You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 5:57 a.m.

Top 5: Considerations as Ann Arbor's school board asks superintendent candidates about comments

By Paula Gardner

Related stories:

The Ann Arbor Public Schools spent two days this week vetting the six finalist candidates for superintendent, with the school board aiming its top 20 questions at each individual.

Questions about the budget. Redistricting. Student achievement.

And anonymous comments at


Melanie Maxwell |

We were only partly surprised that this website made the district's priority list for questions to ask a prospective superintendent. Communication strategies already are topics of concern in this community, which has spent two years hearing very little direct comment from its top school official.

And, as the financial pressures mount and the district turns to its savings to balance its budget, more and more questions in the community seem to be raised — even as the opportunity to interact with the board as a group is limited due to its meeting structure.

We know there are readers who do not value our commenting platform, which allows anonymity within certain guidelines to encourage a constructive conversation. School trustees have been among the most vocal people who've expressed concerns.

I'm not convinced that the comments at should be a part of the superintendent discussions — but I also can't change that. And MLive Media Group doesn't plan to change the commenting structure.

What I can offer are these Top 5 considerations for Ann Arbor as the school board raises as a question to the candidates who seek to lead our district.

1. The school board is reading the comments. Otherwise, how could members form the opinions they state? That means that commenters here have influence at some level.

2. Civility is valuable. That's the most important message I believe is coming from trustees. While they're reading the comments, the message in many of them is easy to dismiss due to tone, imprecise (or inaccurate) information or off-hand insults. And that means the influence never reaches its potential impact. So I have to remind commenters: Please stay constructive.

3. Would be an issue today if this community had a visible superintendent leading the conversation about the schools for the past two years? Not in the same way. An effective communicator in the top spot would set the tone for the entire district, including residents who disagree with leadership. Or just wonder about decisions. During Patricia Green's tenure, we had next to no access to her, except through intermediaries — and can count the number of interviews she allowed. I'm still not sure that she knows how unusual that is for any community, much less Ann Arbor.

4. Commenters will find your weakness. That's not a bad thing, though it can make you feel vulnerable. I went through that transition as launched, and I tell new reporters all the time: Commenters will make your writing better, though you won't always appreciate how they express themselves. I will say that's true of the school district, too. Values and performance will go through a daily reality check: Is the district truly transparent? Can you confirm success? How effective are your strategies? You'll get an answer from an unfiltered portion of this community. I think that can be valuable — particularly if you get engaged in it.

5. The community is hungry to be heard. And this community will find a way to do just that — we see that in the district, too, from a trustee's blog and the AAPS News website set up to promote district news. We look forward to seeing how the new superintendent will manage the drive of residents to provide feedback. And we're encouraged that many of the candidates — and trustees - are placing a value on public communication.

(Paula Gardner is editor of She can be reached by email or at 734 623 2586.)


Maria Huffman

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 2:34 p.m.

And staff and owners, I truly would like to know if you have paper copies of the blog posts for the record. Sincerely, Maria E. Huffman, 2105 Independence Blvd, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48104

Maria Huffman

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 9:31 p.m.

To Kyle Mattson, what I meant was, do you have paper copies on record in your business of all the blog posts ever written in

Kyle Mattson

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 3:51 p.m.

Hi Maria- The live blog was not published in print you can read the entire record of the live blog from both days here on the site: Day 1- Day 2-


Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 1:36 a.m.

If the AAPS and BOE were more transparent with the public then perhaps the comments would be more favorable. As Stephen points out FOIA should not be a standard operating procedure for an entity funded entirely by public funds. Frequent and regular communication directly from and with the superintendent should be the norm rather than the exception. I was an educator in a public school system larger than AASP where the superintendent was the FIRST, not the last, to report or comment on an issue. The district public information officer provided background data and follow-up on issues as required. There was never a question about where the superintendent stood on an issue and how he would respond. He was also respected by the staff as well as the community as a whole. Let us hope that the next Superintendent will take charge of AAPS and become the leader. With the right Superintendent, the BOE might have a chance at being able to contribute to the success of the district.


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 4:58 p.m.

WholeDude - Whole Knowledge: I think that we need a commenting platform even if it doesn't help the decision making process at the Ann Arbor School Board. The idea of commenting is not that of taking over the functions of the Board and of the School District. In the Armed Forces, we use the term 'intelligence'. It always helps to know the thoughts, and intentions of others, and it helps us to perform better. I had a working relationship with the School District in the past and my friends still maintain that relationship. I would prefer to be heard rather than be recognized. My concerns would be that of the philosophical direction of the School District. If the purpose of education is that of imparting knowledge, we have to state the types of knowledge, their source, and its learning technique. My learning experience in India includes exposure to a variety of guest speakers and I am surprised to note that our school children do not get the opportunity to listen to the members of community. There is too much emphasis on curriculum based learning; it could be necessary for academic planning and yet we cannot ignore the simple fact that life is about an individual's subjective experience.

Sarah Winter

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 2:51 p.m.

As an AAPS teacher, I will say that it is certainly a sign of a sad state of affairs that I have been regularly turning to this site's articles and comments to find out what is happening with my own organization. Thank you to AnnArbor. com for taking such an active role. However, the too often the tone and content of too many comments on this site are skewed toward incivility. It seems to me that as long as anonymity dominates, many informed civilized potential commenters will decline to share their insight, choosing instead to remain above the ugly fray. Why not require names,

Maria Huffman

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

I agree with Sarah Winter and give a tip o' the hat to AMOC, payback for speaking out with a person's real name is a true risk. I try very hard to be civil and diplomatic. Does Ann print out the blog's posts and save them in print form?


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

Sarah, I agree that having to read this local news blog in order to find out what's happening in your own organization means that there is some serious dysfunction somewhere in your chain of command. However, Jen is correct when she says that many commenters would not be sharing what they know of doings in the community, and especially of doings in the schools if they could not do so anonymously. It is a sad thing, to say, but on a couple of occasions when I have spoken out in person about situations where someone has been abusing trust or acting against policy, some staff members have retaliated against my children in AAPS. I compromise in this forum by using initials that make me recognizable to most people who know me personally. I do try to acknowledge the majority of things that are done well in and by AAPS and maintain a constructive tone about those things I believe should be changed. No one is a villain in their own mind, and in almost every case the people in AAPS who I believe have done the wrong thing have done so because they are well-meaning but mis-guided or mis-informed. Board of Ed VP Christine Stead refuses to allow anonymous comments on her blog. We debated this at some length in e-mail when she blocked a comment from me because I used my Wordpress ID to sign in, as her blog permits because it is hosted on Wordpress. I offered, if she didn't like that option, to use the same pseudonym I use here to continue discussion of a topic SHE had raised there shortly after it had been covered in this forum. She refused. Her blog, her privilege. But that means I will no longer even try to inform her or her readers of situations that might benefit from the attention of the Board of Ed before they rise to the level of scandal or lawsuits. The stakes for my kids are too high.


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 3:50 p.m.

I agree with your beginning statement, it is a sad state of affairs. AS an AAPS employee, you should be in the loop. However, it is also a sad state of affairs that vindictive personnel do exist and I believe part of the reason for anonymity is concern for commenters' children. As an example, at many schools, the principal dictates who gets what teacher, etc... AAPS is like any other organization, some great things, some good things, some bad thing and some things that get swept under the carpet. I don't think it would be fair to be only able to comment on the good/great things if names were required out of concern for retribution from staff. Believe me, i know that MOST of the staff would not think in this fashion, but i can also think of a few that would.

Jen Eyer

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 3:48 p.m.

Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah. It seems counterintuitive, but research indicates that the use of real names does not actually elevate the tone of comments. We also know this from anecdotal evidence on our own sites, as commenters who use real names can sometimes be every bit as harsh and critical as those who use pseudonyms. News sites that use Facebook comments have certainly seen the volume of comments decrease sharply, and to some that makes it feel more civil. But the tone isn't any better. We value robust conversation on and MLive, so we aim to include as many community members as possible, including anonymous ones. From our own research, we know that civility (or a perceived lack thereof) isn't a huge barrier to participation. (The biggest reason cited is actually the hassle in creating an account.) We also have learned in our research that most readers are not willing to use their real names, largely for concerns related to employment. Online comments aren't like letters to the editor printed in the paper. They become part of your digital footprint, accessible to anyone with a search engine, forevermore. That's pretty daunting for most people. Our approach instead is to focus on two things: engaging in the comments ourselves, and moderating comments that violate the rules of civility. We focus on the content of the comment, rather than the identity of the commenter. Anonymous or not, our commenters are our readers, our neighbors and members of our greater community, and we respect them.

Kellie Woodhouse

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 2:49 p.m.

I got the sense during the interviews that pervious AAPS superintendents have been somewhat rattled by what they feel is a constant deluge of negative comments in their direction. Many board members seemed to believe that some commenters can base assumptions off of falsities, and then put those misunderstandings out on as fact. They asked about commenting, I believe, in part because they want a candidate with thick skin and in part because they want a SI that has the communication ability to be a strong voice in the media. I will say that the commenting on is really robust. I tell some of my journalist friends elsewhere how much reader engagement there is on my stories and a lot of times they're shocked. Ann Arbor is a deeply engaged community. I think for commenters a good takeaway here is that people read you. Remember that when you craft your comments. Be fair and informed in your responses.


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 1:58 p.m.

I think really needs to have a section called EDITORIAL, or OPINION. Posting these types of articles under the NEWS section, and just having the writer labelled as EDITOR, just doesn't seem to be proper. There is certainly nothing wrong with editorials - they just should be more clearly marked as such.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 10:32 p.m.

No, we won't have a designated section on the homepage for opinion. However, if you use the "drop down" menu by hovering your cursor over "more" there is an opinion header. We send our opinion content through the news section. The exception was during the election, when the sheer volume of letters would have made the headlines disproportionate. Since most of our opinion content is reacting to local news stories, it seems like a decent fit. It just needs to be clearly marked.


Thu, Jul 11, 2013 : 6:11 p.m.

Thank-you for doing that Paula. Now that it is labelled OPINION, will there be a section/label on the main page, similar to News; Sports; Lifestyle: etc for that? I don't recall that does a lot of opinion stuff, and I don't recall if there have been such sections in the past. That was an issue for me as well, that it was grouped on the main page with other News stories. (At least the email version.)

Paula Gardner

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 7:06 p.m.

I did add that earlier today, but obviously after you saw this column. Thanks for pointing out that it was missing.


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

Good points Paula, and I believe accurate.

Usual Suspect

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 12:48 p.m.

In the headline, why is there a colon between "5" and "Considerations?"


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 6:47 p.m.

There are five points made and defended in the text of the "Top 5" column.

Paula Gardner

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 1:55 p.m.

That's a structure we often use when doing a Top 5 column.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 10:33 a.m.

The community, through, has had some positive impact on the often poor decision-making by the board over the past year. For example, there was no internal audit program at AAPS and now as a result of our collective efforts, there will be at least $80,000 allocated to internal audit in the coming school year budget. This is necessary since there has been a past pattern of fraud and waste in the AAPS. The community often expresses clear opinions as to what should happen and if the school board continues to act with disregard to those wishes, they will likely get thrown out of office. This is as it should be. We all want and need the public schools to be as good as they can be. * Priority needs to be placed on classroom instruction and not administrative overhead. * Information should be freely available and not hidden behind a "Just FOIA that" mentality. For example, the AAPS has repeatedly violated state law by not timely posting key documents they are required to disclose on the websites, such as approved union contracts. * Poorly performing administrators need to be fired and the sooner the better. They are costing the AAPS substantial revenue. * A properly constructed detailed line item budget for each of the 31 schools needs to be created. The principals then need to be held accountable for results versus their budget. This is a partial list. There is a lot of unfinished business for the incoming superintendent to take on.