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Posted on Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Ann Arbor superintendent finalist stresses communication, isn't fan of zero-based budgeting

By Danielle Arndt


Superintendent finalist Jeanice Kerr Swift of Colorado Springs speaks during a public Q-&-A session at Skyline High School on Tuesday, July 16. She is one of two candidates being considered by the board as Ann Arbor's next leader.

Daniel Brenner |

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Transparency, an open door and frequent communication — that's what superintendent finalist Jeanice Kerr Swift says Ann Arbor would get if the Board of Education picks her as the district's next leader.

The Ann Arbor school board is hosting both Swift and fellow superintendent finalist Brian Osborne in the district this week for a final round of interviews and opportunities to meet with Ann Arbor schools employees and community members.

Swift had her turn in the hot seat Tuesday, whereas Osborne will have his site visit and interviews Wednesday.

During two public meetings, Swift outlined her leadership philosophies and experiences in her current position as assistant superintendent of instruction, curriculum and student services that have prepared her for a role in Ann Arbor.

An important topic of discussion during the board's final interview portion of Tuesday brought out a difference between Swift's philosophies and the current direction of the district. Vice President Christine Stead asked about Swift's budget practices and financial controls that Swift would implement, if the need arose.

The discussion revealed Swift has experience with both zero-based budgeting, which the district is transitioning to, and department-driven cuts, which the district has, in part, been using. Swift said her preference, and what has worked best for her current district, is the latter method of asking each division or department in the district to "generate a top-3 to -5 list of ideas for both generating revenues and reducing expenditures so you form a menu of options."

"Then you take that menu and vet it through staff, through the board and through the community," Swift explained. "The important component is to get the menu of options out into the community. That's when you begin to understand what the ideas would do on the ground and begin to analyze what are opportunities, what are the threats, what are the potential problems and likely solutions. ... As you move through that process, you'll begin to dismiss some ideas and some will rise as being worthy of pursuing."

It is a process that is similar to the one now-retired Superintendent Patricia Green has been warning the district against. Swift said she is not opposed to zero-based budgeting, but sees the menu approach as being more efficient and as taking less staff time.

She said if she is hired as Ann Arbor's superintendent, she would move forward with implementing zero-based budgeting if it were the will of the board and the community.

Board President Deb Mexicotte said after Tuesday afternoon's meeting, that it's the district's intention to continue progressing with zero-based budgeting, no matter who the new superintendent is.

"The idea that we are moving in that direction to understand our budget better is not mutually exclusive with many of the other pieces that may be brought to us by new (superintendent) candidates," Meixcotte said. "That's the great thing about interviews and bringing in a new superintendent is that they are going to bring their experience, their ideas, but that doesn't mean we aren't still on a path to moving toward line-item (accountability) and ZBB."

At Tuesday's Q-and-A session with the community, Swift impressed many of the nearly 40 attendees with her kind demeanor, passion and heart.

"I thought that she was very bright and on task with what she was covering," said Carolyn Grawi, the director of advocacy and education for the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. "I would have loved to have had more detail though."

Grawi said she felt like Swift's heart is in the right place and that she wants to do the right thing.

"She wants to keep the school district (exceptional) and wants to bring the community together … so if this is who we pick, and I don't know the other guy yet ... great," Grawi said. "We have a very diverse community. We need to find a way to use our diversity to build inclusion, not divisiveness and to make ourselves stronger."

Grawi felt Swift could accomplish this.

A few parents and teachers were concerned that Swift may not fully understand or appreciate the situation she is walking into, however.

Lawton Elementary School teacher Laurie Moore said the leadership displayed by both the board and Green, who retired July 9, during the past two years has been "less than exceptional."

Moore said staff morale is incredibly low; Ann Arbor is in a state where the sitting governor doesn't value public education; the current board and former administration seemed to operate the district by enlisting fear, rather than respecting the professional opinions of all employees; and the board also, about a year ago, identified a lack of trust as being an issue among trustees, leading to inefficiencies and long meetings.

"I'm excited because I really think she (Swift) did a nice job," Moore said, adding she is just worried because she doesn't get a sense that Swift is fully aware of the unstable environment she would face when entering the district, especially if the district continues to pursue redistricting for the 2014-15 school year, which is the plan.


Superintendent candidate Jeanice Kerr Swift responds to a question from an audience member at a public forum Tuesday in Ann Arbor. The Board of Education will select a new superintendent for the district Friday.

Daniel Brenner |

But Swift has extensive experience with taking the heat from the public and with taking the heat for redistricting, especially. In her final interview with the board Tuesday afternoon, she talked about how closing school buildings is incredibly difficult and brings out an ugliness in people, but only because people are deeply connected to the history of their schools and want what's best for their children. She says she has handled this before and could handle it again.

Her district in Colorado Springs closed eight elementary schools in 2008-09 and just recently closed a comprehensive high school.

As for building trust on the board, she said in an interview after the evening Q-&-A session that it's a balancing act because she would be the board's employee. However, she said she still believes that together, "the great process of improvement can be continued."

"It's in all of our best interests to be as efficient in every way that we possibly can. I understand the long meetings when long meetings are getting to the bottom of issues. … But I believe in setting an example of communication, particularly from the superintendent side," Swift said.

Swift acknowledged that moving from a No. 2 position to the No. 1 position would require more board interaction than she has had previously, she but did stress that she has worked closely with her board in Colorado Springs, especially during the school building reutilization process the district recently completed. Swift said there are three things she would do right away to try to learn more about the district, it's strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and struggles.

"The first is to lead by listening. That is my leadership approach. I will provide transparent and open and frequent communication," she said. "I've always been that way. I'm someone who likes to engage with the community in forums and the schools. I have to be engaging with folks on a regular basis. And you can rely on me to follow up if you ask me a question."

The other aspects of Swift's process for successfully getting acclimated with the district are outlined in the 90-day entry plan that she presented Tuesday to the board and public.

The second finalist, Osborne, current superintendent of South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey, will have his second interview with the board at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday at Skyline High School. He also will present a 90-day entry plan to trustees. At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Skyline, he also will engage in a community Q-&-A session, where members of the public can ask him about key issues related to AAPS and his experiences. will be live blogging from both events.

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



Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:56 p.m.

Okay that's weird. I just hit refresh and came back to reread a comment and it has just vanished. No little blurb about violating guidelines, just gone. Had something to do with Osborne's wife not wanting to move here and him asking for an adjunct position at UM. Does just plain censor?


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 5:08 p.m.

Yes. Yes they do.

Patrick Maurer

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:51 p.m.

Zero based budget is the only way to keep budgets in line and to keep them from growing like topsy with no accountability. Anyone that argues against it is for the continued unending growth of programs that may or may not be worth while. All departments need to justify their proposed spending to keep budge creep from taking over.

Nicholas Urfe

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:47 p.m.

I wonder if the selection of candidates, none of which I find adequate, has been impacted by the decision to reduce the pay for the position?


Thu, Jul 18, 2013 : 4:34 a.m.

Mr Urfe - Having read the ad that was placed, against the other ads in the same publication for superintendent, I would not have applied. The others had specifics about the job and what the expectations were. The AAPS was focused on salary, again. We offered more and got Dr. Green. We offered less this time and got more than 60 candidates. My question is not more salary, but rather better communication of what the board wanted and a clearer focus on the job requirements, combined with a more diligent review of the packages on the candidates. If I had been on the board (and someday I plan to run - but I need to retire first) - I would have asked for 2 or 3 days to go home, read the packages and make my notes, then been willing to sit and discuss the candidates with the rest of the board. Instead in an intense session, the board picked some packages, and then made some calls to see if people were really interested. I suspect they picked 10, left for the other meeting, Ray&Assoc made some calls and got 7 yes responses, the board returned to the selection, said yes to the 7 and then 1 dropped out before the semi-final round. It is in the initial ads, the clarity of requirements (a short focused list), and the initial screen where I fault this selection process. Not in the budget numbers announced. At $220,000 the offer will still exceed what 90% of the superintendents make. I doubt either candidate will settle for the $180,000 number since the board said up to $220,000.

Widow Wadman

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:38 p.m.

Can the search be opened again?


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:02 p.m.

Both candidates are "talkers" instead of "doers". Both candidates have absolutely no experience with AAPS or even Michigan. Both candidates seem financially clueless. Both candidates are just as unacceptable as the clueless AAPS BOE.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:16 p.m.

annarboral - I would suggest waiting until Dr. Osborne has a chance to talk today. But, we are using the same search firm with the same pool of candidates that found Dr. Green.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 2:28 p.m.

It bothers me that the comments from people who attended the meeting focus on how likable, sincere, gracious and charming she is. She does seem very nice and sincere But we know from past experience that it will be no great advantage to have a compassionate superintendent who cuts budgets and closes schools, for example, but the "stakeholders" in the district need specifics. What would she do to balance the budget and improve educational outcomes other than start off by inviting everyone to breakfast or to visit her? I commend her open qualities and willingness to talk to people. But she only elaborates on specifics by saying she will talk more to people or listen to the core meaning of public comment and then see what ideas arise and seem to hold consensus. There is no consensus possible in Ann Arbor, but people by in large are reasonable, if they are given complete and honest information. Dr. Green has an advantage vs. Swift in that Green seemed to emphasize that there were problems in financial record keeping. So far, I think the BOE will pick Swift because she seems placating and calming, like an uber mother figure to our arguing elected officials. Where are the reviews of Swift's record at her job in Colorado Springs? The news articles I read indicate that people were upset with her over the school closings and that she may be applying to many jobs because that district is now an unhappy place for her. She seems to be looking for a fresh start and new chance to build a nest her way and do it right. That is understandable, if I am correct, but impossible to do in a community like Ann Arbor.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 3:53 p.m.

To be fair, I don't know how many detailed specifics you can expect from anyone who has only been peripherally involved in the school system for a couple of weeks. And I am totally not shocked that there are people who don't like her in her old school district, as she has closed a total of 9 schools. That is certain to upset a ton of people. But the fact that she was able to get it done has to be acknowledged, as that seems to be an up-and-coming issue for AA.

Jack Gladney

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 2:02 p.m.

Thank you for coming in. *Sigh* Next.

Nicholas Urfe

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

'"Then you take that menu and vet it through staff, through the board and through the community," Swift explained. "The important component is to get the menu of options out into the community.' Menu? This isn't Blimpy Burger, or Zingerman's. Nobody likes the tedium of a budget, but you are professionals and we expect that you can justify each line item of the budget, each year. The lazy days of not knowing where the money goes must end. Also, we expect transparency in that budget. After school activity funding, and participation levels, must be transparent. The historical attempts to hide those items, and bury costs for them like sports fields, must end.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 2 p.m.

If I could vote you up a hundred times, I would. This candidate sounds like another one of those 'trust me' types that really do not know where the money is actually being spent. The AA BOE will love her.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 12:56 p.m.

Any candidate able to face the BOE and maintain an arms length independence from the same group responsible for the current state of the AAPS including the last choice of SI and budgeting process cannot be all that bad. Not a bean counter but Zero Based Budgeting in the public sector seems to cause some confusion Managers start with "zero" as their budget base then justify all levels of desired increase for available funding. In competition with all the other zero-based budgets and their levels of need. This forces competitive accounability for every line item in every budget. Sounds good mathematically but to spend excessive admin resources justifying the same amount of chalk each year or the merits of a new lcd blackboard soon becomes overwhelmed with volumes of data. Including obtuse definitions of dollar "value" for abstract items. So "zero" then also means start from the bare bones to keep a program alive each cycle and then justify any additions new or old. More like the traditional process where programs good or wasteful were automatically renewed and then any changes had to be justified. So you want to hire a teacher. Versus not hiring one and packing 50 kids into a classroom. How do you justify that zero plus new expense in a budget? What is it worth in return numbers? Not so easy to do. Zero Based Budgeting sounds good in theory but seems more like job security pushed by a bloated administration. Compared with the two candidate's school systems, AAPS has the most employees and the fewest FTE teachers per kid. A good place to start the justification process. I think Ms. Swift gets that, and Ms. Mexicotte and her posse now know that Ms. Swift gets that. Next... The U.S. government has slowly moved away from Zero Based Budgeting after Jimmy Carter introduced it in the 70's.


Thu, Jul 18, 2013 : 4:26 a.m.

Willie Reid - We spent about a month working part time creating the initial forecasts and revenue projections the first year. Then we realized that the revenue side did not matter as much as people thought for doing the cost side. That until we hit a step function in demand that demanded more capacity, that the revenue was fairly neutral. So we went to 3 scenarios based on the global economy - flat, do last year again, and two changes, if the economy was projected to be done both would be down, one by the predicted decrease, and one double that. It took all the politics out of the revenue side and made everyone focus on the cost size, where ZBB actually is useful This year we (for the firt time in 4 years) had an up and a down - rather than 2 down scenarios. It took accounting almost 6 months to be ready, breaking huge blocks of cost into line items - for instance all of the corporate overhead was in a single block, now it is about 100 line items. Because we have done this for years and get focused reports weekly, managing to the numbers has become second nature. But it is taking the politics out that makes ZBB work. Our administration and overhead is 1/2 what it was when we started ZBB, but total revenue is up by more than 500%. It is easy in my world to justify an new front line employee, because they have a value assigned to them by what they do. In the case of teachers, it could be the number of students in their classes times the foundation grant for those students. So teachers that teach 4 classes of 15 students each have a lower front line value than one that teaches 5 classes with 30 students each. in AAPS there is a penalty for more than 30 students (and the formula is not a pure count of people, there are adders for various things - like a student with an IEP counts more than 1 in a count) - so those costs go against the front line value of the teacher. The US Government does not budget - they just spend.

Willie Reid

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

Donbee, I respect your opinion on here so I'm seriously asking these questions. Do you know how much time you put into zero-based budgeting the first year? I agree after the first year it doesn't take as much time, but again after the first year you're to using some historical data or do you really start from scratch every year? Our issue at my company, besides the initial expense, is we spend a ton of time researching the assumptions for the year and then we add those trends and assumptions into a historical database that spits our our revenue targets. Once that is done, each department puts together an account plan which includes all of their spending for the year. This process goes on in multiple iterations until all are happy. It's a grueling two to three month process at least for the finance team. Does AAPS have the finance infrastructure in place to do this? If not, additional expense will be required. Again, this can work for business especially for profit centers. When it gets difficult is when trying to decide how much overhead is required to operate. Then on top of overhead (which I feel AAPS has too much of), you have qualitative factors such as athletics, theater. Zero-based budgeting does nothing for these items. What is your justification for athletics and other extracurricular activities? That is where you get back to special interest groups arguing with each other about their programs. Zero-based budgeting does nothing to solve that. To me, zero-based budgeting works well for businesses once it's going, but I still don't see how it can run smoothly in an educational process. Hopefully I'm wrong.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

I have been doing Zero Base Budgets (ZBB) for my job for more than 20 years. It forces me to at least 1 time a year justify spending money, line by line. In the downturn, we turned off a number of items we would not have been aware of because we could see them and what they cost. This saved jobs and keep the company afloat. At this point I truely doubt anyone knows where the money goes in AAPS. So they reach for the easy button: "A teacher costs us $104,000 a year, cut XX number of teachers". At the present time a classroom of students with 30 students in the room is more than $420,000 in revenue from all sources - the teacher is $104,000. So there is $316,000 going elsewhere. No one has been willing to answer my question (maybe they honestly can't) on where the other $316,000 goes. AAPS gets more than $6,000 in revenue per student than the median school in Michigan, but they can't seem to balance the budget or provide smaller classes. I know exactly where every dollar comes from and goes to in my department, I can account for every pencil if I need to. ZBB takes me about 20 hours a year, to review, prioritize and budget. At one time I had responsibility for more than the total budget for AAPS, it was not that difficult, once the systems are setup. For instance, I can know in less than 5 minutes what the impact of a 10 cent a gallon change in fuel prices is. Once you are used to it, it is faster than doing budgeting other ways.

Willie Reid

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 3:51 p.m.

I get it. I've been through zero-based budgeting. Again, it sounds great in theory. I'm just curious if all of the people voting me down have been through it. Let me ask everyone this. Is it worth finding $500k in savings if we have to pay $500k to consultants to get there? Maybe it is. I'm all for accountabilityand rooting out waste, but we can get there in different ways. The audits that were put into next year's budget are a start. I work in finance. I make my living in rooting out waste. There are definitely more efficient ways to do it rather than completely starting from scratch.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 3:46 p.m.

Ricardo Queso - Oh I think most people get it. How to spend less for more - intelligently.. But is the budgeting process to blame or the people who manage it? Forcing AAPS spenders to uphold their "fiduciary responsibility" to taxpayers sounds good but Zero Based Budgeting cannot magically march administrators into a fair and pragmatic Schools budget. One that is best for the bottom line - educating kids. Why not? As was said before, numerically it works best with simple "things" like pencils and books or in the government's case tanks and planes. Objects easy to account for. It does not work with abstract things like battlefield strategy not needing the tanks and planes or bang for buck in the classroom.. Does every school given the same money accomplish identical results? No. How do sports programs or the arts equate to science fairs and field trips? How does ZBB justify a cut or raise in each standard budget.? All of the ZBB items are defined - except the most important ones too fuzzy and complicated for simple accounting - the teachers and kids. The amount of hard "value" data required to fairly describe abstract expenses and their justification will require even more administrators to process which is the very "fiduciary" issue overdue for examination by the next SI. Just based upon the AAPS employee versus FTE teacher count of course. The true hidden value beyond those simple numbers might not be so apparent.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 3:45 p.m.

Zero based budgeting definitely is a tool for budget control. However, there seem to be a number of people on here who believe it is the ONLY tool. My admitted limited history suggests that there is always more than one working alternative to most problems. If people are committed to solution A at all levels, then solution A is likely to work. Same with solution B. It seems that zero based budgeting has a super-glue like hold on the community. Again, not saying it won't work; but it needs to be embraced by all, as all processes need to be.

Ricardo Queso

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

I don't think you get it. What AAPS needs is financial accountability, and ZBB is a tool to provide answers. Only in a government run agency would you question fiduciary responsibility.

Willie Reid

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

This is what I have been saying and I keep getting voted down. Zero-based budgeting is incredibly time consuming and expensive. Consultants would have to be brought in to get it up and running. I am a bean counter and was part of an organization that switched to zero-based budgeting. My organization was much smaller than AAPS with a much smaller budget and we still paid six figured for consultants to come in to get it started. Without the consultants we all would have been putting in 100 hour weeks during budget season. Like you said, it sounds good in theory, but implementing it is quite difficult. I don't mind doing the exercise as a one-time event, but doing it every year would cost more than it would save.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 12:27 p.m.

The problem with departmental budgeting is we have done that for more than a decade in AAPS. It ends up with teachers being the brunt of the cuts. The administrators will protect their jobs and if they are offering up the cuts, they will not cut themselves or their friends. Need proof? Go back and look at the list of cuts offered up by the Principal's union (AAAA) during the last cycle - not a single administrative position at the department/division level were in that list. It also leads to uneven cuts across schools, as one strong administrator protects their money better than less well versed administrators elsewhere. Sorry, zero-based budgeting may not be Dr. Swift's desire, but if we wamt to focus cuts away from the students - then we need to move to it.

Blue Dog Red

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 12:04 p.m.

We should be hearing less about she WOULD do, and more about what she HAS done in the past. Past performance & lessons learned are the best indicators of future behavior.

Ricardo Queso

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 2:19 p.m.

Because you would then know what the performance of a good waiter looks like and would then, hopefully, be able to select, hire, and train competent staff. STAR questions (Situation, Task, Action, Result) are the norm for interviews.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 12:16 p.m.

Absolutely wrong. If in the past my job was a waiter in a restaurant, and I am being PROMOTED to manager, how does what I did as a waiter serve my NEW job? The fact that she was NOT the one in charge before, means she is required to follow the leader. In the new position SHE IS THE LEADER.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 11:50 a.m.

No prior experience leading a school district, weak financial experience but full of buzz words. How did she ever get this far in the interview process? The AA BOE will love her. Go figure!

J. A. Pieper

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:02 p.m.

And these are the underlying priorities for AAPS! They love buzz words, believe that inexperienced people can lead effectively, and do not want anyone to tell them they have been handling financial issues incorrectly!


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 12:24 p.m.

You answered your own question - she got this far because she has no experience, weak financial experience and, best of all, used buzz words ; )

Joe Hood

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 11:35 a.m.

"Not a fan of zero-based accounting," one down one to go.


Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 11:22 a.m.

Is it Lawton instead of Lawson elementary?

Danielle Arndt

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

Thanks, wondering, for catching the typo. This has been fixed.

Maria Huffman

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 10:08 a.m.

Danielle, Can you report specifically what her thoughts are on special education, PBIS, the achievement gap, and the autism tsunami? Thanks, Maria Huffman

Maria Huffman

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 4:11 p.m.

To Richard Queso, I think these are important topics, and I haven't read or seen anything in the media where Jeanice Swift has addressed them specifically or generally. Maria Huffman

Ricardo Queso

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 1:21 p.m.

We have a Buzz Word Bingo winner!

Maria Huffman

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 : 10:10 a.m.

and just to be clear, PBIS stands for Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports. Maria Huffman