Jeanice Swift was the school board’s second choice.

On July 28, 2013, the board learned that Brian Osborne, the New Jersey superintendent they’d wanted to hire, had turned them down. Three days later, they offered the job to the runner-up: Swift, then an assistant superintendent in Colorado Springs.

The board was anxious. Even a district-record salary hadn’t been enough to keep previous superintendent Pat Green. Criticized for the way she implemented state-mandated budget cuts, Green quit less than halfway through a five-year contract.

The board offered Swift $200,000 a year, $45,000 less than Green made. But she didn’t hesitate–even when she learned that one of her first tasks would be to apply for a line of credit, in case the district had to borrow money to make payroll.

Not an auspicious beginning, and yet Swift calmly describes her hasty hiring as “a bit serendipitous. I think things happen for a reason.”

The board certainly has reason to be grateful. Swift has dramatically improved the district’s fortunes. To counter shrunken state funding, she’s introduced programs that have helped draw hundreds of new students to Ann Arbor schools. As a result, enthuses board president Deb Mexicotte, the district is in “a much stronger financial situation than we’ve had for ages!”

But Swift’s changes, coming on the heels of a pay freeze and tough new policies dictated by a conservative state legislature, left many of the district’s 1,200 teachers alarmed and wary. Then, last year, the administration notified the Ann Arbor Education Association that it was terminating the union’s open-ended contract. Each side charged the other with unfair labor practices; teachers shouted at the board during meetings; and signs reading “Support Ann Arbor Teachers” blossomed around the city.

Prodded by a judge, the two sides agreed to a new contract–but only for one year. When the district announced a stringent new teacher evaluation system, tensions flared again.

Yet in December, the board voted unanimously to extend Swift’s contract five more years, until 2020. If she stays, that tenure would be a dramatic contrast to the district’s recent revolving door of superintendents. But to get there, Swift will need to solidify a shaky peace with her teachers.

On a Thursday evening in March, Swift apologizes for being a little late as she brushes snow off her striking red-and-black patterned shawl. The Huron High School cafeteria is crowded with students, parents, and teachers attending the district’s first-ever “K-12 STEAM Expo”–essentially a show-and-tell for the “science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics” curriculum introduced in 2014. The 3-D printer making tiles and the robots on pulleys are a long way from the Play-Doh volcanoes and demonstrations of magnets I remember from my childhood science fairs. Skyline teacher Tom Pachera explains to visitors that STEAM encourages independent decision making. “If we build a birdhouse, we don’t just hand out patterns,” he says–instead, the kids figure out design details on their computers.

Swift warmly greets teachers and students as she views almost three dozen exhibits. “I’ve got to Tweet this!” she exclaims, whipping out her phone to post a photo of seventh-grader Ethan’s “simulation to better understand invasive species.” She is pleased I’m taking notes; STEAM, first rolled out at then-struggling Northside Elementary, has more than doubled the school’s enrollment. Elements of the program were added to more schools last fall.

In the winter, Swift may be up as early as 4 a.m. to make the final call on whether to cancel classes because of weather. Yet she’s also a constant presence at evening and weekend school events as well. “Monday night was with PTO council–I had a great time with those guys,” she says. “Tuesday night was with the black parents support group at Arrowwood. This Sunday I’m meeting with some Arab American parents.”

“She eats, drinks, and sleeps the schools,” says board member Donna Lasinski.

“This is my life, my passion,” says Swift, who is childless and lives in a downtown apartment with her husband, John. “I love what I’m doing.”

Swift stands just four feet eleven inches tall and doesn’t wear particularly high heels. Her porcelain complexion is skillfully highlighted by makeup, and her closely cut hair seems always in place. She smiles often, is soft-spoken, and is not averse to hugs.

Veteran teacher Dan Ezekiel comments on her “nice demeanor,” but adds “anyone who watches can see she’s a commanding leader.”

Even as a child, “when we did things at school she always took such a leadership role,” recalls her twin sister, Jeanette Jacinto, a special ed teacher in Texas. The twins were the oldest of five children in a family that moved frequently because of their dad’s job; he was an accountant who worked for several federal prisons.

Wherever they went, Jacinto says, Jeanice made friends easily and excelled academically–their parents taught them to “put heart and soul into making those [good] grades.” Asked the biggest difference between the fifty-seven-year-old twins, Jacinto jokingly shouts “height!”–she’s four inches taller.

Swift says the schools she remembers best are the ones that made her feel welcome. When she was a senior in high school, “I started thinking that [teaching] would be my calling.”

She graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984 with a bachelor’s in education and taught high school English and Spanish in Fort Worth for fourteen years. She decided to tackle administration, she says, because she wanted “a wider sphere of influence over positive changes for school.”

In 1998, she and John (now retired from careers in computers and nursing) moved to Colorado Springs, where she advanced from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent while earning a doctorate in education. Her accomplishments there included bringing in a new math curriculum that raised student performance and turning a floundering middle school into a magnet school for the performing arts.

In Ann Arbor, Swift spent much of her first year attending more than eighty “Listen and Learn Sessions” around the district–a careful approach that board member Andy Thomas describes as “brilliant.” She learned about the district’s schools and absorbed what parents wanted: the STEAM program, more foreign languages in the elementaries, and an International Baccalaureate degree.

Emphasizing “inquiry-based learning,” IB classes are being phased in at Mitchell Elementary, Scarlett Middle School, and Huron High. But the way the initiative was introduced provoked a storm of anger from the teachers’ union. The union and administration had been discussing IB implementation last year when Swift and the board suddenly announced that it would be adopted as a pilot program–removing it from the union’s purview.

Swift says they had to move quickly to get everything in place in time to get approval from the Swiss-based IB Foundation. But between the IB decision and the district’s insistence on a new contract, union president Linda Carter told the Observer last year, “the ability to collaborate went down the toilet.”

An Ann Arbor teacher who asked not to be named greets me at Starbucks with a dramatic flair. Pulling a pen and notebook from his pocket, he writes out a list titled “public employees w/union representation.”

At the top he writes “food services.” He slashes a line through it. He writes “custodians,” then slashes that, too. Next come “bus drivers” and “grounds,” also crossed out.

All those jobs were once done by unionized school employees but now are outsourced. Only three union groups remain: teachers, paraprofessionals, and secretaries.

“We’re left,” he says. And he worries they could be next. Calling up the district’s website on his laptop, he points to a statement that district employees are “at will,” meaning they can leave–or be fired–at any time.

Last year, all 150 teachers at the IB schools were told that they’d need to reapply to teach the new curriculum or they’d have to move to other schools. Swift says about 85 percent did, and the others were given jobs elsewhere in the district. As for the fear that teachers no longer have job protection, she says, “that’s absolutely not true.” The statement on the website, she points out, specifically excludes employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Though that concern was unfounded, the fear betrays the strain on a once mutually supportive relationship. The reason Swift had to sign that line of credit when she arrived was that as state funding faltered, Ann Arbor had spent nearly all of its reserves–more than $30 million–to shield teachers from layoffs and pay cuts. In 2010, the union reciprocated, agreeing to a contract that imposed a partial pay freeze. The district promised to repay the money later if it could.

But that 2010 contract also included provisions contrary to subsequently enacted state laws that forbade districts from basing layoffs or assigments simply on seniority. “According to our thinking, our contract was not legal,” Swift says. The district asked the union to negotiate a new agreement; the union responded that the old contract continued until the forgone raises were repaid; and the public confrontations and dueling legal complaints ensued.

It all ended mildly; at the judge’s prodding, it took just two days for the sides to hammer out an agreement that replaced the legally dubious language and gave the teachers small raises.

Then came the brouhaha over evaluations. Union vice president Fred Klein says when the board approved the new system, phone calls and emails flooded in from anxious teachers. One, learning that the evaluations would examine teacher attendance, said she’d come to work when she was ill, afraid she’d be penalized for taking sick time. “They’re scared,” he says.

Mexicotte is reassuring. “If you were an excellent teacher in last year’s evaluation,” the board president predicts, “you will be an excellent teacher in this year’s evaluation.” And Swift, who by now had a good taste of the assertiveness of local teachers, quickly set up a committee to review the evaluation process, which includes several respected teachers. The anonymous teacher I met at Starbucks told me that stemmed the outrage.

Negotiations over a new contract began in January. “It would be great if we could get a multi-year agreement,” Klein says–while acknowledging that “they’ve become rarer.” But unless state law changes, no contract will ever again give teachers the power they once wielded.

When I email Swift with follow-up questions, I’m startled to learn that she’s in China. It’s a tour sponsored by a company that sets up student exchanges, and she’s meeting with Chinese high school students interested in studying in Ann Arbor. As many as forty-five may arrive this fall. The students would improve their English; they and American students would gain familiarity with one another’s culture; and the district would see another boost in enrollment, and the dollars that follow.

Swift hopes for a bigger budget boost if county voters approve an expanded special education millage this month (see Up Front, p. 11). Still, both she and the teachers realize that, like all other Michigan public schools, the AAPS will be financially squeezed for the foreseeable future.

“We have all been beaten down by the state,” says trustee Donna Lasinski. “The state has been in our business, dictating … how we interact with teachers and the teachers’ union, how we can and cannot negotiate, whether or not we can ask for additional funding–it strains the relationship between district and teachers.”

Ezekiel, an Ann Arbor native, says he worries that “at the rate we’re going, in ten years even the Ann Arbor public schools won’t be recognizable as the ones we went to.” When his son told him he was thinking of going into teaching, Ezekiel warned him, “You will never have the job security we had–you’re always going to have to sell yourself.”

But Ezekiel doesn’t blame the superintendent. Swift “often has to break us bad news, but she didn’t create the bad news,” he says. “I think she is truly dedicated to the survival and hopefully the flourishing of the Ann Arbor public schools. I admire her brains. Above all I admire her indefatigable energy.”

Despite the stresses, Swift is optimistic that the district and union will find a way forward. “What they know and we know is that neither of us will be successful unless we pull together,” she says.

“We’re really lucky that we can always turn our attention to the children–if we can’t come together on that cause, we’re in the wrong line of work.”