Our schools are in trouble: stand up and be counted!

AAPS holding budget meetings April 12 & 13

This is a critical time for public schools in our community and in our state. Crucial decisions will be made that set the direction of our schools for years to come. It’s at times like these when the voices of parents, and all citizens who value strong public education, need to be heard loud and clear. You will have the opportunity to do this locally in the next few days, and at the state level over the coming weeks.

Locally, the defeat of the Washtenaw Schools Millage last November has left all the school districts in our region, including AAPS, scrambling to find ways to cope with ballooning budget deficits. But our schools are not in trouble because of profligate spending: cuts to education spending by state government have cost AAPS an additional $6.5 million for the current school year, on top of the cuts incorporated in the budget passed last spring. Next year’s state school aid budget is the subject of considerable struggle in the state legislature right now, but projections are that the state may have to cut a similar amount for 2010-11. Combined with the increasing costs of maintaining our current programs, AAPS may face a deficit of as much as $20 million between this year and next. (Most of the cost increases are driven by the rising cost of health care, for both current employees and for retirees. AAPS’s payments to the state teacher pension fund, scheduled to jump next year, are determined by a state agency and are mandatory.)

To deal with this situation and to meet its legal obligation to have a balanced budget, the AAPS leadership has drafted a budget plan that would address most if not all of the projected deficit. The main outlines of this were presented to the public in January forums, and more details were presented to the school board a few weeks ago. (More information on the proposal can be found on the AAPS web site and in our article here.) Some of the more notable proposals included possible privatization of busing and custodial/maintenance services, and an across-the-board 4% compensation cut for all other employees. Other changes are made at the elementary, middle and high school levels to save money while minimizing layoffs, some of which will have a significant impact on our children’s school experience.

Want to get involved? First, do your homework: AAPS will be holding public meetings on their budget proposal on Monday, April 12 at Pioneer, and Tuesday April 13 at Huron; both meetings begin at 6:30. You’ll be able to learn more about the proposal, and ask questions in break-out sessions. AAPS also provided a useful overview of the proposal, and FAQs, in recent issues of the “AAPS News,” which you can find by following the link to the AAPS web site above.

Second, make your voice heard. The school board will be voting on the budget reduction plan in their regular Wednesday meeting on April 14 (downtown library, 4th floor board room). You can air your views during public comment time if you sign up in advance. This will not be the final vote on the whole budget, but it will set the direction for the budget cuts which will end up in the final budget. The actual budget will not be passed until June, and you can attend school board meetings and contact board members in the meantime. For more information, see the school board web page.

Developments in Lansing are farther away, but perhaps more important. Our lawmakers are not only considering next year’s education budget, but they are debating the idea of changing how schools are funded in Michigan. There are a variety of proposals on the table, including the Governor’s proposal to extend the sales tax to most services, and other proposals to allow a graduated income tax in Michigan or increase the state education property tax. Nearly all these proposals involve raising new revenue, and even though they might simply undo the effect of tax cuts passed in the 1990s, they are extremely controversial and are encountering powerful opposition.

This is an election year: that can make our lawmakers timid, or it can make them bold – if we tell them that we the people want our schools to have adequate and stable funding. Find out more about state-wide education funding issues at the Michigan Parents for Schools web site, and sign up to receive our action alerts. You can also use our advocacy site to confirm who your legislators are and to send them messages directly.

The AAPS PTO Council has also started a state advocacy committee, and they are working on ways for parents to be effective at communicating to legislators how much we value high quality public education. Check out the PTOC web site or contact the committee chair, Donna Lasinski, for more information (ptoc.a2advocacy@gmail.com).

Finally, keep in mind that four members of the board of education will be up for re-election in November. This represents a majority of the board, and is only happening because the two interim members appointed earlier this year must face the voters at the next election. Remember to find out about the candidates, listen to what they have to say, and turn to the last page of the November ballot to VOTE on these important offices.

Dramatic change is coming to our schools, and we have the right and obligation to be part of the process. Now is the time to be heard. Please join us in working for strong and excellent public schools in Ann Arbor and in all of Michigan.

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If you missed the first one, catch the second budget discussion!

While I’m sure many readers participated in the January forums or have tracked the budget issue on this site and in the news, I would still encourage all parents and anyone concerned with how our schools are handling this budget crisis to catch the second budget forum (Tuesday, 13 April, Huron HS Little Theater, 6:30pm).

Superintendent Todd Robert’s overview of the budget was notably concise, and focused on describing how the experience of a student might change at the elementary, middle and high school level. Even more interesting were the breakout sessions, each of which focused on one of the key areas of the plan. There were sessions on elementary education, middle school, high school, transportation, sports, and more. They have set things up so that attendees can go to as many as four of these sessions (in 20 minute shifts).

These breakout sessions gave a rare opportunity for parents and citizens to talk with some of the administrators directly responsible for each of these areas in our public schools. The AAPS staff were very frank, helpful, and open to questions. No matter how you feel about these budget cuts – and I suspect you may come away feeling that by and large the district has done the best they can in a difficult situation – just having a chance to talk with and get to know these school officials is a unique opportunity. Want to get involved? Want to meet the people who are making the policy decisions that affect your child? This is a good time to do just that.