Two seats, six candidates
The Nov. 8 school board vote
To save money, the state dictated that school board elections move from June to November this year. Troubled times create candidates, and after three years of double-digit state funding cuts, these are troubled times indeed for the Ann Arbor School District. After eight years of very lightly contested elections, six nonpartisan candidates are competing for two open seats on the seven-person board.
The diverse roster of candidates includes a pastor, a Pakistani-born educator, a recent U-M grad, a retired health care administrator, a current auto parts manufacturer, and a consultant to the National Wildlife Association. Each has a different cure for what ails the district's budget. Here they are in alphabetical order.
"You can't separate the Bible and prayer from school," says challenger Albert Howard, forty-five, "and you can't solve a spiritual problem with physical solutions. If you get parents tithing, the budget would balance and the schools would have no debt."
For proof, the senior pastor of the Ann Arbor Different Church cites Paul--"God gives seed to the sower and He multiplies all seed sown"--and Mark--"There is no man ... but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time."
"For every dollar invested into the Kingdom, God puts at least one hundred dollars into our heavenly account," says Howard, the father of eight children in the district. "Once you have approximately calculated your tithes and offerings, you are ready to ask the Holy Spirit how He wants you to use that money." Once that money pours in, he emails, "The Body of Christ (local church) would pay off the debt of the Ann Arbor Public Schools with no strings attached."
Challenger Ahmar Iqbal, forty-two, says the cure is to "prioritize the budget by cutting wasteful spending and calling for competitive bidding." With a background in finance and public policy, including degrees from U-M and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and his years as an educator at American University in Pakistan, Iqbal believes the district needs to hire more teachers.
"The class size is out of hand. There are classes of thirty-seven students."
The father of two children in the district who currently works as an energy consultant, Iqbal also recommends that the district adopt "a longer school year with less holidays and longer school days. And every child should be multilingual from day one."
To achieve these goals, Iqbal says, "We should be in Lansing [lobbying for more money]. We're the fifth-largest school district in the state, and we all need more teachers."
Patrick Leonard, the youngest candidate at twenty-two, is a graduate of Ann Arbor schools--Lawton, Slauson, and Pioneer--and of U-M, where he was part of the student government and volunteered as a mentor for at-risk third-grade students. "I saw the disparities passed on year after year," says Leonard (no relation to the writer of this article). "Reducing the [black-white] achievement gap is my main issue. It's a long-term problem, and we're not doing as much as we could.
"It's all about parental involvement," Leonard continues. "When I helped kids with math, it was hard enough for me, and even harder for the parents. We have to embrace the parents who are coming to school."
As for the budget, Leonard, the son and brother of Ann Arbor teachers--says the district should "reduce overhead and hire more teachers." Asked why him, Leonard replies, "I'm young, I have passion, and I love the community and the school district."
Incumbent Simone Lightfoot, forty-four, went to Tappan, Clague, Huron, and WCC, and is working on a bachelor's degree at EMU. Currently a consultant with the National Wildlife Association and the NAACP, she was appointed to the board in 2009. "I love the work of the school district," says the mother of two children in the district, "and I've been involved as a student, a parent, and a decision maker."
To balance the budget, Lightfoot says, "We have to do some creative thinking. We have to maximize our assets plus seek contributions from corporations and partnerships with the U-M. And we've got to enlist our parents. We have some of the smartest and most committed parents in this school district."
As for the achievement gap, says Lightfoot, "We first have to admit we have one, and the board hasn't done that in the past without a caveat. We have to own it--then we can work together to solve it."
Challenger Larry Murphy, forty-nine, believes his business experience--a U-M MBA, seven years at Ford, and fourteen years as an auto-parts manufacturer--makes him the logical candidate to help fix the budget. "If you keep overhead low, you can handle ups and downs even in a recession.
"I have very specific suggestions," says the father of two sons in the district. "I would put a freeze on hiring for administration unless they take it before the board." He also questions the need for six high schools. "Maybe we could get Ann Arbor Tech enfolded into other high schools to save on overhead."
Murphy says the incumbents are "doing an okay job, but I can really help. I'm an independent thinker, and there's a need for someone like me."
Andy Thomas, sixty-one, a retired health-care administrator, was appointed to the board in May 2010 and is currently its secretary. "The funding crisis is the overriding issue, but it's not really what school should be about," says the widowed father of a son in the schools. "We're here to provide a quality education to all students. The approach so far has been to cut fat, but now we have to look at other sources of revenue." This requires "another try at an education millage. We need to bring more money into the district."
Thomas believes he can be particularly useful to the board because "there's a widespread feeling that education needs to be defunded in Lansing. My experience with health care, my background working with PTO and education foundations, and my record on the board of reaching consensus makes me the right choice."
Whichever two candidates voters select, school board president Deb Mexicotte is optimistic about the results. "If new people make it on, and some of them are more conservative, so what? There's two of them, and they still have to convince the rest of the people on the board. And besides, bringing in new voices is not at all a bad thing."
[Originally published in November, 2011.]