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Posted on Tue, Dec 8, 2009 : 9:42 p.m.

Ann Arbor school board candidates detail thoughts on district budget crisis

By David Jesse

The individual selected to replace Helen Gates-Bryant on the Ann Arbor school board will step in at a critical juncture.

The district is facing an $8.5 million budget shortfall for this school year and a projected $20 million hole in the 2010-11 school year.

So it wasn’t a surprise that as existing school board members interviewed seven candidates to join them, they asked them about the district’s financial mess.

And the candidates came prepared with ideas - ranging from looking for new revenue sources to doing a good job of defining what is really important to the district.

The school board asked each of the seven candidates to return to the board on Dec. 16 with a five-minute presentation on the top three issues - excluding finances - facing the district. The board will then vote on a replacement for Gates-Bryant, who resigned last month.

Each of the seven candidates had a slightly different take on what the district should be doing as it looks to cut large chunks out of its budget.

Simone Lightfoot said she’d like the district to look at things like grant dollars to generate more revenue. She also said it's important for board members to talk to folks who have been through similar situations to see what wisdom they have to offer.

Jack Panitch said he hopes the board uses a good process to get community input and weigh it carefully. He also said he wants the district to work on keeping the process very successful, noting that it’s important to make sure teachers are valued as cuts are made.

Kim Callahan Lijana said setting priorities is key, and the district needs to really focus on the most important things it does. She also said the district needs to reopen the teachers' contract to look for savings.

Christine Stead said she’d like Ann Arbor to find other districts in the state and beyond similar in funding, expectations and performance to see what best practices the district can take from them. She also said it should look at strengthening its ties to the local business community.

Elizabeth Nelson focused on revenues in her answer to the budget questions. Specifically, she suggested looking at implementing some sort of fee for services with local non-profits pitching in to help those who couldn’t afford the fee.

Margy Long also said the district needs to be focused on what services it wants to provide. “What do we want the district to be about?” she asked.

Andy Thomas presented the most detailed answer to the budget question. He laid out five areas to look at - administrative costs, support services, looking at programs to see whether they're providing benefits to a small group of students and if they can be consolidated, looking at some sort of fees for participating in things like music and sports, and looking at some sort reduction in salaries for staff, including teachers.

Six of the seven candidates - Lightfoot, Panitch, Stead, Nelson, Long and Thomas - have children in the schools. Currently, only board President Deb Mexicotte has children in the district.

David Jesse covers K-12 education for He can be reached at or at 734-623-2534.



Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 8:04 p.m.

@PLC - You said " support services involves special education, is he going after special education to save money? Unfortunately, in the current situation, everything will be up for review (as should be the case)." While the district should be encouraged to look at providing all their services in the most efficient and effective manner possible, there are two things to beware of when considering cuts to special education / student support services. The first one is that most spending in this category is reimbursed by the WISD through the Special Education millage, the state, or the Federal Government. A dollar cut from a "Special Ed" reimbursable category saves the district less than twenty cents, and may be the difference for a struggling student between becoming a self-supporting adult and a lifetime of dependency. The second thing to be aware of is that services to students with disabilities are mandated by Federal law. AAPS has lost a number of mediation decisions and lawsuits in the past. That failure to serve the needs of students with disabilities has cost them dearly when the parents have gone to court. That doesn't even consider the loss to society caused when students are denied appropriate educations to the limits of their capacity to benefit. As you said, the School Board should look at everything the district does, with an eye to providing educationally-important services with optimum effectiveness at the minimum possible cost. But they (and we citizens) should be sure to look at the whole picture.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:33 p.m.

How can we decide who makes the best candidate based on a few sentences on each person in an article? Someone asked about specifics from some of the candidates. How is that possible? No one member of the board can decide on the changes. I'm fine with the candidates having general thoughts on what the district should consider - I think every idea needs to be on the table. You may not agree with those ideas but they all deserve to be heard. And painting pay to play as some sort of stratification move is boorish - the reality is we need to address costs so it's simply another thing to consider. Leave the commentary aside while the district works through these difficult choices.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 11:01 a.m.

*chuckling...* Yup. No partisan politics in here, are there?


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 7:38 p.m.


Jim Mulchay

Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 12:01 p.m.

Concerning participation fees (music, sports, etc.) - most districts that currently charge fees for extra-curricular activities have (1) provision for low income students; (2) family maximum payments per year; I would assume that any program(s) in Ann Arbor would incorporate items similar to these.


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 10:34 a.m.

To the person who said "... support services involves special education, is he going after special education to save money?" Unfortunately, in the current situation, everything will be up for review (as should be the case). Taking $20M from $190M means extraordinary cuts and I don't think anything will or should be left untouched. Good point on "Fees for music and sports means it is stratified to richer people?" -- we need to think long and hard about that when making decisions about revene-generating opportunities.


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 10:16 a.m.

I think Lightfoot has a point on looking into finding grants for the district. AAPS currently has no staff member/administrator whose job it is to actively seek and pursue grant monies for the district. AAPS has been financially healthy for so long that they have not had to worry about this aspect. However, obviously times have changed, and they need to re-address this issue. However, I think that David Jesse hits on a key point in his closing paragraph. The people of Ann Arbor need to get parents of AAPS students onto the board. If anyone should have a long-term interest in the Ann Arbor Public Schools it is them.

Art Vandelay

Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 9:24 a.m.

Zulu, I'm with you. Based on the info above Andy Thomas seems to have done his homework and may offer some realistic, constructive ideas. Kim Callajan Lijana may also be on target.


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 8:26 a.m.

I applaud Mr. Roberts for coming forward with taking a pay cut and for some of the other cost saving measures that were listed in AA News on Sunday. And, I believe strongly that all administrative personnel should take a cut or at least stay put. When I worked with AAPS in the 70's one of our parents worked for printing company -- talk about recycling, that parent brought boxes of paper (copies had errors and could not be used by the printing company) to the school to use for copying school assignments - of course, we had to be sure the printed side was not offensive in any way. But this process during those two years saved a bundle of funds. Is this a possibility of cooperation between schools and businesses -- recycling in AA has been around for many years. And, lets face it, working at a school, I know how much paper we use. We really need to get back to supporting our teachers - all of them, classroom, music, art, and gym - and supporting the extra curricular activities -- a really hard look needs to be taken at looking at the administrative aspect of AAPS -- if teachers are being asked to take a pay cut, so should everyone else.


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 6:21 a.m.

Every one seems short on specifics, and what does anybody know about these people.. support services involves special education, is he going after special education to save money? Fees for music and sports means it is stratified to richer people? I think they may need to look at redistricting schools to save on busing costs, opening up another magnet school or two and attract more students, and look at innovative ways to teach.


Wed, Dec 9, 2009 : 6:05 a.m.

Andy Thomas seemed to the one candidate that has given a lot of thought to what the district needs. He seem to have come prepared. Right now, I would say that he would be my choice as a voter to replace the open position.

Theresa Bassett

Tue, Dec 8, 2009 : 10:36 p.m.

In regards to the 'financial mess', I was much is the district spending on its health care audit?