Brit Satchwell at the Helm
Steering AAEA in perilous times
Early on a chilly fall Saturday, a man stood just outside the Farmers' Market on Detroit Street. His face almost hidden in a hooded sweatshirt, he looked like a blue-collar worker among the tidily dressed academics and townies hurrying past to buy cider or pumpkins. But the few who stopped to see what he was selling were in for a surprise: his leaflets urged voters to support a school tax in the upcoming election.
The lone pamphleteer was Brit Satchwell--former Great Lakes ship pilot, businessman, and new president of the Ann Arbor Education Association. At Forsythe Middle School, Satchwell was a popular teacher who used games and finger puppets to keep kids' attention. But former Forsythe principal Mike Madison, who hired him, recalls that he was also driven to make sure all his students learned: "He did not allow the kids to fall through the cracks."
Satchwell, fifty-six, will need all of that determination to make it through his three-year term. When the "enhancement" millage he campaigned for went down to defeat in November, the last chance to continue business as usual in the Ann Arbor Public Schools died with it.
Even if the countywide tax had passed, the Ann Arbor Public Schools would have had money problems: while the tax would have brought in $11 million a year, the state cut Ann Arbor's budget by more than $6 million this year and is expected to lop off another $20 million in the next fiscal year, which starts in July. Soon after the millage votes were counted, an exhausted superintendent Todd Roberts took to his bed with the flu, and a malaise settled over the district.
Madison--now principal at Dicken--says everyone in the district knows that the only way to reduce the budget is to "reduce human beings." And that, he says, has everyone wondering, "Who is going to lose a job?"
Lean and craggy, with smooth, pushed-back silvery hair, Satchwell sits in the Kerrytown Sweetwaters and fondly reminisces about his
Huron High School humanities teacher, Kent Overbee. He still vividly recalls a stirring lecture Overbee gave about the Carthaginian general Hannibal marching his war elephants over the Alps into Italy. Good teachers, he reflects, live on in their students' memories. A beaming figure stops at his table--retired music teacher Dan Long, adored by generations of Ann Arbor grads. "Dan!" Satchwell shouts, pumping his hand. After Long moves on, Satchwell kids: "That was not a set-up."
Satchwell taught math at Forsythe for fourteen years before he was unexpectedly elected president of the AAEA last spring. Taking over in a time of unprecedented financial distress, fear, and eroded morale, he is now concerned about the math of teachers' paychecks, which have come under pressure as the school district grapples with reduced state funding.
"It's a nightmare," says Haisley teacher and union rep Fred Klein. "The news from Lansing gets darker and darker. They tell you this much is going to be cut. Then, more is taken, and more is taken....I've been in the district twenty years. It's never been like this."
Ann Arbor teachers are well paid, with an average salary of $73,000 a year, plus generous health and pension benefits. Still, over the years, the union has made significant concessions. It accepted middle school schedule changes that cut costs, a cap on health insurance payments, and, in recent years, only minimal cost-of-living increases.
Ann Arbor "is unusual in that the administration and the educational association get along very well," says Klein. This year, the union agreed to a contract with no cost-of-living increase at all. "It's the very first time we've ever taken a zero," says Klein. "It was hard [to negotiate] and a hard sell" to the members--but in the end, the teachers approved it overwhelmingly. "We thought that doing that would help them [the administration] get things together," Klein says, "so we could talk about more positive things."
That was not to be: new cuts in state aid soon turned the conversation back to money. No one knows for sure how much more will be cut this coming fiscal year, but the best guess is $20 million--more than 10 percent of the district's operating budget.
The district privatized in-school food service several years ago to cut costs. Now it's looking at doing the same with its janitors and bus drivers. Superintendent Roberts took an 8 percent pay cut in January--and has floated the idea of a 4 percent reduction in the next AAEA contract.
Negotiations began in February and might easily last until close to the schools' opening, says Klein, who's on the teachers' bargaining team. With the district seeking about $4 million in savings from the union, the likely alternative to cutting pay or benefits would be the first teacher layoffs in memory.
"Everyone has a friend who's pretty good at everything," says California teacher Marc Shaw, who went to Western Michigan University with Satchwell. "He's one of the brightest guys I know."
Satchwell grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the second of four sons. His father, Henry, was an insurance executive and a conservative Republican. "Half jokingly," says Satchwell, "I think he was a monarchist." His mother, Clelila, was a homemaker, outspoken feminist, and Democratic party activist. Dinner-table discussions were heated.
Satchwell embraced his mother's liberalism. As a kid, he passed out leaflets outside grocery stores urging shoppers to boycott grapes to support the United Farm Workers. His mother recalls him asking her if it "would be a good idea if I wore my Cub Scout uniform" while leafleting. "He had a political sense even then," she says.
The family moved to Ann Arbor during Satchwell's last year of high school--as he tells it, not a moment too soon. His anti-Vietnam War activities had put him at odds with what he describes as the culture of "Ohio in the late sixties--white bread, mayonnaise, and Woody Hayes!" When his family was unloading the moving truck at their new home in Geddes Lake, he was thrilled to hear the music of a free rock concert at Gallup Park.
After graduating from Huron in 1971, he "bummed around the East Coast" before starting at Western. He left without a degree to attend the Great Lakes Maritime Academy from 1974 to 1977. After graduation he became a pilot on an iron ore freighter.
"Lonely and lucrative" is how he recalls his time on the Great Lakes. "Long periods of boredom spiced by moments of panic." The panic resulted from the whims of a stubborn captain who, as Satchwell tells it, never met a storm he didn't like. Satchwell never actually put on his survival suit--crew members who did were taunted as cowards--but he learned about keeping cool under pressure.
After three years, he returned to college, this time at EMU. He graduated with a geology major in 1984 then followed his father into a new Detroit company that sold reinsurance to banks and automobile credit companies. Satchwell started as an all-round computer guy and was a stockholder and officer by the time the company was sold in 1992. Money from the sale bought him time to ponder his next life adventure, which turned out to be teaching--Satchwell says his California pal, Marc Shaw, practically "frog-marched" him down to register at EMU.
"I was the thirty-nine-year-old dude among the nineteen-year-olds," he recalls. He got his certificate, started as a full-time sub at Forsthye, and stayed on, eventually adding a master's in education from Marygrove College. Demonstrating a talent for publicity, he did local media work for the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Afterward, then-AAEA president Linda Carter asked him to chair the local union's political action committee.
Satchwell endeared himself by producing, as fund-raisers, a couple of short, funny films starring local educators and students. One parody, PACho Libre, depicts pro wrestlers campaigning to close schools so that people will have more time to watch them on TV. The video closes with Carter expressing her gratitude to Satchwell for making the film. But relations between the two soon cooled.
Since 1990, the union's presidency and vice presidency had alternated comfortably between Carter, a music teacher, and Allan Loeb, a government teacher and lawyer. "Their power together was the fact that Allan was very strong with detail and analysis. Linda was very strong with upfront advocacy and spokesmanship," says Bob Galardi, a past AAEA president and retired schools administrator. After thirty-three years in Ann Arbor, Carter has outlasted eight superintendents and is so much an institution that her ninth, Roberts, asks her about district history.
AAEA presidents are limited to two consecutive terms. But last year, shortly before the election, Carter proposed repealing the term limit so she could run again. Satchwell criticized the proposal, and Carter withdrew her motion. Loeb then announced his retirement. Satchwell says friends then convinced him he should run, and he was elected by a 2-1 margin over a last-minute write-in candidate, Community High media specialist Nat Powell.
Carter is now vice president, teaching music half the time. Teacher scuttlebutt is that she is furious at Satchwell--which she denies. "I'm a team player," Carter says. "It's not all about me."
Satchwell praises Carter highly--but when asked if she speaks to him, he looks embarrassed and says, "sometimes."
Satchwell's days begin at 5 a.m., when he rises in the Newport area home he shares with his third wife, Jessica. (His son, Andrew, from his first marriage, is in culinary school in Traverse City.) Satchwell digs into the 200 or so email messages he receives each day and has a lot of them done before he and Jessica, a bookkeeper, have breakfast. On his way to the AAEA office on Jackson Road, he drives past Forsythe, where, he says, he always looks at the room where he taught.
His fellow teachers' reactions to their new leader are mixed, with many expressing uneasiness about how the AAEA will navigate unfamiliar waters without the known and trusted Carter at the helm. But friends praise Satchwell's tenacity and pragmatism. "He's a pit bull," says Forsythe science teacher Dan Ezekiel. "And that's what you need in that job."
Satchwell recognizes that in a budget crisis it's easy for citizens to feel "union envy" toward relatively well-paid and secure public employees. "Teacher bashing happens mostly during hard times," he says. Recently, for instance, an anonymous critic on AnnArbor.com wrote: "Teachers, like all union represented government employees, are in for a rude awakening as the real world starts to impact them."
"Unions formed decades ago in reaction to VERY rude awakenings posted by the real world...." Satchwell riposted online. "Indeed, it is the general public who is now awakening to the state of school funding in Michigan. Had teachers not given as much as teachers have in years past you would have noticed the impact much sooner. Welcome to class."
Teachers have helped the district make "invisible cuts," Satchwell explains, by increasing their workload without corresponding pay increases. Middle school teachers like Satchwell were especially affected when their planning time was cut by 40 percent while classroom time increased by 15 percent. "We did it [to save the district] $2.2 million," Satchwell says. "The public never noticed.
"Teaching is one of those giving professions--like moms, ambulance drivers, nurses. If you ask them to do a little bit more, they will always step up."
But for how much longer? Satchwell and other teachers complain that President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation, which penalized schools whose students didn't show improvement on standardized tests, lowered morale even in Ann Arbor, where most students test well.
Satchwell is no fan of No Child. But he offers qualified support of merit pay--or, as he prefers to call it, performance pay. He believes he is the only union president in Michigan to have done so and admits it's not popular here, either--teachers "sort of get uncomfortable" and fall silent, he says, when he raises the issue.
Veteran Dicken kindergarten teacher Sally Steward, like many of her colleagues, believes that merit pay will favor teachers in affluent schools, whose students do better on tests. "We do not have the power to choose our students," she says.
But Satchwell believes teachers "have to embrace merit pay [measures] before they embrace us." It's important, he says, for teachers to help set realistic measures of performance rather than have them imposed arbitrarily by politicians. President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have already dismayed educators by supporting "accountability" at the expense of teachers' job security. Recently, when a school board fired all the teachers and the principal at a low-performing Rhode Island school, Obama supported the board.
Duncan's Race to the Top program offers states additional federal money--but only if they implement certain reforms. Hoping to be one of the handful of states chosen, Michigan hastily passed legislation in December requiring that teachers be evaluated "at least annually" and that schools adopt "clear approaches to measuring student growth."
But Michigan didn't make the cut. While there will be other opportunities, for this year, at least, the Race to the Top will do nothing to help resolve the state's budget crisis.
Satchwell says the AAEA's "goal is not to have any layoffs" this year. But neither is he ready to sign off on a pay cut. "I'm not saying we won't," he says. "But we're not there yet. Some things have to happen first."
Above all, teachers want to be assured that the district has exhausted every other means of cutting spending. Carter says she frequently hears that the district should first spend down its financial reserves. But Roberts points out that the district has drawn more than $7 million from its fund equity this year alone--and is already below recommended levels. Besides tapping equity, deputy superintendent Robert Allen says, Ann Arbor was able to balance this year's budget by leaving vacant positions unfilled and cutting back on overtime. But getting to $20 million in cuts next year will be much harder. Though the district is looking for only $4 million from the AAEA, if the union resists Roberts' proposed 4 percent cut, the alternative will be to reduce the workforce by approximately fifty people.
Cutting the workforce does not necessarily mean layoffs--in a typical year, Satchwell says, thirty-five to fifty Ann Arbor teachers retire voluntarily, and leaving those positions vacant could close the gap. But whatever the outcome, Satchwell says, "the district has to shrink. There'll be fewer teachers, fewer services....How much comes out of our paychecks is yet to be determined."
Such bluntness is rare in education. Will teachers and parents be tempted to turn on the union president for delivering bad news? "I don't worry too much about it," Satchwell says. "That sort of goes with the territory.
"Everybody's in a tough spot right now," he says. "My motto is if you can't have a little fun while you're miserable, what's the point?"
The article has been corrected since it appeared in the April 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. Due to an editorial error, we wrongly described Todd Roberts as saying the district's fund balance was above recommended levels. The reserves are below recommended levels.
[Originally published in April, 2010.]