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Posted on Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Trust and relationship building identified as No. 1 board goal for Ann Arbor schools

By Danielle Arndt

After an extended discussion about meeting lengths, finances, race, equity and student achievement, the Ann Arbor Board of Education set its No. 1 priority for the 2012-13 academic year as building a stronger relationship among trustees.

A lack of trust and respect among school board members was identified as the root cause of several ongoing issues for the board and as the reason important conversations about race and equity have been sidestepped, the board concluded following an honest and reflective self assessment.

The school board met for its annual retreat Wednesday, where it took on the task of assigning board goals and superintendent goals for the upcoming school year.


Susan Baskett

The board set finances as its second priority, including potentially spearheading another attempt at a countywide schools enhancement millage and lobbying state lawmakers to repeal Proposal A and restore districts’ abilities to levy taxes for operational expenses.

An independent consultant, Teresa Bingman, was brought in to facilitate a two-hour portion at the start of the retreat, in which school board members opened up about the past year on the board and the things they were proud of or thought needed improvement.

“It has been a trying year for me,” said Trustee Susan Baskett.

Vice President Christine Stead described the overall tone of the board as passive aggressive.

“There are times I feel like we are not making good decisions because our meetings last for eight to 10 hours, and it’s impacting our board dynamics,” she said. “Really, the only progress I feel like we’ve made as a board, operationally, is to become more settled with who we are. … And part of this board’s culture is to meet until the point of exhaustion or beyond exhaustion sometimes.”


Irene Patalan

Trustee Irene Patalan attributed the lengthy meetings to a desire to know and understand the intricacies of school topics.

“This is the board that asks for every report in America,” she said. “Admittedly, we push and push and get bogged down by wanting to know something sometimes.”

President Deb Mexicotte cited the hour-long discussion the board had about a single textbook adoption earlier in the evening as an example of Patalan’s testament.

Mexicotte said she was “stunned” by the board’s self-assessment, after comparing trustees’ responses from last year’s evaluation.

The survey the board used to self-evaluate was developed by Iowa-based company Ray and Associates, with whom the board contracted during its national search for Superintendent Patricia Green last year. The survey asked board members to rate, on a scale from one to 10, whether it strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with a series of statements. Mexicotte said the board ranked itself lower than last year in 56 of 74 areas. It only ranked itself higher in 12 areas, she said.

Aside from stating the Ann Arbor trustees clearly take their roles on the board seriously and are “zealous” about serving the district, Bingman said she heard a number of common concerns surface among board members, as the result of questions she asked about performance and priorities. They were:

  • Meeting lengths
  • Equity and race relations
  • Finances and legislative lobbying
  • Customer service
  • Communication and transparency
  • Trust and relationship building
  • Approaches for problem solving, board process and committee structure

Bingman said one trustee summed it all up well in his or her board self-assessment survey: “We would be more effective as a board if we had a stronger sense of our priorities, and better understood our own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

“It’s the communication and the approach and the courtesy and the respect and the trust — all of those pieces combined. All of that works together in how different issues are processed and different goals are achieved,” Bingman told board members.


Christine Stead

The board agreed that a “courageous conversation” about race, program equity for “students of color” and the achievement and discipline gaps, which Baskett and Trustee Simone Lightfoot both said was long overdue, could not happen until the board did the “groundwork,” as Mexicotte called it. She sees trust as being one of the key issues preventing the board from engaging in the type of conversation Baskett and Lightfoot are advocating, she said.

Stead said when that conversation is someday initiated, it also should include the Asian population in Ann Arbor, not just the black and Hispanic students. She said it’s her concern that members of the board are coming to the table solely as representatives of their specific subsections of the community.

“We are trying to focus on solving problems on behalf of 17,000 students … and not to be disrespectful of any one of them,” she said. “Our goal is not just to close the achievement gap, but to make sure every student has the ability to grow and succeed … that there is no ceiling. … It makes me wonder what the goal is of a conversation around just certain subsets (of the student population).”

Deb Mexicotte.JPG

Deb Mexicotte

Mexicotte also saw trust as a factor in why the school board changed its committee structure about mid-fall last year, she said. The Ann Arbor Board of Education used to have a Planning Committee and a Performance Committee, each of which met once per month and contained half the board members. These meetings were conducted in addition to the two regular meetings.

The separate committees were given up in November in favor of the Committee of the Whole structure the board uses now. The COW meets once per month and contains all of the board members.

Mexicotte said if the board could fix the trust piece, then maybe members wouldn’t feel like they had to reiterate and talk so long at the regular meetings, as well.

“If we could trust that we are going to be heard or have just been heard, then maybe that will make the difference,” she said, also contemplating whether the board could switch back to the previous committee structure if trust and respect were restored.

Mexicotte will develop a set of strategies and agenda items for the board’s review on its two primary goals for 2012-13: finances and relationship building. Both topics will be brought up again at the next COW meeting, which is currently scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Balas Administration Building, she said.

Mexicotte, Patalan, Stead and Trustee Andy Thomas agreed with attempting to rein in the board’s meetings so they finish earlier and don't last eight to 10 hours. Mexicotte also will develop a set of strategies for this to present at the Committee of the Whole. They likely will include a target end time, target presentations times and suggestions for self-discipline among board members.

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


Dog Guy

Fri, Aug 3, 2012 : 2:17 a.m.

Trust and relationship building identified as No. 1 goal for snakes, wolves, spiders, and other predators.


Fri, Aug 3, 2012 : 12:13 a.m.

This is fairly mind-boggling. What is the mission of the AAPS? It should be something approximate to "provide quality education to every student in our system". The board exists to help allocate resources where they are needed to accomplish that goal, and perhaps to marshal arguments between folks who disagree about how to accomplish that mission. But, and most importantly, anything that does not directly serve that purpose is extraneous, and because it consumes resources that could serve the goal, it should be cut. Start with administrative bloat, meeting bloat, and consultants who help the board hold hands with one another. Are board members themselves 3rd graders? Grow up and serve the mission or resign your seats!

A Voice of Reason

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 6:59 p.m.

No. 1 priority for the 2012-13 academic year as building a stronger relationship among trustees. Great, I thought the number one priority is to educate kids in the best manner possible. If the school board attempts another countywide milage, we will fight it. There is plenty of money in the system. Gov. Snyder is going to tie funding to outcomes, so maybe our kids will have to learn how to write and teachers may have to care if all kids in their classes learn! Flip the classrooms, integrate technology and teach our kids to write by making them write everyday--not 2 times a year. Also, get rid of the dead weight teachers. This should be the priority.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 7:25 p.m.

Who's this we? I would support a millage, because of the structural deficit, although the quarreling amongst the board I would rather not hear about. It's obvious that when Sue Baskett got voted out of vicepresident slot, people weren't listening to her line of arguments, but you know, so what? She still on the board, and she still gets to say her piece.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 4:31 p.m.

I would have thought a quality education for the students. Or maybe improving test scores. How about increasing graduation rate. I would think the kids education should be the number 1 priority. This just goes to show you we have way too many chiefs and not enough indians.

J. A. Pieper

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 3:13 p.m.

The title of this article is misleading! "Trust and Relationship Building identified as the No. 1 board goal for Ann Arbor schools" implies that they might be working with a broader spectrum of the district, and this is only about the people on the board getting along with each other? I had some hopes that this was somehow related to more of their relationship with the community, or between administration and "regular staff." It is obvious the board has struggles among themselves, the public needs to vote in some new minds and personalities!


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 4:01 p.m.

Have to agree, at first I thought it was about building trust and relationships within the school community, including parents.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

Are they going to try to run the school district in their spare time? We need to get rid of these clowns and elect people with a business background, people that actually know how to run a business. The Ann Arbor schools are simply a very big business. Their budget is huge, their product should be well educated children and their results have been amazingly bad.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

honestly, it's okay if they all don't get along. Closing the gap is important. Other things are important too. The problem is that if someone want's to get something done, you'll have to work with other people, so ticking each other off, repeatedly, makes for long meetings.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 2:15 p.m.

Oh Ms. Lightfoot, just when I was beginning to have faith in you, you pull out the Glenn Singleton PEG rhetoric about "courageous conversations" ad nauseam. Let me guess, the "groundwork" will consist of lining Singleton's pocket buying his workbooks and hey, maybe even a presentation, all expenses paid of course. Thank you Ms. Stead for wanting to include all students and for not wanting to close the gap by dragging the top students to the middle. I wish would do a COMPLETE story (including the lawsuits he's involved in) on that charlatan and how much TOTAL AAPS has spent on him.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.

I am pleased to hear Christine Stead want to include all children in the discussion. I gotta wonder if this is about Roberto Clemente, that if the district merges Clemente with another alternative school, this is perceived as a race problem, not a logistical problem. Boy, I would hate to think that board members thinks a school exist for a solution to a perceived race issue, and not as an educational issue.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

Trustee Irene Patalan attributed the lengthy meetings to a desire to know and understand the intricacies of school topics. "This is the board that asks for every report in America," she said. "Admittedly, we push and push and get bogged down by wanting to know something sometimes." It sounds like superintendent Green will be giving you even more, indepth reports so you can stay just a little later and study the problems in even greater detail. Leaders don't create reams and reams of reports, they make decisions and guide the people on the board. The board sounds as if it struggles with itself because it is afraid to make the tough decisions and so it just studies the problems to death........I guess that's easier than making a decision. Maybe the board is dysfuntional and needs new people on it. How about it DonBee?


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

"And part of this board's culture is to meet unti the point of exhaustion..." I'm no highly-paid consultant, but feel free to take this business advice: ANY company who looks at time spent in meetings as an important metric is foolish. It is how the time is spent. In fact, the less time spent in meetings shows a well-organized department or business, and leaves more time not sitting around raising the same talking points over and over again to actually accomplish things in the workplace. You're welcome, AAPS :)


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 1:36 p.m.

BINGO! Truer words were never written on these pages. I sit in the same meeting every Monday and the same conversation happens each week. I take notes and create action items that are ignored, thus the Groundhog Day feel of the meetings. I have said as much and nothing changes. It's comical since the people in charge are very smart and educated, but they cant accomplish anything nor find consensus on anything. Meeting notes are the same each week - I just change the dates! My point is - long, unproductive meetings are normal for many businesses and organizations and the goal should be efficiency and productivity - not longevity. Well said A2James!

Andrew Smith

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 11:07 a.m.

No sane or health organization - of any kind - routinely has meetings lasting eight to ten hours.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 11:07 a.m.

"An independent consultant, Teresa Bingman, was brought in to facilitate a two-hour portion at the start of the retreat" Any way for us to find out how much this cost?

Danielle Arndt

Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

The $2,500 was a rough cost estimate. I am trying to find out the final cost of the specific consultant/facilitator they hired and will inform readers as soon as possible. Thank you for the question and for reading!


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 11:14 a.m.

A previous article on July 19th said $2,500.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 10:56 a.m.

They hired an independent consultant for this, met for 2 hours, came up with a relatively weak number 1 priority and then set finances as their number 2 priority? Money well spent. I do, however, appreciate Ms. Stead's comments regarding making sure that all students are given the opportunity to succeed instead of focusing on certain groups.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 8:05 p.m.

squid: Don't misinterpret Baskett and Lightfoot comments to mean they are disregarding others students or being racist in recognizing there is an achievement gap with African American and Hispanics. At the end of the school year, Asian students are often identified as the higher achievers in the district receiving numerous awards and listing the secondary institutions they will be attending.. How many Black students or Hispanics were listed this past year. You never hear of the "achievement gap" between Asian students and White students but it exist. Personally, I am tired of hearing about this gap. Why don't we focus on educating the students instead of what evaluation mechanism will be employed for the superintendent. Quite frankly, I see the superintendent roles in this as being very minor. After all, teaching the students occurs in the classroom and not at Balas.


Thu, Aug 2, 2012 : 10:33 a.m.

As expected - the board will try for another millage in the spring - at a time when most people are not watching the polls. Sneaking another tax increase in. Between now and then expect them to threaten the end to art, music, sports, and busing. Expect them to threaten more teacher layoffs. But don't expect that they will offer any administrative cuts. As to board trust, not only are there issues between the board members, but between the public and the board. I don't see fixing community relations in their list, and I don't see transparency as a top goal. As to the COW - most of those meetings are not recorded and not played on CCTV for people who can't attend. Yet another way to be less transparent. If you want shorter meeting Ms. Mexicotte - put the board packet (all of it) on the website for the board members and the public on Friday by 5PM for the meeting the following week. Then the board members and the public will know what is coming, what information is available and how they feel about it. If a report is not ready - remove the item from the agenda. If you had a set of regular reports, the number of special reports you need would drop drastically. The district has the automation to create weekly and monthly reports - but that would be TOO transparent for Mr. Allen and the Balas gang.