WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel on the proposed merger of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts

A few days ago, I posted something here about the proposed merger of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts. Well, what I’d written was apparently brought to the attention of Scott Menzel, the superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. Scott asked for an opportunity to clarify a few things concerning the proposed merger, and I happily agreed. What follows, with his permission, is our discussion. As you’ll notice, he’s yet to respond to a few of my questions, but, seeing as how the last public meeting to discuss the results of the community visioning sessions is scheduled to take place Monday evening, I didn’t want to hold off on posting the responses that Scott had already sent. [note: Scott has responded to remaining questions, and the interview has been updated to incorporate his answers.]

MARK: First, I’d like to say that I don’t envy the position you’re in. You’ve been Superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District for little over a year now, and, in that time, you’ve had to deal with a steadily shrinking budget, ballooning legacy costs, a number of issues resulting from aging infrastructure, a significant perception problem, a decreasing enrollment, and a host of political issues that your predecessors never could have imagined. Presently, you’re trying to fend off bankruptcy, and the appointment of Emergency Manager by the State, by further consolidating across the district. The most recent plan, which calls for the merger of Ypsilanti and Willow Run schools, will be on the November ballot. Let’s start there. Why is it imperative, in your opinion, that this merger be approved? And, what are our options if it doesn’t?

SCOTT: Before responding to the question relating to why the merger is imperative, I’d like to clarify a few things relating to your opening comments. The Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) is one of Michigan’s 57 regional educational service agencies created by law in 1962 to help local school districts educate students by making the best use of district resources.

We operate cooperative programs and deliver services that focus on teaching and learning for students in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Lincoln, Manchester, Milan, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Willow Run, Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County Public School Academies.

Our mission is to promote the continuous improvement of achievement for every student while providing high-quality service to our customers through leadership, innovation, and collaboration.

The challenges you outlined above are reflective of the challenges of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run School Districts (which we serve) but are not reflective of the WISD budget situation — we are not on the verge of bankruptcy, we are not suffering from declining enrollment, and we are not in jeopardy of having an Emergency Manager appointed to take over the ISD. Each of the ten public districts in Washtenaw County is an independent entity governed by a Board of Education. WISD does not have any direct authority over the local districts. We exist to provide services and support to them. In June of 2011 WISD was approached by the board presidents and superintendents of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run School Districts and asked to help facilitate a conversation regarding how the districts could do more together.

Turning to your question of why the merger is imperative, let me begin by outlining the two primary challenges faced by both districts that underscore the need to pursue the creation of a new, unified district.

Financial: Both districts have operational deficits. The deficit in the Ypsilanti Public School District is approaching $10 million dollars and the deficit in Willow Run is approximately $2.4 million. Ypsilanti became a deficit district at the end of the 2008-09 school year and Willow Run began running a deficit at the end of the 2005-06 school year. The deficit status of each district requires significant cuts to the budget (In the case of Ypsilanti, for example, the district would be required to reduce its expenditures by more than 25% in order to eliminate the deficit in the next two years and return to a structurally balanced budget. Since more than 85% of the district’s budget is spent on staff salaries and benefits, this means significant layoffs and/or other concessions from the employees). The draconian nature of the cuts that are required to achieve a structurally balanced budget will have a direct and negative impact on the second area of concern:

Student Achievement: Both high schools have been identified as “persistently low achieving” (PLA) which means they are in the bottom 5% of all high schools in Michigan with respect to academic achievement. Each high school is in the process of implementing a redesign plan. Many of the buildings in each district are in the bottom 15% of the State and are at-risk of being labeled persistently low achieving. The academic trends over time indicate that far too many students in the district are not successful academically.

The creation of a new unified school district (by consolidation) presents a unique opportunity to tackle these two fundamental challenges. Many people have asked how combining two failing districts (academically and financially) can result in anything but a larger failing district. Our response has been that this isn’t a simple merger, but rather it represents an opportunity to create something new that will be designed to ensure the students of the newly formed district will be “college and career ready” when they graduate and that the district will be designed in such a way to meet the needs of children from birth through post-secondary education.

In order to create a successful new district, it is necessary to have relief on the time allotted for repaying the accumulated deficit. This is something that has been discussed with the State Superintendent and it is within his statutory authority to grant extensions based on meeting certain criteria. He has made it clear (including in a written communication that was shared with both boards of education in April) that he supports this effort and is willing to work with the districts as they walk down this path. Additionally, the creation of a new district creates an opportunity to ensure efficient use of assets (buildings) and appropriate staffing levels based on current enrollment.

What happens if the merger isn’t approved? The financial crisis is significant. In fact, each district is currently facing the very real prospect of having insufficient funds to meet payroll obligations at some point during the upcoming school year. Because of their financial condition, they are unlikely to be able to borrow funds in order to cover the shortfall. If that were to happen, it would automatically trigger a financial review, which is the first step in the process of appointing an emergency manager (EM) to assume control of the finances of the district. An EM is granted significant authority (including the ability to abrogate collective bargaining agreements, close and sell buildings, layoff or terminate staff, etc.) with the singular objective of returning the district to a structural balance financially. The type of cuts that would be implemented by the EM would most certainly result in the loss of quality instructional staff and continued departure of students from the district, further exacerbating the financial crisis. Local control would be lost.

At the same time, the State has established the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) which is being given responsibility for operating schools on the persistently low achieving list. The first schools assigned to the EAA were in Detroit, but it is designed to assume control of buildings across the state of Michigan. Each high school is at-risk of being taken over by the EAA (which means that the per-student funding would go to the EAA and the local district wouldn’t have any control of the programs operating in the high school).

In both cases, the appointment of an Emergency Manager or an Education Achievement Authority take over of buildings on the PLA list, local control is lost.

At the end of the day, the key question to ask is whether it is possible for Ypsilanti and Willow Run to remain independent school districts. Given the current trajectory (declining enrollment, increasing deficits, poor academic achievement), the answer to that question is no. The cuts required to balance the budget will result in driving more students from the district and compromising any effort to improve achievement. This is a death spiral. The only viable option going forward is to pursue consolidation of the districts and work diligently to create a new district that is both financially viable and designed to raise the level of achievement by implementing a 21st century, world-class education.

MARK: Thank you for the clarification… I should have been more clear. It’s not the entire Washtenaw Intermediate School District that is failing, just the poorer, predominantly non-white schools for which you are responsible… With that in mind, I’m curious as to why a decision was made to just merge these two failing school systems, and not all of the schools within the WISD. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that if all of our schools were consolidated under one authority that it might better help to offset the challenges faced by Ypsilanti and Willow Run, which clearly don’t have the tax base necessary to be successful? I realize such a move would be unlikely, given that these individual districts would have to vote to make it so, but I’m curious as to whether it’s even been considered, as we have so many relatively well-funded, successful districts within the WISD portfolio.

SCOTT: The decision to pursue consolidation with these two districts is a product of the combined financial and academic challenges resulting from decisions (internal and external) that have been made during the course of the past decade. You are correct when you point out a consolidation of all the districts would require a vote of support in each community. I would also agree that it would be unlikely given that most of the other districts are not operating a deficit budget and are achieving at higher levels. All ten districts have engaged in conversations about shared services where economies of scale can be achieved to free up more funding to support direct educational programs, and many shared services are currently being implemented. The situation in Ypsilanti and Willow Run has progressed to the point where shared services alone do not produce the kind of savings necessary to restore each district to financial viability. Years ago, in my opinion, the trajectory could have been changed with more immediate action on both the financial and achievement front.

MARK: How exactly would the education of our children be improved by consolidation? I realize that there are economies of scale to be had, which make such an arrangement more attractive from a business perspective, but how, exactly, does it benefit our children? In what ways, specifically, can we expect to see the educational experiences of our children improve?

SCOTT: It is important to move away from a traditional concept of school as we envision a new school district. Typically when we think of school we think of kindergarten through twelfth grade. What we know based on solid research is that early childhood experiences have a significant impact on the likelihood of academic success during the traditional school years. We cannot ignore what happens to children and families from birth through kindergarten entry, so the new school system will be designed to create meaningful supports for young children and their families. While we have quality pre-school programs for children from low income families available in the area (Head Start and the Great Start Readiness Program, for example), much more needs to be done to ensure each child enters kindergarten ready to succeed.

There is a substantial body of research available with respect to what works in schools. There are many districts across the country that are similar to Ypsilanti/Willow Run demographically, but where the students are achieving at a much higher level. Implementing these research-based strategies will help ensure we break the cycle of low expectations and low achievement.

One of the most significant challenges is the outdated structure of schooling. We operate on an agrarian calendar, even though most students are not needed on the farms in the summer any longer. We know that learning loss (regression) is significant during the summer break (particularly for children in low-income families) and yet students are only required to attend school for about 168 days in these two districts and then they are given an extended break when we know it compromises their ability to succeed in school.

Another problem is the way in which students are moved through the system based on age and having completed another year of school. In some cases students are retained and required to repeat another year (research shows this is not a successful strategy), and in other cases, students are simply moved forward without having mastered the core academic requirements. Our system is one where time is the constant and learning is the variable. What we need is a system where learning is the constant and time is the variable. Some students can move through the curriculum more quickly and they shouldn’t be required to meet seat-time expectations if they can demonstrate mastery; others require more time to learn the material.

The new school system can be designed to be responsive to the different learning styles and rates of learning represented by a diverse student population. High expectations for all students should never be compromised because we are trying to put too much into a 168-day school year. There has to be a fundamental restructuring of how school is delivered.

Another thing we know is that learning isn’t confined to the hours of 7:30-2:30 (typical high school schedule) or 9-4 (elementary) and it isn’t confined to what happens within the four walls of a school building. In a new system, flexibility can be built into the schedule and students can be encouraged to participate in project-based and/or place-based learning opportunities that take advantage of the many resources in the larger community.

MARK: Will finances allow for a year-round system, which keeps students in school for a significantly longer period of time, like that which you’ve described?

SCOTT: The new school district will likely have a revenue line of $70 million (based on current enrollment figures and funding from both the State and Federal Government). I believe it is possible to implement a year-round system and maintain a viable budget, but it does require revisiting other ways in which resources have been used in the past.

MARK: I recently wrote a piece critical of the WISD for what I saw as poor marketing job when it came to selling the merger to Ypsilanti families. My criticism, in a nutshell, was that you missed the opportunity to position this as an real opportunity for our schools to break new ground, and do something truly visionary, instead focusing primarily on the ballot initiative and why it was crucial that we support it, in order to fend off a State takeover and preserve local control. My fear, as I expressed in the article, was that, while you might be successful in passing the merger, I didn’t think that you’d sufficiently laid the groundwork to bring people back to the district. I concluded with, “The folks in charge needed to look at the big picture, and not just the immediate threat.” I’m assuming you have a different take on this.

SCOTT: I believe that your comments were made without truly understanding the process we are currently engaged in with respect to developing a vision for a new unified school system. We have held six visioning sessions (with more than 100 citizens representing a cross-sector of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run communities who have participated). These sessions were designed to gather input on what people value in the community and to articulate their aspirations with respect to a new, unified system. We have encouraged as many people as possible to participate in these sessions and if you had been able to attend one of the sessions, you would have noticed that we indeed have discussed the importance of moving beyond a merger “in order to fend off a State take-over and preserve local control” toward a clear and compelling vision of a new system that captures the hopes and aspirations of the community for the creation of something that is truly exceptional.

Some have argued that we are moving too quickly, but the nature of the crisis doesn’t allow for a more drawn out process. The window for action in order to avoid an imposed solution (EM or EAA) is very narrow indeed. The initial design work represents the broad parameters of what the new district will look like. An analogy that helps illustrate this is when a district decides to pursue approval for constructing a new facility. At the beginning, many community conversations are held to ascertain what people want to see in the new building. The architects develop a schematic design that captures the general features and characteristics of the building. Then the question is put before the voters. Subsequent to the vote, the architects begin the work of developing detailed design drawings that are converted into the actual blueprint and construction documents. The cost involved in developing detailed design prior to receiving voter approval is cost-prohibitive and extraordinarily time-consuming. The focus at the outset of this process is to gather enough input in order to articulate the broad parameters of what the new district will look like. If the vote is approved, work will begin immediately on the specific details that are consistent with the broad parameters that were outlined in the conversations with the community.

MARK: As I’m sure you are aware, the Emergency Manager of Muskegon Heights recently announced that they would be transitioning immediately to an “all-charter” system. What do you say to parents who look at that and draw the
conclusion that this is what lies ahead for all of us? As I know that you’re dependent upon the State for your funding, I don’t expect you to come out, on the record, and say that the endgame of Republicans in Lansing is to eliminate public education as we know it, replacing it with a system of for-profit education companies, but I know that you must hear from parents, “Why should I put my kids in public school, when the trajectory is clear?” What do you tell those people?

SCOTT: I think it is important to look at Muskegon Heights as an example of what could happen to Ypsilanti and Willow Run if the consolidation doesn’t take place. There aren’t many options available with districts whose deficits are as large as the ones faced by these two districts. Muskegon Heights is at a point of no return and so the
solution being proposed is one that could be replicated in other parts of the state.

I had an opportunity to speak with the superintendent of the Muskegon ISD and he spoke very directly about doing whatever we could to avoid the Muskegon Heights scenario. For our community, it isn’t too late. We can avoid the fate of a Muskegon Heights if we take advantage of the opportunity to create a new school system.

MARK: Just so I’m clear, while we’re talking about Ypsi and Willow Run, as they’re the furthest along on this continuum, isn’t it true that the other districts in the County are also moving in this direction? What I mean to say is, there’s an underlying structural issue here that’s bigger than just these two districts, right? I understand the desire to address the immediate problem, but I’m curious as to what is being done at the level above that. While we’re attempting to keep things afloat in the short term, are we also fighting the State for increased funding, and substantial health care reform, which could significantly drive down the costs associated with our retirees?

SCOTT: There are significant structural funding issues at the State level. The current conversation related to retirement reform is one key area. Effective July 1st, school districts are paying 27.37% of every payroll dollar to support the retirement system (it was 24.46% last year). This increase results in an additional $200 per student for each district in Washtenaw County that is not available to support education programs and services. There have been attempts in both the House and Senate to reform the system, but as of now we still don’t have an agreement. There is one session day scheduled this month (Wednesday the 18th) and according to my sources, legislators are working diligently to identify a compromise that will be acceptable to members of the House, Senate and administration. I would point out that local school boards don’t have discretion over the rate that is paid… it is set by the State. We
desperately need the system to be reformed.

The Governor pledged to study the way in which schools are funded and is in the process of convening a group to study and propose a significant re-write of the School Aid Act. While we can point to the ways in which the State has disinvested in education during the past decade, fundamental reform needs to ensure that we have a model in place the maximizes the use of each taxpayer dollar and results in improved academic outcomes.

MARK: As much as I’d like to blame everything on the State, and their insistence upon cutting taxes, and defuding public education, I think you’d agree that some of the blame lies with us, right? Can you speak a bit about the non-funding-related issues that need to be addressed, specifically in our high schools?

SCOTT: As you know, both high schools are on the “persistently low achieving” list which means they are in the bottom 5% of all high schools in the State. Each high school is in the process of implementing a redesign plan with the aim of improving student achievement. They are in the initial phases of implementation and so it is too early to determine the likelihood of success, although there have been some positive indicators initially. The real challenge, in my estimation, is to create an educational culture and environment where students feel and are safe, where they are challenged with high expectations, and where the educational programming is relevant.

MARK: Instead of formal consolidation, have you considered the possibility of just allowing Willow Run schools to close and encouraging their students to attend Ypsi schools, which would add a great deal of money to our coffers? Perhaps I’m missing something, but, by doing it this way, wouldn’t you not only avoid the necessity of a costly ballot initiative, but also not have to worry about negotiating a new per-pupil reimbursement rate with the State (given that the Ypsi rate is currently about $600 more per student than in Willow Run)? At least, I believe, as it currently stands, Willow Run students, if they transfer to Ypsi, are reimbursed at the higher rate. Is that correct?

SCOTT: The question is more complicated than you’ve stated here. First, it is important to correct misinformation that has been circulated in the community. The per-pupil amount each district receives from the state is as follows: Ypsilanti: $7513 and Willow Run: $7309. The difference is $204 more per student in Ypsilanti than in Willow Run. Given that the enrollment in Willow Run is just above 1600 students, this represents additional funding of a little more than $325,000 if the students were funded at the Ypsilanti rate. While not insignificant, it doesn’t represent a solution to the much greater financial challenges faced by both districts. The mechanism the state has in
place would result in a blended foundation amount designed to ensure the new district received funding equivalent to what each district received individually. This disincentive has been discussed with key policymakers in Lansing and they understand the importance of removing this barrier to consolidation.

Secondly, by placing the question on the ballot in November the districts avoid a “costly ballot initiative” because it is at a time when an election has already been scheduled. Finally, if students from Willow Run enroll in Ypsilanti through schools of choice, Ypsilanti only receives the Willow Run foundation grant. The way school of choice funding works is that students coming from another district generate a foundation grant that is the lower of their resident district foundation grant or that of the new district. If a student who resides in Ann Arbor enrolls in Ypsilanti, the district does not receive the Ann Arbor foundation grant (which is higher than Ypsilanti’s) but rather they receive the
Ypsilanti grant.

MARK: While I know that good things are happening within our high schools, and while I hate to draw conclusions based upon isolated events, I have to tell you that I was incredibly troubled last year by the near-fatal stabbing of a 17 year old Ypsi High student. It wasn’t so much that fact that she was stabbed repeatedly on school property, by a fellow student, who had apparently been told that he’d gotten her pregnant, but the fact that she later, according to reports, had to change schools due to the harassment of fellow students. It would seem that they were angry that she’d “snitched” on her assailant, a popular 17 year old by the name of Cortae Diaz Kelly. I can accept that there are random acts of violence that happen in the world, and that occasionally there are bad people who do monstrous things, but it really bothered me to hear that, after surviving this horrific attack, this young woman was subjected to ridicule by her classmates. That indicates to me there’s something really wrong at a fundamental level. Again, I know that this isn’t reflective of the entire high school, and that it happened well over a year ago, but I’d like to hear what specifically is being done to address the culture within our high schools, and what new methods have been implemented to deal with discipline issues, etc.

SCOTT:The issue of school culture and climate is absolutely paramount when talking about what needs to change in order to increase student achievement. I would suggest that a more specific response with respect to what is being done currently be provided by the administrators in the Ypsilanti School District since they are the ones working directly on this challenge (remember, WISD is facilitating the conversation about creating a new, unified school system).

MARK: You’ve taken some heat recently for contracting with an out-of-state consulting firm, Lead and Learn, which is owned by the textbook company Houghton Mifflin, to draft a new curriculum for the merged district? Some are arguing that the $40,000 price tag is excessive, and that we would have been better served to work with educators knowledgeable about our community. How do you respond?

SCOTT: I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight on this topic. First, although Lead and Learn is owned by Houghton Mifflin, they are not primarily textbook authors. They are leaders in education reform and implementing research-based practices that result in higher levels of achievement, especially for students in poverty and in communities with demographics similar to ours. To assert we are hiring a textbook company to develop curriculum is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the consulting agreement and why we selected Lead and Learn. They will be facilitating the design process and bringing knowledge of strategies that have worked in other communities across the country. Their engagement is designed to ensure we don’t get mired in thinking only about possibilities that have been experienced locally and to challenge us to really examine research that works.

We recognize the value and importance of working with other knowledgeable experts in the area and fully intend to work with them as the detail design work is completed and we move toward implementation. Many times, having an outside company facilitate a conversation allows those experts to be fully engaged participants in the process and we’ve invited many of them to participate in next week’s two-day session.

The price tag for the consulting work is $34,100 and we have secured funds from United Way of Washtenaw County, Eastern Leaders Group, and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation-Ypsilanti Area Community Fund, along with Eastern Michigan, to help underwrite the cost.

MARK: In a recent article on my site, an Ypsi parent by the name of Maria Cotera outlined a wish list of things that she would like to see going forward. If I could, I’d like to ask for your thoughts on each item.

SCOTT: I will provide brief responses below, but want to say that in general, these are the kinds of things we envision will be included in a new unified school district.

MARK: Small high school environments (no more than 500).

SCOTT: We have already started implementing this through the secondary options programs including: New Tech at Ardis and the New Tech at Willow Run; Washtenaw International High School, the Early College Alliance at EMU. The redesign work at Ypsilanti High School also recognized this as an important component.

MARK: Small middle school environments (no more than 500).

SCOTT: This is also something that is being addressed currently in Ypsilanti with the STEMTech middle school model. I would suggest that we shouldn’t assume that the redesign has to only have traditional middle school options. Many places have gone to a K-8 structure with tremendous success and I believe it is important to be open to these ideas.

MARK: Small Elementary school environments (no more than 300).

SCOTT: This can be cost-prohibitive and I would suggest looking at the research to determine whether the 300 number is arbitrary. In many cases, it isn’t about the size of the school, but rather about the culture, and structure of the programming.

MARK: Project-based learning opportunities.

SCOTT: This is important and is currently being done in some areas, but could become more robust and engage the community in more specific ways.

MARK: Much greater, and more coordinated involvement of U of M and EMU across the District.

SCOTT: It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t take advantage of our university partners, and I would also include WCC in the mix.

MARK: Civic/Community 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). Their intellectual work should be tied to transforming our community.

SCOTT: Absolutely.

MARK: Sustainability as a CORE VALUE – this should be incorporated into curricular, civic engagement, and enrichments programs.

SCOTT: This is a timely and important topic.

MARK: All buildings should adopt a sustainability code.

SCOTT: When I was a local school district superintendent, we constructed a new High School that achieved Silver-level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. I believe this is a worthwhile goal, although there are additional cost associated with reaching these standards.

MARK: 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.

SCOTT: An urban agriculture program would be ideal. I think this is one option, but wouldn’t limit the ways to connect in this way only to urban agriculture. It is an area of growing interest and we have outstanding community resources to help implement this in our schools.

MARK: Social Justice curriculum beginning at the Middle School and continuing 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.

SCOTT: This suggestion, as well as several of the others, need to be part of the conversation relating to how/when/why they should be incorporated in the design of the new district. The key point is that these decisions need to be made in conversation with the community, but it really only makes sense to do this detailed design work once the
voters have authorized the merger.

MARK: An Enrichment Director who can coordinate enrichment programs and university partnerships across the District.

SCOTT: This can be structured in a number of ways, but reinforces the comment above related to connecting with our university partners and others in the community.

MARK: An Every Student College Bound program beginning at thee 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?

SCOTT: The framing conversation for the new unified district is from birth through post-secondary, or cradle to career. We absolutely believe we should design a system that will enable all students to be successful in their post-secondary endeavors, not just college, but also the trades, military, etc.

MARK: Tiered mentorship programs (College students mentor high schoolers, high schoolers mentor junior high kids, junior high kids mentor elementary kids).

SCOTT: Good concepts.

MARK: Discipline – implement a restorative justice program (Student Court).

SCOTT: This is a critical component in creating the right kind of school culture and climate, but also
requires significant discussion so people understand what it really means.

MARK: We should create administrative structures at the High School level that include student voices and ideas.

SCOTT: Student voice is very important and should be included as a key component of the design of the new district.

MARK: Getting back to my earlier comment about how we might win this battle but lose the war, I’m curious as to your thoughts on the following comment, which was left on my site by a reader named Edward. “If I’m not mistaken, we lost more money as a result of the closing of Chapelle, due to the number of families that pulled their kids out of the district, than we saved from closing the school in the first place. That, to me, is a good analogy of where we are today. We make cut after cut, in hopes of balancing the budget, but all that we’re doing in actuality is digging our hole deeper. More kids leave the system, we lose the money that they would have brought along with them, the district gets poorer, and more kids drop out as a result.” Specifically, I’d like to know if you agree with this assessment concerning Chapelle. (I know that it’s difficult to prove a causal link between school closures and enrollment declines, but, given the dips in enrollment which we’ve experienced following school closures, there would seem, at least to me, to be some correlation.) Was the closing of the school, in retrospect, a mistake? Is it true that we lost more money, due to former Chapelle students being pulled from the district, that we saved from closing the school? And, if so, is that something you took into consideration before announcing the decision to close Willow Run High School?

SCOTT: I am not in a position to comment on Chapelle since I wasn’t in the community at the time the decision was made. In response to a previous question I commented on the “death spiral.” There is no question that many times the decisions that are made to meet budget targets have the effect of driving more students and parents out of the district leading to greater financial challenges. That is the essence of the problem here. Without hitting the reset button, the options available all have the impact of driving more people away. The opportunity we have now is to create
something new and sustainable.

MARK: Clearly the district would benefit from greater parental involvement. How do we make that happen?

SCOTT: There are a number of ways to do this, but I believe we have to start early (birth and early childhood) and continue to find ways to make parent participation easier. Scheduling opportunities when parents might not be working, creating friendly environments, valuing their voice in the process are just some ways we can accommodate and embrace parent involvement. I would take it a step further and suggest that what we really want is a partnership with parents as it relates to student success. There is a shared responsibility for successful outcomes when schools and families come together intentionally.

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  1. Posted July 16, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Mark (and Scott) for this.

    One question, though — do you really expect Scott to give an answer to your question about merging all the districts in the county? As far as I know, the only mechanism for that would be for every single district to individually vote in favor, and I’m curious what you think Chelsea, Saline, and Dexter could be offered in such a vote. This question just seems like a trap for Scott — either he upsets us by saying, no, we shouldn’t consider county-wide consolidation, or he upsets the other districts by saying it’d be great, if only we could, or he gives a bland and unsatisfyng answer and we beat him up for that.

  2. Knox
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Murph, I think that Mark acknowledged that it would be unlikely that it would be approved in each of the districts. I think he was just asking if really big, sweeping changes had at least been considered. I don’t see how that’s a trap. It seems like a pretty obvious question to me.

  3. Elf
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Why is it so laughably absurd to suggest that successful districts consider restructuring to better care for those among us with the fewest resources and the greatest need?

  4. anonymous
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    If they could keep class sizes small, incorporate some of maria’s ideas noted above, and expand to a year-round program, I think people would given the district, at least at the grade school level, a second look. The high school, however, still has a lot to prove.

  5. Mark
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    My comment wasn’t meant to be confrontational. As I just explained to a friend, who felt like I crossed the line with that question that Murph mentioned above, I don’t know that I’m necessarily in favor of a large, unified school district. I think, it most cases, smaller, less-centralized, community-based school oversight is better. I was genuinely curious, however, as to whether or not any other consolidation had been considered. As I noted in the post, I think merging a successful district with an unsuccessful one would be relatively impossible, given that folks in the successful district would have to vote to make it happen, but I thought that it was an interesting question to ask. And, yeah, it sounds stupid to suggest that well-funded districts would consider merging with struggling ones, but why is it insulting to suggest that it be considered?

  6. Posted July 17, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    To be clear, I think a discussion of how a county-wide district might work would be really interesting — especially when we get to questions like, would we actually be trying to reduce race/class/achievement segregation at the building and classroom level, or would we simply be seeking to make the district-wide averages look better?

    …I just don’t think that conversation can be held reasonably in a single paragraph in the middle of a different discussion. “Has it been considered, yes or no?” is a much less interesting conversation than “What might it look like if…?”

  7. Georgina H by proxy
    Posted July 17, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Georgina Hickey attended the meeting last night and sent out the following.

    Hi all,

    I attended tonight’s district consolidation meeting. This was the third of three sessions dedicated to data on the districts. It was lightly attended, though Naomi from WISD said there had been more people at the other sessions.

    After listening to the presentation, I left feeling that these two districts are really very similar. Racial demographics, for example, are similar (community: 60% white, 30% black; schools 30% white; 60% black). Test scores, for whatever they are worth, are also very similar, though Ypsi has generally done slightly better (but only slightly). African American and economically disadvantaged kids perform alarmingly worse on the standardized tests. According to one tests (ACT), only 4% of African American 11th graders were likely to get an A or B in a college math class (based on how they performed on this test)!

    Both districts peaked in enrollment in the mid-1980s and have declined since then. I found it very surprising to learn that high school enrollments have been steady and even slightly increasing. The loss of students has been happening at the K-8 level over the last 10 years. WR is about half the size of Ypsi. A combined district would have approximately 5200 kids.

    I was surprised to learn that about 80% of seniors in the districts say they plan to go to college (2 or 4 year) and most of them do actually enroll. After six years, however, only 24% of former Ypsi students have graduated and only 15% of Willow Run. I realize the college grad rates aren’t great, but 80% enrolling in college strikes me as pretty good!

    There are about 3400 kids in Ypsi and WR combined who “school of choice” out of their home district, but 780 of them are WR kids going to Ypsi or vice versa. Something I didn’t know before, when a students chooses a different district, the state pays the lower per pupil funding. So, a WR student coming to Ypsi means that Ypsi is paid the (lower) WR per pupil amount and not the Ypsi amount.

    Scott from WISD closed with a quick review of both the incentives (consolidation $$, a stay placed on new charter schools in the area for 3 years, a potentially much longer window for repaying debt…) and the gravity of the situation. His prediction is that, without consolidation, both districts will have Emergency Managers within a year. EMs, of course, can set aside contracts to impose drastic cuts, sell off buildings, and generally ignore anything to do with curriculum in the interest of recovering the budget. They are in no way beholden to the community to which the schools are attached.

    Some of you might find useful this website for data on all public schools in Michigan, including charters: https://www.mischooldata.org/DistrictSchoolProfiles/ReportCard/Dashboard/Dashboard.aspx

    Finally, there was, once again, a disgruntled WR constituent who threw out a “discplinary issues must be resolved” comment in the final moments. Sorry if I’m being thick here, but what do these comments really mean? I thought it was lightly veiled racism (i.e. the black kids go to Ypsi and they are unruly), but after looking at the data, I can now see that WR has the same demographics as Ypsi! Is it just the perception that Ypsi is black and WR is white? Is it something else entirely? I’d appreciate some insights before we head into the design retreat on Wed.


  8. Rick Snyder
    Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I received the following from Governor Snyder today. I thought others might find it interesting.

    How can we attract and retain good teachers in Michigan, and what can be done to improve our state’s education system?

    On the Importance of Teachers and Reforming the System

    Having good teachers is really important, and I can appreciate how they might feel put upon because we’ve done a lot of what I would describe as education reform. And we’ve talked a lot about challenges in our education system because our education system does not work well when you look at the whole system.
    On the Performance of Our Schools

    Only about 17 percent of the kids when they get out of school are truly college ready – and again it should be college or career ready – in terms of how they’re performing. That’s only one score I’ll give you. But the other one I use to sort of make sure I wasn’t missing something – another metric that I also use to sort of tie into that, another measure – and the other measure is we start looking at the community colleges. And I love community colleges. I started at community college before I went off to the University of Michigan. I started at Kellogg Community College. We started looking at community colleges across Michigan asking them, “What percentage of your kids have to take a remedial class before they’re ready to take an entry level class?” You know what that percentage runs typically? It runs about 60 to 70 percent. That’s a travesty to say that you have kids who have a high school diploma and they have to take a remedial class before they can take an entry level class. That’s not right, either.

    On Empowering Teachers

    Our system doesn’t work the way it should. We spend a lot of money, but we’re not seeing the outcome, the student growth that we should get. The issue is not the teachers though. It’s the system. How we’re doing things. And that’s part of the reform focus that we have – is how do we restructure our education system to get the best outcome. And part of that is empowering teachers more.

    So one of the things that I called for in our education message was actually creating a “master teacher” category. And that’s really the point. Think about this. If you’re a great teacher, what do you look to today for your career path, quite often, in terms of you want more money or rewards to keep moving up the so-called ladder? In some ways, they’re almost forced to say they want to be a principal or go into administration somehow. Think about how kind of goofy that is. You take the very best teachers and say, “OK, now we want you to move on up so you’re not teaching anymore.” That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me because we didn’t create another path for them. So can we create a “master teacher” category to say the very best teachers can continue to teach, but as part of this master concept, they would be mentors to other teachers. They would help develop other teachers, or they could help go around and do evaluations and reviews of other teachers.

    So one of the things we just put in this last budget is a whole program that’s being led by the deans of — many of the deans of the schools of education in Michigan. It’s a teacher effectiveness tool to say how do we develop a system to help teachers improve their own performance in a thoughtful, good way.

    On Innovations in the Classroom

    The other one is – I’m really excited about – there’s some new great things coming about education. And one of the terms is – I don’t know if you’ve come across the term – it’s called “flipping the classroom,” which is to turn things around from the days we went to school, which is basically say, “You’re going to end up doing homework when you go to school, and you’re going to learn stuff when you’re at home.” And they’re going to leverage technology to be able to track how you’re doing. And I’ll use math as an illustration. With technology now – literally they could keep track if you do everything on the computer. And again, there’s a question of access of the computers or netbooks or tools for all our kids. But you can track all that.

    So right now a teacher traditionally has to teach to sort of the average of the class. They have to pick one point they want to teach to, and it’s hard for them to keep up on one student getting in trouble in a particular area versus another student in another area, knowing where everyone’s at – at every moment. Now with technology, you can literally see every problem they got right, every problem they got wrong, how long it took them to get an answer, and be able to work with those kids more individually, then. And I think that’s a lot more rewarding for a teacher to be able to actually start coaching more on the individual basis rather than sort of saying, because they’re feeling compelled to keep with the lesson plan, they have to keep moving along.

    I think there’s some cool things. Again this is very early stage, but there’s a lot of exciting things I think we’re going to see over the next five and ten years that hopefully are going to get teachers all fired up through this phase of making the transitions and the reforms.

    Rick Snyder

  9. KKT
    Posted August 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    There is forum scheduled for tonight to present the framework for the proposed post-consolidation district. It will be at the EMU Student Center, 900 Oakwood St., Room 310A, at 6:00 PM.

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] convinced that it was the only way to keep some semblance of local control. (As you may recall, WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel made the case for the merger in an interview on this site. “(T)he key question to ask is whether it is possible for […]

  2. […] the case, I’d rather just take an evening off and try to connect as human beings, like those French, German and British soldiers who laid down their weapons and climbed out of their trenc…. I know it may not work, but that’s my plan. I want to ask Hagerstrom and Dillon why they got […]

  3. […] the case, I’d rather just take an evening off and try to connect as human beings, like those French, German and British soldiers who laid down their weapons on Christmas day in 1914, clim…. I know it may not work, but that’s my plan. Among other things, I want to ask Hagerstrom and […]

  4. […] the case, I’d rather just take an evening off and try to connect as human beings, like those French, German and British soldiers who laid down their weapons on Christmas day in 1914, clim…. I know it may not work, but that’s my plan. And with that in mind, I want to ask Hagerstrom […]

  5. […] the various parties. [For those of you who are new to the issue, I’d encourage you to read my interview with WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel.] Here’s the […]

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