is large classes filled with students with widely varying levels of preparation and motivation, and this makes effective teaching very difficult. But, it may be that we can have it all. The work of the Kahn Academy promises to provide individualized instruction without changing class size or composition. The approach that uses this work introduces new material for each student in about-five-minute-long and cost-free computer presentations, which student and teacher agree are appropriate to the student's preparation. Problem solving and research tasks using the new material are presented by computer, too. Teachers can modify these tasks or replace them entirely. With the concurrence of teachers, students may from time to time elect to work in small groups, a la Dewey. The teacher's activities are the most important. New material may be presented at home, but tasks are worked on in class. The teacher cruises the class room, looking for bored or frustrated students, and for students distracted by emotional problems. The teacher then provides one-on-one help and support, and may redirect students to more or less advanced new material computer presentations. The advantages of this approach include: individualized instruction with students moving at their individual pace; no need for new buildings or smaller classes, and only a relatively small investment to purchase a portable computer for each student. However, this approach cannot be implemented over night, because even our most skilled teachers will need additional training.


Thu, Oct 18, 2012 : 12:31 a.m.

It is NOT a relatively small investment to purchase a portable computer for each student. Computers need network access; infrastructure is expensive. The portable devices themselves are not capital equipment...they are supplies and need to be a line item in the budget each and every year. A computer lasts only three years (if you are lucky) in a school setting. This style of education (IF it is appropriate, and I have concerns about it) requires a commitment of on-going funding for technology...which is not how AAPS currently manages things.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 2 a.m.

I think this guy would have a very hard time with AAPS, with the board members and with the public and with school staff.He should read the tea leaves about the dynamics on the board. Does he really think he can just order around the rest of the board members and that'll take care of things? Does he think he can persuade them to do what he wants when he wants, because he wants it, and that's the only thing that really has to happen to improve the district? If he thinks all he needs to do is demand something, send a representative to Kiwanis for some give and take with the community, and that the Focus School classification will simply disappear on his watch, because he will personally fix all problems in the district, including the achievement gap, then he's not got a realistic handle on the complexity of the district he would like to serve or on the situation of education today in this state.

Dale R. Leslie

Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 6:26 p.m.

To set the record, I never made any reference about being King, Queen or Jack-in-the-Box. I just ask for accountability from a dogmstic Superintendent who closes the open door she pledged when a candidate and from a board who admits its Number Priority is to increase mutual respect and trust. Geez!


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 2:38 p.m.

Right, like the other board members aren't noticing when he's making abrasive statements about them in public. Way to fix the problem....


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 12:01 p.m.

"He should read the tea leaves..." Wow, now there's a statement for democracy. Don't bother running for school board, THEY'VE got this. Wow.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 1:44 a.m.

See, Leslie is in for a real surprise if he gets on the board, because he doesn't get to be king were he to get a seat at the board table.Dr. Green is the superintendent, not a a board member. Dr. Green needs ,and I repeat, needs the board to let her do her job, which is to bring accountability to the district especially administration, while helping all the kids. She doesn't need a board member competing with her to prove he's the guy in charge of the district who thinks that when he says jump, people are going to say how high. Essentially he says he is going to take on the role of superintendent. Yikes.


Mon, Oct 15, 2012 : 12:29 p.m.

As a teacher in the AAPS district, I have to say that Ms. Green is making mistakes that someone in her position and especially her salary should not be making. Her communication is almost non-existent. She is completely inaccessible. The Board seems to have it's head in the sand about this. That's why Mexicotte needs to go. Voting her out is apparently the only tool we taxpayers have to force some sort of accountability.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 1:17 p.m.

Well, the board went out and hired Dr. Green for very particular and concrete reasons. Leslie doesn't acknowledge that hiring Dr. Green was to fix the dysfunction of people not doing their jobs well, especially administration. The climate in the state is very difficult, as lots of money didn't come to the school systems, and there are still big costs in place and you can't just dismantle or undo contracts nor should you. People depend on them, and have made life plans with them. So fixing the problem of big classrooms, etc is going to need the fix of more money into the system.There's no way past that. Does Leslie want the job because he's going to be the "boss" of the school and the school board both? It sounds like it. Does he want to go in there and do what? Micromanage the superintendent? Make the union heel and take any wage concession he'd like? While you have excellent teachers and excellent programs people do like? That wouldn't be very smart. These teachers deserved to be paid good money. He offers no good vision because he doesn't have a full grasp of the problems involved, nor what the board has actually put in place to fix what are very significant issues.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 11:57 a.m.

I have read many comments that assert the superintendent does not have strong ties to the community (as Bob says "spends less than two hundred nights a year here"). Is this true?


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 11:51 a.m.

Maybe the negative hits are because folks have been turned off by "our gal" Green. It is a pretty big assumption to think that all the negative hits are from slacker union people (and believe me, i am not a union fan). Support for achievement gap initiatives took a big hit when the board gave the Dicken principal (who represents the Ann Arbor Administrators Association...make of that what you will) a PASS for violating Michigan discrimination laws. Seems Leslie might be making some nervous, to have to go all "guns ablazing" on, lol.


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 10:59 a.m.

When I get negative five hits for a statement the superintendent has to do her job and make administration accountable, I figure that's from union people, who don't want to be held accountable. I said it's the board job to support the superintendent, (read closely) to hold administration accountable for their job performance. If they don't like what the superintendent does, it's the jobs board to replace that person, not to then perform the superintendent's job while paying that person to do so. The problem in the district isn't the quality of teachers or programs, it's the disjointed, nonaccountability that goes on, and that's what Dr. Green is working on. That's where achievement gaps flourish, in dysfunctional settings. Read Christine Stead blog about change management for more clarification of what the Mexicotte Board is working on, which will not be furthered along by a bull in a china shop. Petty nonsense about "they aren't from here" is just that, petty nonsense.

Basic Bob

Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 3:52 a.m.

The Mexicotte board operates on the principle that all they need to do is support the administration. However, they have the responsibility to provide oversight and direction that come from members of the community. The superintendent and her minions do not live here, they are not from here. They should know how to meet the needs of the community, but how would someone who spends less than two hundred nights a year here know what the needs are? The board is also responsible to hire the next superintendent, and they could be forming a new search committee in the next four years. What would Ms. Mexicotte suggest next time? $400,000?


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

Come on Danielle, you couldn't get a better picture than that? It makes the candidates look foolish, a la SNL skit. I'm sure there was a point in the evening when they looked intelligent or prepared. Love them or hate them, this is an unflattering photo. Why did you choose it?


Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 12:07 a.m.

"We need to have an attitude in the district that we're here to serve the public." game. set. match.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 10:58 p.m.

Why is the primary focus of the current board always "the achievement gap?" A change is a long time coming.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 9:25 p.m.

Thanks for the information. I think that Deb Mexicotte needs to step aside and let someone else lead

Ron Granger

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

"(This goal) can only mean one of two things. Either A) they didn't know this type of condition existed on the board ... or B) they knew about it and didn't do anything about it. … Either way, it's poor leadership that's being exerted," Leslie said. -- That reminds me of the "have you stopped beating your wife?" style of passive-aggressive attack-question; it is the practice of confrontation that alienates and accomplishes nothing. Being elected to the school board does not make you a king.

Dale R. Leslie

Thu, Oct 11, 2012 : 6:19 p.m.

You'd be best to check your definition of "passive-aggressive-attack" which does not apply to an assumption based on two statements of fact.


Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 9:34 p.m.

Huh? Dale Leslie is a good man who would bring a realistic perspective to this dysfunctional group.

Linda Peck

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 6:39 p.m.

Thank you, Ms Arndt. This is very helpful information.