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Posted on Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 4:11 p.m.

Ann Arbor schools to employ 2-pronged approach to address $10-$16 million deficit for 2013-14

By Danielle Arndt


The Ann Arbor school board set a course for the 2013-14 budget process at Wednesday's Committee of the Whole meeting. file photo

The Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education set some new guidelines Wednesday for approaching the budget deficit for the 2013-14 academic year. The guidelines will include a two-pronged approach and the board embarking on a budget and vision “campaign.”

By this time last fall, the district already had declared a target of needing to cut $14 million from its approximately $183-million operating budget for the current school year. Also, AAPS had hosted two community forums by mid-November to seek the public’s input and suggestions on how and where to cut.

This November, budget discussions at the school board level have just begun and school officials are less clear on the exact financial situation the district will be in come fiscal year 2014.

Deputy Superintendent of Operations Robert Allen said he expects the deficit to be in the range of $10 million to $16 million.

The school board started off its discussion at Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting by weighing how soon to reach out to the public and in what format public input should be sought this budget cycle.

“There are millions of things we don’t know until very late,” said President Deb Mexicotte. “Every year we say we want to start (the budget process) earlier to satisfy the public being able to weigh in and to satisfy our planning needs and we always end up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.

“What we need to know now is can we accelerate this process … is there something more substantive that can be done sooner.”

The school board decided not to focus on the cuts this year. A consensus was reached that AAPS cannot just keep cutting its way out of its financial constraints year after year, that something different has to be done.

Mexicotte said the list of potential budget reductions is the same as it has been for the past several years. Transportation is there, as is redistricting and closing elementary buildings, sharing principals across multiple schools, combining or restructuring the alternative high school programs and contract negotiations with unions.

So, a two-pronged approach was established, with the school board heading up a “campaign” to reach community members. The campaign would be very similar to an election campaign, with school board members pounding the pavement and attending organization and parent meetings to connect with people. This would flip the district’s old method of hosting forums and making the public come to it.

The board set a goal of devising the central message and components of the campaign by Jan. 10 and hitting the trail after that. Components discussed Wednesday included educating the public on the district’s budget situation and some to-be-determined ultimate direction for the district to undertake, as well as supporting the schools via a countywide education millage, a sinking fund millage renewal or donating to the AAPS Educational Foundation to start an endowment.

“It has to have a clear vision for the education our kids will get and we have to articulate it for people so they understand not just how it benefits kids but how it benefits the community,” said Vice President Christine Stead. “We have to have an answer to the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Part of the campaign also could include reaching out to local businesses and corporations and asking for financial assistance. Trustee Susan Baskett advocated finding businesses that would have a vested interest in seeing a program succeed and essentially asking them to fund that program for the next five years or some other predetermined timeframe, similar to what IMRA did for the Pioneer High School planetarium.

While the board works on a campaign, the administration has been charged with developing a list, with dollar amounts, of the first $10 million to $12 million in budget cuts that could be considered for 2013-14. The board asked to see a first peek of this list at its Committee of the Whole meeting Dec. 12 and then a more substantive look at a board meeting in January.

District officials said specifics about the 2013-14 budget situation will not be known until after the state’s annual revenue estimating conference in January or February and that even then, Ann Arbor’s financials could still change depending on the budget Gov. Rick Synder proposes for the School Aid Fund for fiscal year 2014.

Stead said there also is a “frightening” set of bills that have been proposed in the State Legislature that could destroy traditional public education. One in particular, House Bill 5923, would permit “any thing,” a business, a municipality, etc., to become a school and to educate children.

“School districts in this state are going to be a thing of the past if these guys keep passing this kind of legislation,” Stead said.

She said her understanding of the bill is that it would establish the concept of anytime, anywhere, any place and any pace learning that Snyder has been pushing since taking office.

Her concerns are that not only would this force school districts to become focused on pupil accounting rather than children’s education, it would cause traditional districts to continue to rapidly lose more students and, as a result, funding than already has been the trend across the state.

Stead said the bill would allow a parent to send his or her child to one school district for part of the child’s curriculum and then to another district for a completely different part, causing schools to spend a significant amount of time tracking where each pupil goes and accepting credits and charting GPAs from a myriad programs.

Trustee Andy Thomas said Ann Arbor Public Schools is trying to grow its Schools of Choice program to attract new enrollees through the district but has struggled to really meet its goals.

He said he doesn’t think the district has a good understanding of what it needs to do to market to families enrolling their kids in private or charter schools.

Stead said rather than focusing on cuts, she would like administrators to look seriously at program reform and new educational models and methods, such as “flipping” classrooms in certain courses where it made sense. She said this would entail perhaps using something like Khan Academy’s online lectures and have students watch the instruction at home and use class time to engage with teachers and their peers to apply the lessons and to get help in areas where they are struggling.

“If we were to do it in certain content areas, it might be OK to have 50 kids in a class and reduce staff but get better performances from students,” Stead said.

She said elementary schools may not be a great place to reduce any more teaching staff, but a flip classroom — or a lecture-style class, as Trustee Simone Lightfoot suggested — could be possible in the middle or high schools and be a better way to make cuts, rather than the equal FTE reductions across all buildings the district has done in the past.

“Building by building doesn’t look programmatic so much and … we can’t take up to $20 million out of our budget without reducing FTEs. We’re about where we can go with fund equity,” Stead said, adding that 85 percent of the district’s budget each year is employees.

Ultimately, new charter schools and, if HB 5923 passes, “any fast food restaurant that happens to be an achievement center,” Mexicotte said, is the district’s competition for students.

“So I feel like we’re stuck between a rock and a rock and a rock and a rock and a hard place,” she said. “It’s the same every single year. … And what we have (as a district) is something this community likes more or less just the way it is.”

She said it’s difficult to be in a position where the district needs “shiny and new” to stay afloat financial and to attract students, but yet “so much of what we have been working on … we believe have been working and working well.”

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



Mon, Nov 19, 2012 : 4:09 a.m.

Ms. Mesicotte should be using less abusive rhetoric but then maybe McDonalds would be able to educate our children better and more effective than the union dominated money hungry AAPS. At leats they could make change. It's condensending verbage like Mexicotte's that has pit teacher unions against charter schools. Teacher unions know kids are a revenue source don't let thenm fool you that their main concern is for the kids. They want charter schools wiped off the grid so those unions can hold your kids hostage while they "negotiate" for more of your tax dollars. While individual teachers might care about the children, the union as a whole has one goal, protect its members at all costs, even if they have to hijack our state constitution and turn it into a union labor contract.


Mon, Nov 19, 2012 : 1:36 a.m.

Same old song and dance...the district must "educate" the citizens so they can increase revenues rather than decrease expenditures by opening up and renegotiating union contracts, salaries, pension and benefit contributions. The unions need to make conessions rather than just continue asking property owners to spend more money. If the unions refuse to come to the table with significant cost reductions then I'm refusing to increase my contributions through increased taxes. I want to see balance, if the district asks for 14 million in an annual millage, I want to see the unions save us seven million dollars in employee costs, then the school district increasses revenues by 21 million per year to properly educate the kids. Unions have to give a little and I'm not seeing that happen in Ann Arbor.

Jack Panitch

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 9:14 a.m.

If we continue to cut at the same unsustainable rate as the last four years, ten years from now the budget of the Ann Arbor Public Schools will be a little more than 1/3 of what it is today. We won't get that far before the organization implodes. With increasing class sizes, we are at criticality right here, right now. It only took me the second comment down from the top to realize the lack of appreciation or historical understanding running throughout the commentary here. All y'all worried about bloated administration, stop worrying. Soon enough, there won't be any bloat, because there won't be anything to administer. Objectively, there are no guarantees about future funding (somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but state revenue forecasts are down), we have seriously undermined confidence in the stability of the School Aid Fund and its lovely portfolio, the structural deficit continues to increase, the unfunded mandates continue, the State Board of Education's paralysis of leadership in education policy continues, and state senators and representatives (not including our own, except maybe that one guy who just lost his reelection bid) continue to consider themselves leaders in radical reform without any discernible policy direction but with huge collateral damage to public schools. Reading the commentary, I wonder who out there in the general population understands this? Parents go on the best they can without wanting to understand the urgency, because, what? The problem and its effects are just to huge to consider? I know my elected representatives on the Board of Education Trustees understands the situation acutely. I know they will continue to lead selflessly on behalf of students, their parents and the greater community. But realistically speaking, they can't solve the problem. They can only administer to a slowly wasting patient. The problem will be addressed at the public schools: in their dual role as polling places.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:28 a.m.

I think if AAPS really wants to lure kids back out of private schools, they need to provide some sort of gifted/talented program at the elementary level. I know many families who have left our elementary for Emerson because 100% of the school improvement money and teacher time is spent on bringing up the low kids. While this is important and should continue, they can't continue to simultaneously ignore the high achievers. Right now if you ask what they will do to support kids who learn the material quickly or who already know the material, they will say "All teachers can teach all students." Translate: if you get a teacher who has it in him/her to make up their own curriculum for the advanced kids, then you will be alright. If you don't, too bad. Your kid is smart you should be happy. This attitude has sent many kids to private schools. I think many of these families would be happy to come back to public schools if they felt their was a formal program to help their kids learn as well.

Roger Kuhlman

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:18 a.m.

According to the Board of Education and the Ann Arbor Teacher's Union AAPS have made huge cuts in the Budget the past 5 to 10 years. So I guess they now only have a dollar or two to spend on operating the schools. Don't trust the budgeting or financial reporting the BOE does. It is designed to confuse and mislead anyone outside the system from really knowing what is going on. They do not like accountability or operating in a fiscally responsble manner as has been demonstrated time and time again in recent AAPS history.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 7:39 p.m.

I would suggest that one way to attract more students through the schools of choice option is to provide some better after-school options for parents who work. All of the elementary schools have before/after school child care, which is terrific, but there's nothing at the middle or high school level. A daily homework club that runs until 5:30 or 6, a paid rec-and-ed supervised program, etc., allowing schools of choice kids to ride the school bus (if space is available on an existing route) to a safe destination such as a friend or family member's house, etc. would make a big difference. I won't bore you the details of our story, but I'll just say that my son started at an Ann Arbor middle school this year as a school of choice student, and we nearly had to withdraw him due to lack of after-school options. My husband and I worry constantly that our current after school arrangement will change and we'll have to start from scratch again or consider moving him back to his old school.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 5:22 p.m.

The on-line components/emphasis of Gov. Snyders' "Any time, Any where, Any pace" could make it EXTREMELY easy to track the time students are on-line. The current offerings from Michigan Virtual University / Michigan Virtual High School already keep track of how long students are in each courses' lessons and discussion boards, and the school district where each of those students are resident. It's only where AAPS thinks they can "do it better" and have developed their own take on on-line courses that there will be a problem accounting for where the students are getting curriculum from. All it will take is having student numbers issued by the state at the time of first enrollment in any public "school". When (and it is a question of when) Michigan moves to provide universal access to publicly funded pre-school, the student should get an ID number that follows them whereever they go, and an annual allowance for state-funded educational opportunities. At that point, it should be up to the parents to decide when and how to use that budget for their kids' education. As students get older, they should become part of the decision-making team. Will they work as an apprentice, getting some of their education through on-the-job training? Follow a traditional college-prep program? Take an International Baccalaureate? Attend one of the university-based charters that give dual credit? Use some of their student funding budget for one-on-one tutoring or study skills coaching? Getting students and their parents ready for this decision making may be challenging, but AAPS' Strategic Plan declared 3 years ago that the district was moving to "personalized" education and developing a plan for EVERY student.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:48 p.m.

Desperate times call for desperate measures; it's time to stop the endless talk and rip the Band-Aid off. Combine Roberto Clemente and A2 Tech into one facility. Close Community, there is more than enough capacity for high school students at the remaining three major high schools. This action would dramatically cut administration cost, facility cost and transportation cost. The two unused facilities could be sold with proceeds used to eliminate debt. Make all athletic programs "pay to play" It's time to face reality; we can't have everything we want.

Charles Curtis

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:15 p.m.

AAPS ought to get the focus back on the student. The school system is so full of cronies who got their jobs because of who they know and not what they could teach. The school is going to continue to see students leave for other choices in education because of this. I have seen some truly outstanding teachers that went over and above and all the district did was to ignore them. I personally think the district frowns on teachers who do extra and win awards because it makes other less motivated teachers look bad. I have raised concerns to the district about bad teachers but only on 1 occasion did I ever get a reply. I believe a portion of the issue is the teachers union and the lack of back bone the district has when dealing with them. I am in support of paying teachers more, but I want that based on ability to teach. The ability to teach will be different for each student and will change based on where the student lives and the students family support or lack of. Testing students is not the way to measure this. I am not sure how to put a metric on this. Do we have to? Have parents give feed back for this. The district like to keep things in house when it come to discipline, but does most of that behind closed doors. This only breeds the lack of faith in the district. The district will transfer a problem to another building rather than dealing with the issue. The district will find new employment for problems rather than deal with the problem. This mentality is throughout the AAPS, in teaching, and extracurricular activities. Dont wonder why students are moving to other choices in education. The budget issues all come down to enrollment, and students are leaving for better education environments. Many can argue over what a school is, but thats not the problem. The problem is why are they choosing other options? AAPS lowers expectations, treats students as delinquents by default, hides any issues, not promote excellence is not going to be a preferred choice.

say it plain

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:46 a.m.

I'd be thrilled to see "the exodus of students" if the big expensive programs were 'zeroed' out! The rest of the student body could happily get better educations and more time *playing* at physical fitness activities for life-long health, and I guess the students who find greener athletic fields in other districts will also be just fine! Which is the most important aspect of AAPS's mission? I don't think it's football...


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:37 a.m.

How much did Skyline cost to build? $93,000,000??? Now we are cutting athletic programs for the AA kids. If this doesn't reek of government I don't know what does.......


Mon, Nov 19, 2012 : 4:50 p.m.

A lot of water under the bridge since that decision--for instance, one reason for the high cost was that construction materials were priced before many of the recent natural disasters, and as a result, the cost of those materials went up. But the decision to build was made without that knowledge. Also the economic downturn slammed into the economy so that anticipated increases in per-pupil funding didn't materialize--we can still cover the costs of running the school, but the budget has gotten tighter as a result. The historic trend-lines of funding flattened out after the decision, so what seemed a reasonable projection at the time turned out to be off target. And there's also the politics of the state and the influence of the Tea Party/Snyder win. No one foresaw the shift that he and the GOP overall have brought to the degree of funding provided to schools. He's overseen the dipping into the funds provided by the lottery, that are earmarked for education, and using those funds elsewhere--and of course, he's even held back from pushing windfalls in state revenue back into education. Skyline may or may not a wise decision in hindsight, but at the time, it wasn't as crazy as some would make out.

Basic Bob

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 6:01 a.m.

Do they still need six high schools?


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:16 a.m.

Dear Governor Snyder- What are you thinking? I really had high expectations for you but I've been incredibly disappointed. I want my kids to have a great Public School experience. They are still young but they deserve to have opportunities to take elective courses, music or art classes, athletics, and get a solid liberal arts education. I don't know who they are growing to be yet but they DESERVE a chance to discover that with the excellent programs that you are forcing to shut. Fund the public schools now! Isn't that what democracy is all about? An equal opportunity? Besides public safety, is there a more important role for government to play? Please figure it out. Thanks!

Roger Kuhlman

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:35 a.m.

Let's establish real evalutations of teachers and pay for performance. Fire bad teachers who are not performing. The Teachers Unions here and elsewhere have been running school systems for their benefit rather than the students and the taxpayers. It is the students and the taxpayers who are the most important stakeholders in public education but their interests seldom have top priority in the actual running of most public school systems.

Angry Moderate

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 7:03 a.m.

CLX you really should stop repeating that lie. Governor Snyder has sent his kids to both public and private schools. You must be outraged that President Obama sends his daughters to private school.

Basic Bob

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 6:03 a.m.

Rick, please send more money so we can waste it on overpaid unresponsive administrators like Dr. Green and her crony cabinet.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:57 a.m.

Why would he care -- he has his kids tucked away in private school. He governs for the few, not regular folks.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 1:29 a.m.

An increase in millage to support the local public schools was up for a vote two years ago. However a small interest group recommended to vote down the proposal as they claimed they would bring forth an alternative plan to raise revenue for the schools. Where is that alternative proposal now?


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 1:18 a.m.

Where is Kathy Griswold's solution to balance the Ann Arbor Public budget? She urged the voters to vote down the millage two years ago and claimed that she had an alternative plan. Where is that plan?

Roger Kuhlman

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 4:28 a.m.

It is purely ridiculous to say that Ann Arbor Public Schools are anywhere near crashing from lack of money. Skyline indicates a lack of money? Oh really! A special millage for IT? Sure lack of money. Students in Ann Arbor have very expensive teachers, curricula and facilities.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 3:25 p.m.

Sounds like a lot of sour grapes, but way to find a way to get your obvious digs into Ms Griswold in a non-related story. I bet it was even Ms. Griswold's idea to give middle of the night raises to administrators, lol!


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 12:09 p.m.

Kathy's kids went to public school and she volunteered as much or more than anyone I knew. She was always a tireless advocate for kids and wise use of taxpayer money.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:56 a.m.

The alternative plan -- be among her rich buddies who finance attack campaigns; the rich ones can watch the public schools crash and stick their own kids in private schools. They take their cue from the Governor of the state.

Basic Bob

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 11:24 p.m.

Here is the two pronged approach- whining and begging. Do they still need six high schools?


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 11:14 p.m.

"Mexicotte said the list of potential budget reductions is the same as it has been for the past several years. Transportation is there, as is redistricting and closing elementary buildings, sharing principals across multiple schools, combining or restructuring the alternative high school programs and contract negotiations with union." What is it they say about people who do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result ? So where is the option about restructuring administration and its costs? Maybe the new super could set a new goal and then an example.


Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 6:22 p.m.

The vast majority of the budget goes to employees and retired employees salaries and benefits. Rightly or wrongly, this is where there needs to be reductions. There are so many costs for retired employees benefits, that we need to make sure to reduce costs here also. This is where the major reductions have to come from, since this is where the major costs originate.

Basic Bob

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 6:04 a.m.

She still has the same list because they have never cut anything on it. Great leadership. Why did we vote her back in?


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 11:02 p.m.

Is there somewhere that lists all employees of the AAPS and their salaries/payrates? This is everyone; not just teachers and principals, but janitors, executive assistants, planners, assistant teachers, etc. Is there somewhere that all this is listed for public reference?


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 9:53 p.m.

You can only blame the legislature so much - other affluent districts are managing to weather the funding cuts, and they are doing it without selling bonds to pay for operating expenses like technology. The district doesn't need everything to be "shiny and new," they just need to effectively educate children. Look at what other affluent districts are doing to save money and learn from them.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 10:33 p.m.

Troy and Plymouth-Canton to name two. I'm not saying they aren't hurting (Plymouth-Canton recently had to close an elementary school for example), and I'm not arguing in favor of the legislature's cuts or the push for privatization, I'm just saying other districts have managed to weather these cuts without running huge deficits. I'm not an expert on this and I'm open to being wrong, I'm just skeptical when elected officials try to blame other elected officials and resist any change. One thing that was repeated throughout the article was that the board thinks everything was working great before. Clinging to the past isn't going to solve AAPS's problems, and even if the legislature's cuts are unjust, they are the reality. It's up to the MEA, AFT and board members to encourage voters to vote for pro-education legislators to reverse the cuts. It's less productive to run deficits and put the district's long-term future at risk by not adjusting to the new reality. Yes, they are making some progress in trying to come up with innovative ways to cut costs, but in other areas, like raising property taxes to pay for iPads so that everything can be "new and shiny" is missing the mark. I'm not convinced the district's problems are fault of the unions, either, as other districts (like PCCS again) have gotten significant concessions from their teachers and custodial unions. I do like the idea of board members canvassing neighborhoods looking for public input, and I'm optimistic about zero-based budgeting. The district is making changes, but old attitudes are holding them back.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 10:14 p.m.

What other school districts? Bloomfield Hills is hurting and decided to combine the two high schools to save money. Birmingham had to cut $12M and fired 80 teachers too. It's a fight to the death between the teachers union on the left and anti-tax Republicans on the right and we're caught in the middle.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 9:35 p.m.

I had heard that AAPS was going to start using a zero-base budgeting approach. Was that any part of the discussion with the BoE? My suggestion for the first thing to zero out is varsity athletics. The $3 million in general fund money that AAPS admits to is only the beginning of what these programs cost in facilities, maintenance, and distraction from the mission of education. Run any sports programs the parents and students want to maintain on a purely volunteer basis as club and intramural sports, with an emphasis on life-long participation for health. Even with the Pay-to-participate, we can't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars per "student athlete" and tens of dollars on extra-curricular activities for the rest of the student body.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

Bellboz - I think a whole lot more kids will "get through school" with the help of a much more balanced approach that opens up the current athletic facilities and opportunities to participate in conditioning or competetion to the WHOLE student body rather than reserving those opportunities to varsity and junior varsity athletes. What we need as a community are 75-90% of the thousands of students in each comprehensive high school using the track, the weight room, the pool, the tennis courts, the basketball courts and gyms, the soccer, baseball and field hockey fields rather than the 250-500 athletes who are on one or more teams each season. One of the justifications for building a third high school was that there would be recreation / exercise opportunities for the entire community. Well, let's see it. The gates to Skyline's track are locked unless there is a meet / football game. Pick up ball games during the school year, and even most Rec & Ed use are prohibited. Not the right way to build support for the athletic programs if you ask me.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 2:33 a.m.

Zero out athletics? You will see quite the exodus of students. Very egocentric approach. May as well cut band, orchestra, and every other activity that doesn't revolve around a book. Many kids get through school with the help of athletics. My suggestion is to cut salaries. They represent the largest chunk of the budget. Time to quit squeezing the parents and kids.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 10:11 p.m.

Thanks for the info Danielle.

Danielle Arndt

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 9:59 p.m.

AMOC, thanks for your question. Zero-based budgeting was not talked about last night. However, the district is currently transitioning into a zero-based budgeting process. The model won't be fully implemented until the 2013-14 academic year, so for the 2014-15 budget. So we should be hearing more about this next year for sure. Here's a past story that details the beginning of this effort a little bit better: