Maria Cotera on the consolidation of Ypsilanti and Willow Run schools

As you may know, there’s a movement afoot to merge the struggling school districts of Ypsilanti and Willow Run. The hope is, if we’re able to accomplish this, it may save us some money, by eliminating redundancy. Perhaps more importantly, though, it would demonstrate to the Republicans in Lansing that we’re willing to do whatever it takes in order to keep taxes low on the wealthy. We would, if we’re able to merge districts, not only likely qualify for temporary financial incentives made available by Governor Snyder, who very much wants to see consolidation across the state, but, the hope is, we’d also delay the assignment of an Emergency Financial Manager, empowered to break union contracts and dismantle what little infrastructure we still have left… Well, there was a public meeting about this a few days ago, and my friend Maria Cotera, who has written here several times in the past about the state of Ypsi’s schools, attended… Following is her report.

Dear friends of Ypsi Schools,

Some of you who could not attend Monday’s joint school Board meeting with Willow Run asked me to report back. I’m afraid there’s not much to say because not much actually happened. Apparently, the main point of the meeting was to pass a joint resolution to go forward with a process to design a workable consolidation plan and put that plan before the voters in each district at some point in the future. Superintendent Bates read a letter from Mike Flanagan, the superintendent of the state board of education, making some vague promises about an extension of our Deficit Elimination Plan and possible “funds” that might be available to us to help with the process of consolidation. Board member Andy Fanta noted that district stakeholders still had many questions about the plan and the process, and Kira Berman requested that language be added to the Resolution that called for the involvement of all “stakeholders” in each community (including parents) in the creation of a consolidation plan. Kira’s language was rephrased by Dorothy Stewart of the Willow Run School Board, whose language was adopted by both boards.The Resolution passed, and presumably there will be an election at some point in the future. Then there was time for “public comment” (three minutes per comment) on the issue, but neither Board Members nor the Administration were required to respond.

The public comment seemed to be divided roughly in half between those approving of consolidation, and those who had questions and expressed doubts. Georgina (who is on this list) made some very cogent remarks about how the meeting was a “missed opportunity” to present basic data on each school district that would allow us to form a better understanding of the strengths and challenges of each school community, and I agree. To my mind it was just another “dog and pony show”, except without the benefit of actually seeing either the “dog” or the “pony” in question.

I, and others on this list will be very familiar with this particular strategy of “community engagement.” In the fight to keep Chapelle and East Middle open, we encountered this strategy time and time again, with the Administration giving the public plenty of opportunities to vent, while never taking their opinions or ideas very seriously.

So what do I think of all this? Well, there was a lot of cheerleading by the powers that be (administrators, board members and school district and legislative officials) about how this is an opportunity to show visionary leadership and create a combined “cutting-edge” district that could be a model for other districts. The problem with this logic is that as far as I can tell, neither district has shown any “visionary leadership” thus far. Indeed, based on my experience with YPSD, I can pretty much predict that what we will have at the end of this process is a combined district that will fall into the same old models of “leadership” that got them into this mess in the first place. We can blame the State as much as we want (and they do deserve a considerable amount of blame for this mess), but the truth is that Ypsi is not just facing budget cuts at the state level, but also a fundamental lack of confidence in the direction of the district among its constituents that has lead to dropping enrollments. The District can blame this on a “perception problem” till they are blue in the face, but perceptions comes from SOMEWHERE.

So what do we do now? Here’s how I see it:

I think consolidation CAN bring some good, but only if we have visionary leadership at the top. We don’t currently have that visionary leadership, which means that a combined district will be the same old same old, but in a much larger, more challenged, form.

The problem with lack of vision at the top is that these are the very people who are tasked with coming up with a cutting edge curriculum and structure AND these are also the people who will negotiate with the legislators over concessions to the District. My prediction is that we will get neither a visionary district nor a commitment from the State to help us create a first class district.

THEREFORE, I think we, and other stakeholders, should take greater control of this process, both in terms of deciding what the new district will look like (curriculum, structure, and special programs) AND putting pressure on the State to do more than make vague promises.

Remember, this must go up for a vote in both communities, and if that vote fails, which it likely will if parents in either community decide to oppose it, we will be in the same boat, only worse. Our crushing debt will still be there, possibly made worse by the costs related to coming up with a consolidation plan. Our high school will still be “consistently low performing”, and we will hemorrhage parents even more quickly due to the negative publicity. We will then likely come under control of an EFM, and then, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

This all sounds very dire, but there is a bright spot. Essentially what the Administration DOESN’T want us to realize is that we have a tremendous amount of power in this scenario, and I think we should take advantage of it to do some “visioning” of our own. This visioning process should NOT be guided by an administration that pretends to listen, while never actually incorporating our talents and ideas into the process.

We do have the power to force them to incorporate our ideas for a truly “visionary” consolidated district because they need us to make consolidation happen (we must vote for the plan). In the process, we can force some structural change in our own district that will hopefully be transformative even if the consolidation plan is voted down.

We also have the power to meet with legislators and demand real commitments, not vague promises, and those commitments should go beyond the baseline (extra time to balance the budget, equalizing per pupil funding levels). Indeed, if the State and WISD want us to become the “poster child” for small district consolidation, then they have to actually make the process and its outcome look good. This means that we can pressure them to put the extra resources into our district that will actually make it a leader, both in the State and in the Nation. The truth is, they can’t afford for this not to succeed because we have to be their advertisement for other small districts facing financial distress.

I propose that we begin gathering parents for meetings to lay out what we want in our ideal district. These meetings should, at some point include Willow Run parents and students, and they SHOULD NOT be lead by either District, or the WISD, or the MASB or the State Board of Education, or any other agent of the State who will just listen politely and then insert their own formula.

Here are my preliminary ideas of what a truly visionary district looks like (taking into account the features of our demographic). I know some of you will agree with some of them, and not with others, but the point is that we should together craft something that is sustainable, intellectually meaningful, culturally relevant, nurturing, and civically engaged. Our children ARE our community, and we should see the schools as central to providing them with the tools they will need to build a healthy and cooperative community in the schools and beyond:

Wish List:

· Small high school environments (no more than 500)

· Small middle school environments (no more than 500)

· Small Elementary school environments (no more than 300

· Project-based learning opportunities

· Much greater, and more coordinated involvement of U of M and EMU across the District

· Civic Engagement as a CORE VALUE (Children should have structured opportunities to contribute to their school community and the broader community). These might include volunteer programs, beautification opportunities, community blogging, etc)

· Sustainability as a CORE VALUE – this should be incorporated into curricular, civic engagement, and enrichment programs

· All buildings should adopt a sustainability code

· All buildings should have community gardens, and connected curricular (math, science, social studies) and enrichment programs that teach students about stewardship, ecology, sustainable agriculture and food justice

· Social Justice curriculum beginning at the Middle School and through High School. We need to instill the idea that knowledge can be a tool for social justice and not just something they must acquire through memorization and assessment regimes.

· An Enrichment Director who can coordinate enrichment programs and university partnerships across the District

· Every Student College bound program beginning at the early grades (2nd?). I know that some say that not all students are destined for a college degree, but shouldn’t it be an option that they can think about from the time they start their structured learning? I often wonder how many of those students who are supposedly “not destined for college” just haven’t been exposed to the idea from a very young age?

· Tiered mentorship programs (College students mentor high schoolers, high schoolers mentor junior high kids, junior high kids mentor elementary kids)

· Discipline – implement a restorative justice program

· We should create administrative structures at the HighSchool level that include student voices and ideas.

. We should offer art and music in all of the schools, and art, music, theater, dance and band/orchestra in the High Schools

None of the things above are “pie in the sky” ideas. All of them have been implemented in public schools, charter schools, and private schools. Only a few of them would require a substantial amount of money. In any case, if true vision is what they want, and if, as the administration and board constantly say, we need put the interests of children at the forefront, we have to do everything we can to truly re-imagine what education can be in our consolidated district.


I’d add small class sizes to the list. If you really want to make fast, dramatic improvement in education, I’m convinced that’s the way to do it. You hire good teachers, you empower them to try new things, and you keep their classes small. It’s not a complicated formula. And it really works. (Just ask our Governor, whose kids attended Greenhills.) Unfortunately, it costs more than packing 60 kids into a classroom, handing them irrelevant worksheets, and telling them to shut the hell up. And that seems to be our problem.

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  1. Edward
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    It’s encouraging to see that not everyone has given up hope. It pains me to say it, but I think that public education is done in this country. It’s a done deal. They’re just selling off the pieces at this point. For profit charter schools are inevitable. And, by the way, Romney is going to close the Department of Education when he becomes President.

  2. Kristin
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I think it’s abonimable that the schools haven’t developed a forum or some venue for Maria and other parents to participate meaningfully in the process. Here you have a thoughtful, practical person steadfastly offering input with no indication at all that anyone is incorporating her or anyone else’s ideas or concerns. It’s wasteful.

  3. Maria Cotera
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Just a quick clarification. I believe the average class size in Ypsi’s schools is somewhere around 27 students per class. That’s the average, and some classrooms have more students in them (my daughter has around 30 kids in her class). I don’t want folks to think that we have 60 kids in the classroom! I also want Mark’s readers to know that overall, our experience in the public schools has been fabulous, and we feel that our daughter has gotten an excellent education in a nurturing environment that isn’t at all “cookie-cutter”. Quite the contrary, some of her teachers are real characters, and we love that. As for the whole class size question, I agree, smaller classes are better, but some studies have shown that classes can be on the larger side (like my daughter’s) as long as the number of students in the school is on the lower end (recommended school size for elementary is around 250, for the upper grades, no larger than 500). Smaller overall student populations are easier to manage because a real sense of community can develop among the students and teachers, which is important. Finally, Public Education, like the rest of our ever dwindling “commons” is only “done” if stakeholders — parents, teachers, communities — give up on it. Ultimately this has been the most successful strategy of the privatizers; they have convinced good people that our public education system is fundamentally broken, so people don’t even pause to explore what is actually going on in them; they simply decide to go with privates or charters. This is a real shame because it takes away vital human resources (parent involvement) from the schools and essentially privatizes human energy that could go into developing a healthy and sustainable commons.

  4. Mr. X
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Yes, the 60 number, I believe, comes from Detroit, not Ypsi. And I’d agree that larger classes can be functional, but it depends on the students. Often times, from what I’ve experienced, teachers in those settings have to devote a disproportionate amount of their time to disciplining the few students that find it difficult to behave. If there are other mechanisms to deal with those students, I’d agree that larger classes may not be that bad.

  5. j
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Closing the Dept of Education might give our public schools a couple more years. The ED is a major cause of the collapse of our schools with its Race to Nowhere horseshit. Run by policy wonks for policy wonks; formal education or experience in schools not required.

  6. Sean
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Small class sizes should be on the list. Current research suggests that they are more conducive to good educational outcomes than small schools are, actually, or at least last time I looked into it that’s what the educational professionals were saying. It makes sense too in that the personal attention/student ratio can’t help but go up when there are fewer students in the room.

  7. Posted April 20, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    This is a real shame because it takes away vital human resources (parent involvement) from the schools and essentially privatizes human energy that could go into developing a healthy and sustainable commons.

    Maria, I think I see it implied in various bits of your wishlist, but are you willing to make explicit a statement of parental engagement in the classroom? (As something that the administration provides support and encouragement to?)

    From the teachers and education advocates in my family, I understand this to be an important piece of the “personal attention/student ratio” that Sean defines and others have referenced — would it make a difference if parents were able to see real value in spending half a day a week in their kid’s classroom as an alternative to throwing money (and time) at a private school, or spending that time driving their kid back and forth to a charter, or moving home to a more expensive school district? (And yes, I understand that this is not an option available to a good many parents, but the parents who can afford the “luxury” of classroom involvement are the same ones who can afford private school, or buying a house in Ann Arbor or Chelsea.)

  8. Meta
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    More consolidation on the horizon.

    Local control and employee paychecks could be at stake if the Ypsilanti Board of Education fails to approve a new deficit elimination plan (DEP) by May 8.

    Ypsilanti Public Schools has until Tuesday to overhaul its DEP and submit it to the state, after botched figures and projections voided the plan the board passed in December.

    Ypsilanti was anticipated to have a combined two-year $6.38 million deficit at the end of 2011-12. However in March, school officials said Ypsilanti faced a deficit of about $9.4 million, including the district’s original $4.9 million from 2010-11.

    Superintendent Dedrick Martin said the board was skeptical in December that the numbers presented in the district’s DEP could not be trusted.

    The problems stemmed from figures provided by the former chief financial officer, David Houle. The board voted not to renew Houle’s contract in November.

    “We had to recast the entire budget. … When we figured out it wasn’t a couple hundred thousand dollars (short), we self-reported the problem to the state,” Martin said, adding that Michigan officials were willing to work with the district to set the May 8 deadline for remediation.

    However, district business manager Kelli Glenn said the state’s patience with YPS is wearing thin. She added school officials were told there could be no more delaying of the DEP as Ypsilanti has done in the past.

    She said the consequences of not submitting a plan would be the state withholding Ypsilanti’s state aid, in which case the district could not issue payroll due to its lack of funds.

    Additionally, Board President David Bates said, at a recent meeting with Martin, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan and other Michigan Department of Education staff, he was told Ypsilanti school board members could be charged with a misdemeanor for not passing the mandated DEP.

    But after four hours spent discussing possibly cutting 97 employees, closing one to three buildings, reducing athletics and changing transportation routes, Ypsilanti trustees could not reach a consensus. The board set a second special meeting for 7:30 p.m. May 7.


  9. Andy Fanta
    Posted May 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Kristin’s comments. The Ypsilanti School District has neglected parental input on a wide range of topics for years. As a SB member what concerns me about the DEP is that is is just focused on cutting the budget. The focus in on budget cuts. I do not believe that this is the appropriate manner to move forward. Our focus should be increasing student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap. We should figure out what the costs will be to achieve these ends. Experts, para pros, enrichment programs and then make that cluster of costs a zone or area for no cuts. Then we focus on cutting costs and reducing the budget in other areas. Now we have no vision whatsoever or what these costs will mean to the success of our students.

  10. raneydayart
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I applaud some of the thinking that has been taking place as of late==too bad a little of this didn’t occur six years ago! but===I’ll try to be positive. First let me say that with the retirement of Fulton hopefully alot of the shenanigans will cease starting with a qualified person as Director of Human Resources. Because I am not only a proud parent of a 2007 YHS grad and a former teacher, I have intimate knowledge of ‘where the bodies are buried’, so to speak, but also the continued employment of staff who should have been retired medical long ago and also 3-4 folks that return year after year with top salaries and no job discriptions. Yes, you read right. I intend to contact the new Human Resouces Head about what I and many others in our community have followed and know to be ongoing lapses of integrity. Lastly, I sincerely hope more parents/families will seek representation on the board going forward. Ypsi has a stinky record of self serving folks that hang on to lining their own pockets at the cost of the kids!

  11. raneydayart
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    All of the posters have good points==but after subbing for four years in three districts I can tell you it’s going to get mch worse before it gets better. Teachers and administrators are going to get a real challege with classroom control and motivating students remaining.
    Hopefully the elimination/reduction of salaries that are draining away resources will be a huge help. It will take time and a committment to managing budgets. May The Higher Power bless us all.

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  1. […] closures for the overall health of the district? How do these plans for our DEP interface with the plans to consolidate with Willow Run? I am really, really tired of dealing with an administration that constantly operates in a reactive […]

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