School Board Split
"I was feeling south of morose and north of suicidal," says Andy Thomas.
From the February, 2017 issue
It's easy to see why. Thomas had expected the December 14 school board meeting to be his last--after six years, he didn't run for re-election in November. But then the board deadlocked over replacing Donna Lasinski, who'd been elected to the state house of representatives.
It would take a majority of the full board--four votes--to fill the vacancy. But only five people were voting. Lasinski had already resigned, and board president Deb Mexicotte had to recuse herself. Unexpectedly defeated in November--she'd finished fourth in an eight-way race--she'd asked her colleagues to return her to Lasinski's seat.
Mexicotte says she wanted back on the board so she could continue to support superintendent Jeanice Swift. First- and third-place finishers Jeff Gaynor and Harmony Mitchell had run as a slate with fifth-place finisher Hunter Van Valkenburgh, and she feared that "they would [try to] change the superintendent or make the work so difficult that she'd look elsewhere."
By the third round of voting, the choice had narrowed to Mexicotte and longtime schools advocate Steve Norton. And there it stayed: seven more ballots saw Thomas, Susan Baskett, and Patricia Manley always voting for Steve Norton, and Christine Stead and Simone Lightfoot always voting for Deb Mexicotte.
Stead says she supported Mexicotte because "she was one of the top voters. The difference between her and Hunter was almost 2,000 votes."
"We needed tried, tested, and true," says Lightfoot. "Another storm is coming. You saw who was nominated for education secretary. Trump has disdain for public education."
Manley emails that not voting for Mexicotte "was tough because I really respect Deb and have learned a great deal from her during my first two years" on the board. But she says that in Mexicotte's place, she'd have seen the vote as a "wake-up call" that the public wanted someone new.
Thomas supported Mexicotte during the election and "was disappointed when she didn't win. But with the public comments about Deb, it was time for her to
"She was targeted by the union," Thomas explains. "The slate candidates received strong backing from the teachers' union, and the teachers' union had a real beef with Deb. There was a bitter dispute over renewing the contract. They campaigned against her and were quite successful: they got two of their three candidates on the board. They smelled blood, and they did not want Deb back."
"Although they had supported me in the past, the union did support the slate this time," Mexicotte acknowledges. "The focus of the slate was on me as the leader who'd spearheaded the kinds of policies they wanted to change. There was also a lot of concern around the new contract." The union had strenuously resisted reopening the old contract, which required any layoffs to be based on seniority. Since a 2014 state law forbade that, Swift and the board held firm. Under pressure from a judge, the union caved.
It got its revenge with Mexicotte's defeat--and at least publicly, it's not targeting the superintendent. "It is time to move forward!" emails Ann Arbor Education Association president Linda Carter. "We look forward to working collaboratively with the newly elected and returning school board members along with Supt. Swift."
After the deadlocked December 14 meeting, both Mexicotte and Norton withdrew their nominations. So when the board reconvened two days later, that left three candidates--Rebecca Jacobsen, Jessica Kelly, and Van Valkenburgh.
Van Valkenburgh didn't receive a single vote. "He ran in opposition to the board," explains Stead, "and if you're a sitting trustee, you're not going to go against what you've already done."
"He said his top issue was to reduce the number of standardized tests," says Thomas. "We didn't like that answer. The whole anti-testing thing has become a major rallying spot for Ann Arbor Open, and Hunter's wife is a teacher at Ann Arbor Open. We pushed back because of state penalties."
"At Ann Arbor Open, 25 percent of students didn't take the test and got zeros," explains Mexicotte. "We were able to maintain our numbers districtwide so we still had enough [students taking the test] not to get sanctioned by the state. Because it turns out that although the state made assurances [that it wouldn't], they are going to use the test results to close schools."
This time, six trustees voted--since she was no longer a candidate, Mexicotte took part. Though Manley and Baskett backed Jacobsen, Kelly won with the other four trustees' votes. "I ended up with Kelly because she's a supporter of our superintendent," says Thomas. "I thought Jessica would better resist the pressure from the teachers' union."
He fears the fight over the appointment is just the start of the board's troubles. "It is going to be very difficult over the next two years with two voices of dissent over the direction of the schools," he predicts. "It's going to be [votes of] five to two, sometimes four to three. It's going to be harder to get things done."
At least the things that need doing should get easier. "We've checked a lot of things off our to-do list that were controversial," says Thomas. "Instead of cutting we're going to offer a better school system and get more students from our district and schools of choice. It's already got us out of the death spiral.
"Northside went from 200 to 700 [students]. Mitchell and Scarlett were struggling, but with the International Baccalaureate programs and ties with the U-M, enrollment at Mitchell has expanded dramatically, and Scarlett is seeing strong improvements."
"The district is in really good shape," concurs Mexicotte. "Things are much better than they were a few years ago--or that we could hope at this point."
Lightfoot, for one, doesn't share Thomas's pessimism about how the new board will function. "One monkey don't stop no show," she says bluntly. "We won't have Deb Mexicotte or Andy Thomas, but we'll be fine."
Once the new trustees see the issues facing the board from the inside, she predicts, "they'll understand that we're not arbitrary and capricious. They'll evolve."
[Originally published in February, 2017.]
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