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Posted on Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Q&A with Ann Arbor schools' new superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift

By Amy Biolchini


Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift speaks in her first day on the job Tuesday, Aug. 27 at Pioneer High School.

Melanie Maxwell |

Ann Arbor will be seeing a lot of Ann Arbor Public Schools' new Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift over the next several months.

Swift, 55, whose five-year-long contract began Aug. 27 with AAPS, is planning to visit the staff at every school and the community for each building in her first months on the job. On the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 3, she'll spend her whole day visiting 11 schools.

She comes to Ann Arbor from Colorado Springs District 11, where she's been a part of an administration that's seen eight straight years of budget reductions.

Swift said her recent focus has been on wrapping up business at her former job and making new connections in Ann Arbor throughout the weeks since she was hired by the Board of Education—leaving no time for her to search for a place to live.

“Once the board gave the vote, my full focus has been on wrapping up the work in Colorado Springs and launching the work in Ann Arbor—and it was just not the right time to be distracted by those things,” Swift said.

Until she can find an apartment in the downtown corridor to rent, Swift said she’ll be living in an extended stay hotel. Eventually, Swift said she wants to buy a house in Ann Arbor.

Swift’s husband, John Swift, will join her in Ann Arbor once he is able to wrap up their life in Colorado Springs and retire from his job as a registered nurse. Swift said her husband is looking forward to being a hospice volunteer in Ann Arbor.

The couple does not have any children, but does have two cats and a multitude of nieces and nephews—and of course, Swift noted, about 16,000 children in Ann Arbor to care for.

Swift took about 40 minutes out of her day traveling from Colorado to Michigan Friday to speak with How did you select Ann Arbor? Did you apply for many other jobs?

Swift: I wanted to go to a community that valued education at its very core. That’s just so essential to providing a quality product. Ann Arbor certainly checks all of those boxes.

Everybody knows, because it was in the media, that I interviewed with Charles County (in Maryland). I had actually only interviewed there a couple of times. Period. I had not done a lot of interviewing, contrary to what some folks believed. Charles County, I was a finalist there, and Ann Arbor, I was a finalist there.

So really, there weren’t many. I didn’t apply for very many jobs. As I said, we kind of had a rubric my husband and I used for some period of years as we were preparing for this next chapter in our lives, and we wanted to select wisely, because it’s the one that we’ll probably live in for the rest of our lives. So I was very particular about where I applied and where I didn’t apply."

Where did you get your start as a teacher?

I began teaching in 1984 in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford School District right outside Fort Worth, Texas. I graduated from the University of Texas-Arlington and that district was nearby the university and I had done my student teaching there, and then got a job and started teaching high school English. And then later, middle school English and Spanish at both middle and high schools.

What was your motivation for getting into education?

I think most of us that choose education choose it for that magic that happens in the classroom—that passion for kids and for that spark when learning occurs. There’s just nothing like that—and for those of us that are wired that way … that’s why I made the choice, and really wanting at the end of the day to feel like you’ve made a difference—even in the life of one child, that you’ve made a difference.

How long had you been teaching before you realized you wanted to move from the classroom to more of an administrator role for public schools?

I felt that I didn’t ever want to be an administrator, and then about 10 years in, I began to realize that there was an opportunity there to have a wider sphere of influence. Administrators that did their administrative work really well were able to impact communities, and at the same time those who did not do that work well—that’s kind of devastating to a community. I became inspired to take that step and to see what it would be like to work as an administrator in that leadership role.

This is your first official superintendent position. What is a superintendent’s role, in your opinion?

At it’s core it’s not different—a teacher is in charge of a classroom, and a principal is in charge of a school, and a superintendent has a collection of schools, and yet it is very different that connection with community, that desire and that commitment to serve.

The way that it’s similar with all those other roles in the district is that we’re here to serve, to lead, to advocate for the work that we’re doing in this district. Really, leading from this position is a wonderful opportunity to impact change in the same way that everyone else in the organization hope to impact change in a positive way.

What kind of superintendent do you want to be?

It’s my purpose to serve, and really to extend and enhance the quality for which Ann Arbor is already known. I want to be known as someone who rolls up their sleeves and works as hard or harder than anybody on the team.

It’s my desire to fall in alongside community members and Ann Arbor Public Schools team members. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 25 years, is that it’s about team. Our success is about team. And that’s the thing that gets me so excited. Not coming to say, ‘Oh, Super Swift, what are you going to do?’ I don’t think that’s the way to look at it. It’s, how are we going to join together and put our heads together, and then, I am a courageous leader; I will make courageous decisions. But figuring those out is the job of the collective.

And that’s why the tour of every single school building is to determine what are the collective needs … what are those opportunities, what are the challenges, and where are people in terms of how they’re being served and how well we’re doing in Ann Arbor.

During your interview process, you asked what the culture and climate of Ann Arbor is like. Have you gotten a sense for what that is yet?

It’s still really early, but I’ll tell you, I’ve just received the warmest welcome from the folks in Ann Arbor. Cards, emails, people coming up to me at restaurants. So far, I appreciate that the culture seems to be very warm and open, but also very honest, and I’m really excited about that. I know I’ve got a whole lot more to learn about the culture and Ann Arbor.

What are some of your key goals in your first several months on the job?

There are really two primary goals. I’ll be conducting two parallel processes—one is to extend outreach into every school community, every neighborhood, to listen and learn directly from parents and stakeholders what we’re doing well as a district, and what needs our attention, and what do our stakeholders believe are the immediate next steps.

Process number two is that I’ll be conducting a thorough analysis of what I call the back of the house operations to really become deeply knowledgeable in the district, the system and all those components—and I’m not saying I can learn it in six weeks, I know it takes a long time, but certainly get a full status from every department, every division, every area in the district. So, between now and Thanksgiving, that’s our primary focus: those two parallel processes.

When will the engagement schedule with the community be announced?

We’re working right now with the details, but hoping to get the full entry schedule and plan out to the community in a very short time. We’re just finalizing the details now.

From your first impressions of the district, have you seen any issues that you know will come up in your first year of being the superintendent?

I think the main thing that I’m hearing and seeing is a real desire, a real hunger in the community to have those open forums, to be able to have what I call that public dialogue around the current state of our schools and what the needs are. There are issues out there that need to be wrapped in to this idea of having a two-way conversation and open communication and making sure that we’re fully engaged in the community process.

Zero-based budgeting. You’ve said previously it’s not your first choice as a budget approach, though the Board of Education has stated that it will still be pursuing the switch to zero-based budgeting. How do you plan to work through this point of contention in budget approaches?

I know that right away, as would be expected, the board and I will be in deep discussions over early fall as to how this budgeting process for next year will roll out. So, as a result of those conversations, we’ll get a refined and more specific process. I’m a veteran of many years of budget challenges. I’m very well-versed in a number of pathways for that—including zero-based budgeting—so there won’t be any problem. We’ll have discussion, and the board will provide direction, and we’ll move forward aggressively to get our budget process underway at the right time.

The specifics of that, I’m sure, will unfold as we move forward. I can promise that … budget process will include full community engagement process as part and parcel of that unfolding of the budget. … It’s a little early yet to speak to the specifics of it, but we will come to an understanding of what the process is and we’ll get about that business right away.

Have you had a chance to review the district’s budget process last year? Did you have any comments on how the district achieved its savings?

I really don’t have a comment. … I know that people do the very best in the situation that they’re in.

Ann Arbor Public Schools will be seeking a continuation of its sinking fund millage for physical property repair, upkeep and investment on the ballot this November. Do you have an opinion as to whether this is the best idea for the schools to pursue right now?

We will absolutely be 100 percent supportive of continuing to provide a quality product for our children, which includes maintaining facilities. Often times those are things that people may not notice until they’re not there. It’s very important to take care of our facilities. The average age of our schools in our district are getting up there in years and so I absolutely will support those efforts.

How does AAPS compare to the school district you’re coming from in Colorado, in your opinion?

Every community is unique—and that’s why we’re pursuing that listening and learning approach to discover those unique dimensions of Ann Arbor. And certainly, I already see that—the uniqueness of the community. And yet, there are challenges and opportunities that are similar across the two systems.

Colorado Springs is a larger system, but organizations in this day and age, it’s not unusual for systems to have challenges. It doesn’t mean that their solutions will be the same at all because as we say, every community is unique and Ann Arbor has a lot of family community support for public schooling. So discovering those assets and leveraging them is an important part of that process. But there certainly are similarities across districts.

You’ll be walking into a district with relatively low staff morale among teachers: 233 of them received layoff notices at the end of last school year; Michigan’s governor has cut funding to public schools. How important is it to you to approach the morale issue within the organization?

I appreciate you asking the question—and you asked before about similarities. This certainly is a similarity across Michigan and across many states. The priority will be to honor teachers and staff, and to honor the quality work that’s going on in Ann Arbor Public Schools.

And if that quality work continues, even in a setting of declining resources—and to maintain visibility, not only in the Ann Arbor community, but at the state level to advocate and provide that communication so that we are constantly lobbying and advocating. We have to do better by our children and we have to better to fund professionals to educate them. The discouragement that comes with year after year of funding issues and that discouragement and that overall sense of being overwhelmed: addressing that will be a top priority for me.

Now, please understand: I absolutely am not coming in to town with a magic wand; I don’t have a magic wand. But, what I do know, is that if we pull together, and I’ve done it with the people in my former system and I know the people in Ann Arbor have done it - we have to work together and we have to realize that this economic downturn will not last forever, but that it does give us an opportunity to refine our priorities and to determine what is most important and to stick with those priorities and to be more innovative and more creative in a way that’s more efficient.

My focus with teachers will be: we will be in this together. We will ride this storm out together. We are looking ahead to a time, still, I hope, where things are turning better for all of us. In the mean time, I’ll be listening, learning and honoring the staff and the community in the work that we’re doing on behalf of the children.

Amy Biolchini is the K-12 education reporter for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 5 p.m.

Ms. Biolchini - Thank you for a great interview, it shows the human side of Dr. Swift, something most of the community never saw in Dr. Green. I welcome Dr. Swift to the community, and I look forward to her community engagement. I would not want to be the one to try and follow her through 11 schools and the driving in between in less than 7 hours. I would be exhausted. On a different point your political bias is showing: "Michigan's governor has cut funding to public schools" As a reporter, I hope you will search for the facts and provide facts to the readers of The state government did the cutting 1 time, to fix a massive hole left by the prior administration who chose to spend 2 years of stimulus funds in 1 year, rather than leave some for the incoming administration. This year the state restored a lot of the funding to the K-12 schools, more to the ones on the bottom than the ones on the top.

Mark Lee

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 12:54 a.m.

Sounds encouraging, I'm looking forward to seeing superintendent Swift around Bach Elementary . Welcome!

Glenn Galler

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 8:52 p.m.

"The team, the team, the team". I like that she did her homework. I also like that she wanted to come to A2 for all the right reasons and didn't waste A2's limited money interviewing for the job with no intention of taking it. With students in Middle School and High School she has my full support. It takes time to get into a new position and I like her approach of getting to know the community. This was a nice interview and article.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 6:50 p.m.

The first question she should answer is "who is the new Lawton principal?" And the secong, "When will they start?"

Albert Howard

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 5:54 p.m.

What an awesome responsibility and opportunity!

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

I do see the human part of Dr. Swift very clearly in her responses. I believe she will be a fresh start that AAPS needs to build back trust with the community. I am concerned about visiting 11 schools on the first day, that is really not going to count as what teachers and possibly members of the community see as a visit. What she needs to do is hang out with teachers in a building at lunch one day, or attend a staff meeting. Dr. Swift should also attend a PTO meeting at a building, to meet the parents who support their school. All schools have first week Professional Development this coming week, pick a building, and go see what they are learning about! There are many Curriculum Nights and Open House evenings coming up in the next few weeks, go to one, walk around with parents, listen to their perspectives as they learn about the work their child is facing this year. IF she wants it to be "WE" in doing everything possible for this district, she has to join in with everyone here on the front lines - teachers, students, and parents. Doing a "walk through" of eleven schools is good for exercise, but please don't consider that a true visit!


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:47 p.m.

If she cleans out Balas? I will stop singing Send In The Clowns.

Burr Oak

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 10:44 p.m.

The walk throughs will be motivating for everyone and will give her some background knowledge to begin building her understanding of the district. Of course, no substance will be communicated on these visits. Supt. Greene did the same thing when she first came. The important conversations should begin in a more thoughtful way later. Parents will feel empowered to express themselves honestly. Staff, however, will need a venue that is designed to encourage open communication. No one is going to speak plainly in front of their principal or one the Balas administrators.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

Refreshing and down to earth. Nice to hear a response, not a spin on a problem. Best wishes to Dr. Swift. Lets give her the opportunity to improve our district, and remember, as she said, that she does not have a magic wand.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

Visiting 11 school on the first day means very little time at each building. I hope that as she says she will spend more time getting to know the different schools and there needs.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 1:45 p.m.

It sounds like 30 minutes at each location plus travel time. That should be more than sufficient. Out in the real world, if you get 30 minutes with your leadership, you had better have a very focused presentation ready. You do not get a second opportunity to waste their time.

Basic Bob

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 7:43 p.m.

It is not productive, but it is exciting. After 3 years of neither productive nor exciting.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 1:15 p.m.

Thank you for a beautifully written article. I liked your questions and feel we actually got honest, well-articulated answers. Amazing! I am really looking forward to this change in leadership!

Chester Drawers

Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

Agreed - good interview and article. But Amy, if you ran a picture of me with my mouth wide open, I sure wouldn't give you another one!


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 12:49 p.m.

Just one observation. A few times in the article she is quoted as saying "we" (for example in the millage question and the following one). I look for her to lead, I hope to see more "I" than "We" as she takes over and runs the district. I look for continued direct communication versus hearing from Liz Margolis, I shuddered in the past when the "administration" and other terms were used in deflecting responsibility. Dr. Swift was chosen to be the leader, and I look for her to shine in that role.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:48 a.m.

Wow. I was afraid to read this, but she sounds like a regular human being. I was expecting something from the education marketing department. This is a good start.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:47 a.m.

As a teacher in Ann Arbor, I have already seen Dr. Swift accomplish more in the last few weeks that Dr. Green did in her entire two years, particularly when it comes to connecting to the community. I am very excited to work with Dr. Swift. She is very genuine, transparent and is already making good on her 90 plan. No politician here; just a genuine human being.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 10:42 a.m.

Another key, I think, will be keeping Swift out in front as the voice of the district, not letting our BOE president take over and muddle the clarity of Swift's ability to speak. The community owes Mexicotte gratitude for her years of service and areas of strength, but being a public speaker is not her strong suit. Comparing Swift's comments above to Mexicotte's long-winded message in the district in-house newspaper, it's clear that Swift will have an easier time speaking about decisions and plans that are likely to anger people down the road. It looks like the communications plans for the district have been revamped somewhat and Mexicotte has a Blog, which is a better place for her to have her voice than as the main speaker to the media. Mexicotte needs an editor, to whittle down her long, self-justifying explanations, to messages that will succinctly inform parents, staff and students and provide effective leadership. I do not believe this is Mexicotte's strong suit and think her talent and experience should be used in other roles. It is discouraging that Mexicotte wants to blame the media and anonymous commenters, instead of admit candidly, that the board has not done an effective job communicating with voters, running meetings, and being organized -- and she regrets that this. Even if the board feels they look bad in media coverage, certainly there are areas where they can improve, which would then be reflected in future media coverage. Justifying why they have looked bad or received negative media attention or negative comments is not an explanation and a positive solution. Swift says she enjoys the leadership aspects of being a teacher, principal or superintendent and I hope she can provide some guidance to the board to get some the trustees to consider roles that better suit their strengths.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:41 p.m.

@Donbee- Thanks for adding useful information to my comments. Deb Mexicotte has put in a lot of time and work, but voters have to hold these elected officials accountable for basic functions of their job. Mexicotte is quick to blame the media, live blogging and being misunderstood instead of addressing fair questions and criticism in a straightforward manner. I will put my full support behind trustees or prospective trustees who push for more transparency and responsibility in this district.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:29 p.m.

aaparent - I have to agree with you. Instead of carefully examining the role of the board and the administration, Ms. Mexicotte wants to lay all of the problems on the media and commenter. I find it funny that she has yet to take the administration to task for failing to post contracts in a timely fashion on the website (as required by state law) or to post the "checkbook" on the website (as required by a board vote) or other community transparency items that have been promised or voted on. If she wants an honest discourse, then the board needs to step up and provide the information they have promised or are REQUIRED by law to provide. Otherwise, it will be speculation and best guess off material that may be years old or just flat wrong. I truly look forward to November 2014 and the board elections, I really hope there is a strong field of candidates for the board.


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 11:27 p.m.

@Kris -fair point, but I try to make my comments about Mexicotte longer because if you boil down what I said to bullet points, it would sound mean spirited in print. I am trying my best to offer constructive feedback via the online news. But I agree with you, my comments are long winded, but I would hardly call myself someone who lives in a glass house!


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 10:54 p.m.

Talk about Mexicotte being long-winded....those in glass houses etc


Sun, Sep 1, 2013 : 10:30 a.m.

This is a nice interview. Thanks to Amy for printing it and I am encouraged to read Swift's comments. She has already been engaging with the community and I will be interested to read about her visits to buildings. It is good that she is starting off her time in Ann Arbor following through on initial promises she made during the interview. She seems warm and genuine, not afraid to talk to people, including our community's education reporter. She communicates effectively. I am relieved to read that she understands how critical it is to work with teachers and support them. If she can sustain this level of energy and commitment for the entire year, it will help the district move forward facing a lot of tough issues and hopefully do it in a way that is more effective than what has happened under Green's leadership. Her willingness to share some basic information about her family is a real positive, given how secretive it seemed Green was and how that played a role in Green's difficulty building relationships with many people she worked with.