Newly elected school board takes aim.
From the December, 2018 issue
"We need to push back," says newly elected schools trustee Bryan Johnson.
Candidates backed by the Ann Arbor Education Association have targeted incumbent board members in the last two elections. With the victories of Johnson and Rebecca Lazarus in November, they have now replaced four trustees who backed superintendent Jeanice Swift in conflicts over state policy mandates and the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program.
This year's slate took aim at state requirements on student testing and teacher evaluations. Now, as members of a 4-3 majority, they'll need to figure out what they can do about them.
"I understand that we are required by law to complete a certain amount of standardized testing or we will lose funding," Johnson emails. "I think we should examine to what extent that testing helps us improve student achievement and lobby lawmakers in Lansing to make changes where appropriate ... "IF we as a district, determine the level of standardized testing negatively impacts our students to the extent that it outweighs the financial benefit of funding, we should explore ways to legally replace the funding and opt out of the testing."
Those are big "ifs." And recently reelected incumbent Jessica Kelly points out that the tests are also "part of the equation for determining eligibility for special education. I don't believe it is ethical to sacrifice our most academically vulnerable students to push this [anti-testing] agenda." If the new trustees want to do something about testing without jeopardizing state funding, Kelly suggests they "advocate at the state level to adopt a better exam"--something the district is already doing. But since the conservative Republicans who passed the mandates still control the legislature, it's doubtful they'll listen.
Johnson says the new majority won't have to wait on Lansing: "There is additional testing directly related to the way that teachers are evaluated that we can reduce right away," he says. In a follow-up email, he explains: "There's a percentage of the teacher evaluation that measures
student growth. This student growth metric has to use data and one portion must be standardized testing data. The second portion of the student growth metric can be selected by the district. This second portion is where a lot of additional testing comes into play because teachers create pre and post tests ... As a result, one day this year my 8th grader had a pre test in all seven of her courses. That's a ton of testing in one day."
The new majority could also end the International Baccalaureate program. "I wouldn't automatically undo something," says Johnson. "But we need to evaluate if it's being used to pad the bottom line by attracting students to the district."
One trustee's padding, of course, is another's rainy day fund. The district survived the recession better than most because it was able to tap a $40 million fund balance. By the time Swift arrived, that cushion was gone, and the district was on the verge of borrowing to meet payroll.
That didn't happen, but only because Swift added popular programs to win back kids from private schools and charters, as well as from other districts. If the new trustees seek to undo those initiatives, the stage is set for a conflict.
It may not be long in coming. In making changes, Johnson says, the new board needs "to move with a sense of urgency."
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