Tonight’s the night that I’d set aside to figure out what in the hell is going on with Ypsi public schools. Judging by the increasingly insane comments being left elsewhere on the web, and the epic emails that are being forwarded to me, it sounds as though the great experiment – of combining the Willow Run and Ypsi school districts – is threatening to come off the rails in a big way. Here, before we start discussing what’s happening right now, and whether things can still be salvaged, is a bit of relevant history. (If you know any of the following points to be incorrect, please let me know, and I will edit accordingly.)
1. Under serious pressure from the state, our two school districts agreed last summer to restructure as one entity, in hopes of further slashing expenses and staving off a forced take-over at the hands of a Governor-appointed Emergency Manager. (They had good reason to be concerned. As you’ll recall, at about this same time, the Emergency Manager given the power to oversee Highland Park’s schools disbanded all of them, replacing them with for-profit charter schools operated by The Leona Group.)
2. The administrators of the two schools, their respective boards, and the powers-that-be within the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) lobbied hard on behalf of the merger, and, in November, the citizens of both school districts voted to make it happen, 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 Ypsilanti and Willow Run to remain independent school districts,” said Menzel. “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.”)
3. Having gotten the go-ahead from the voters, WISD administrators began to put their plan into action. A new board for the unified district was created (pictured right), composed of members of both previous boards, as well as several un-elected individuals appointed by the WISD. Community meetings were held. Subcommittees were formed. And it was agreed, among other things, that all of Ypsilanti’s teachers would be fired at the end of this school year, with the understanding that many would then be hired back to teach within the newly-formed district. Curiously, the same did not hold true for the superintendents of the two original school districts – Dedrick Martin (Ypsilanti) and Laura Lisiscki (Willow Run) – both of whom were given contracts through 2016.
4. Paying $12,000, the WISD engaged consultants at the Michigan Leadership Institute to aid in the search for a new superintendent. The idea, as I understood it, was that they would do a wide search for external candidates with experience in merging districts, and turning around failing school systems. The community was surprised to learn a few weeks ago, however, that, before this outside search could be conducted, both Martin and Lisiscki would be given an opportunity to be considered for the post. Only if neither was chosen by the new board of education, we were told, would the broader search be conducted.
5. There was, however, a third internal candidate for the position. Sharon Irvine, a lawyer and educator who currently serves as the Ypsilanti Public Schools’ executive director of human resources, indicated that she would like to be considered, alongside Martin and Lisiscki. Irvine, from what I understand, gained the respect of many for having successfully worked with the teachers’ union last year to cut costs without having to resort to the 30% across-the-board pay cuts which had been proposed. Video of Irvine, explaining what she would bring to the job, and how she managed to win concessions from teachers while retaining their support, can be found here. (Irvine’s interview is followed by those of Lisiscki and Martin.) It’s probably also worth noting that Irvine, in addition to seeking the job of Ypsi’s superintendent, was also pursuing the job as the head of Tecumseh’s school system. From what I’m told, however, she’s now out of the running, as Tecumseh’s board of education has made it clear that they want someone for the job who lives in their community, and Irvine lives in Ypsilanti, and, I believe, intends to stay here.
6. Last Thursday, on Valentine’s Day, the new board of education publicly interviewed all three candidates. (The video link can be found above.) The public, during this session, also had an opportunity to voice their opinions and to ask questions. While there was support for Laura Lisiscki from members of the Willow Run community, Dedrick Martin didn’t fare as well. In fact, many of his former constituents voiced their dissatisfaction with his performance, and urged that the board consider hiring Irvine, based, apparently, upon the vision that she put forward during her interview. It’s unclear how much weight, if any, however, will be given to public opinion. At least that’s the sense that I get from comments made by board member Don Garrett, who was heard urging other board members to avoid talking to constituents, as they might unduly “influence” them. (I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told the audio can be found somewhere among the video’s on this Willow Run site. I intend to go through them tonight, in search of the clip I’ve been told about, where Garrett says to a fellow board member, “WISD appointed YOU to the Board not the community.”)
7. Then, over last weekend, things really heated up, as people, from what I understand, started to get the sense that Martin’s appointment might be a foregone conclusion. When the board reconvened on Monday to discuss the candidates, they were met with a packed house, a vocal majority of whom, I’m told, were Irvine supporters. According to some who attended the meeting, the board did not seriously deliberate the merits and deficits of each candidate. Furthermore, I’m told that board member David Bates took the opportunity to chide the audience for making negative comments about Martin, and for asking him unduly probing questions during the Q&A the week before. Ypsilanti Education Association (YEA) President Krista Boyer, I’m told, attempted to read a statement concerning the superintendent search, and was cut off mid-sentence. In the end, Garrett and Bates suggested that the board might consider an administrative structure that could include both Martin and Lisiscki as co-superintendents, rewarding them, I suppose, for having run two of the State’s worst-performing school districts. (I apologize for the snark. I imagine that, to a great extent, their failures were predetermined by the constricting budgets that they were forced to work with, and other factors. But I still find it odd that we’d be seriously talking about one of them, let alone both, which, to my mind, kind of defeats the purpose of the merger.) According to our friend Maria Cotera, who has written extensively about the state of education in Ypsilanti on this site in the past, there were audible gasps from the crowd when this dual-leadership model was suggested, and some people were even shouting, “No!” (As all of this played out, Martin and Lisiscki were apparently seated at the front of the room, with the board of education, while Irvine was seated in the audience.) Maria approached one of the board members after the meeting to explain why people in the Ypsi community felt so strongly about the need for real change in district leadership, and a heated exchange ensued. She copied me on the letter which she sent to the board member with whom she had exchanged words, and you’ll find it below, with her permission, along with a bit of a preface, putting the whole thing into perspective.
FROM MARIA COTERA:
A very depressing update on school consolidation and the crisis in leadership…
As you know, I have been participating in the redesign of Ypsilanti Community Schools in the wake of the Ypsi-Willow consolidation. I’ve been going to weekly meetings for a little over a month (my group is focused on “climate and culture”) and I have been very inspired and impressed by the good community people who are committed to seeing this process through. The group has included teachers, school social workers, and community organizations (Neutral Zone, Ozone House, etc). We have been talking a lot about “restorative justice” paradigms for improving school culture, and there are people at the table who are very committed to centering social justice in our “climate” conversations. For some time now, I’ve been meaning to update your readers about this wonderful work because it has made me very hopeful for Ypsilanti Community Schools. Unfortunately, recent events have interrupted this idyll, and it looks like it’s business as usual for Ypsi. About a month ago, we were informed that our search for a new superintendent would begin internally, and that the current superintendents would be interviewed before any external candidates. Luckily one internal candidate, Sharon Irvine, who was head of HR in Ypsi Schools decided to throw her hat into the ring, and last Thursday she, along with Dedrick Martin and Laura Lisiscki, gave public interviews to a standing room only crowd. I was absolutely wowed by Sharon Irvine’s presentation. She came off as professional, thoughtful, and committed to improving the district. She gave one of the best interviews I have ever seen, and I wrote enthusiastically to board members afterward, expressing my strong belief that she would be the best person to lead the district as we transition into greatness. Apparently many, many others did as well. Then, on Monday night, the board met to discuss all three candidates, and you can read all about the depressing turn of events here. In a nutshell, the suggestion was made by Don Garret, and seconded by others on the board, that we pursue hiring multiple candidates (presumably the two former superintendents), throwing Sharon Irvine under the bus. This decision was made despite overwhelming support for her from Ypsi constituents. I got into a rather heated exchange with a board member afterward, and rather than recite what happened here, I’m sharing the letter that I wrote at 5:30 in the morning.
Dear Board Member___________,
First of all, let me apologize for losing my temper last night. I regret very much not being able to convey to you my strong feelings about the situation (as well as my commitment to Ypsi Schools) while holding to basic standards of civility.
Honestly, I think I might have been able to hold it together a little better if I didn’t feel like I was watching the Chapelle debacle happen all over again. And it bears mentioning that what was most painful about that situation was not that our beloved school closed, but the way in which the board and administration dealt with us. When parents fought against the closing of Chapelle we were consistently treated with disrespect by the board and the administration. We were treated as if we had no business trying to tell the board or administration what to do, as if we were just interfering with business as usual. That struggle was not just about one school and whether it would stay open, but about whether, and to what extent, the board and administration was accountable to the very people who were its PRIMARY stakeholders: parents and families. Consistently, as with the discussion last night, the people who spoke out were marginalized as “just a few loud voices” as if what we were fighting for was irrelevant to the rest of the community. Never did anyone back then (other than Kira Berman or Andy Fanta) suggest that maybe we were actually articulating the sentiments of the parents who couldn’t make every meeting. Indeed, our community meetings (organized by us, not the board or the administrations) numbered in the hundreds and included all sectors of the Ypsi community. In short, we know very well that the community can be mobilized when they care about something. Just as it would be incorrect for us to assume that we speak for the entire Ypsi school community, it is simply flawed thinking for you and the rest of the board to assume that the people who were not there last night support Dedrick Martin (as Linda Horne suggested). Indeed, it has been my experience that when people in the community do feel strongly about a situation, they will come out in force, as they did to save Chapelle, and they will not rely on surrogates to speak their minds.
Why am I talking about old history (Chapelle) here? Because to my mind, that situation helps us to diagnose the real problem with Ypsi schools, a problem that goes way beyond its budget woes, and one that will (apparently) not be resolved in this current effort to “re-imagine” the schools. It was on display last night, and many in the audience recognized it immediately. Three years ago, when faced with the community outcry over Chapelle, our relatively new superintendent could have approached the situation very differently. He could have seen the huge outpouring of support as an indicator of public investment, not just in a building, but in what that building represented—in its vision of community. He could have thought: “maybe we can parlay this passion into renewed passion for our schools?” He could have said: “what is Chapelle doing right? How is it getting stakeholders from across Ypsi to care so much? And how can I develop that passion in all our schools?” THAT is leadership. THAT is visionary thinking. Had he done that, perhaps we would be in a different situation right now. Perhaps we would be able to sing the praises of Chapelle and all of the other schools we care about, perhaps our enrollments wouldn’t be in a death spiral (an outcome many of us predicted). Had he done that, he would have earned the undying support of many of us, and we would now be begging you to keep him. This is not just about “giving in” to community pressure, but about having the courage to listen to his constituents and TRULY think outside of the box. But he didn’t do that. What he and the board did instead was to circle the wagons, take a defensive posture, and discount everything we had to say as if it were irrelevant.
Which is why I reacted so strongly when you gestured toward the pictures on the wall (of the superintendents) and said (rather dismissively) “you people aren’t satisfied with anyone, how many of these men have you run out of the job?” Frankly, the suggestion that we are merely irrational complainers who would hate anyone who took on the job of superintendent is deeply offensive to the intelligence of the community that you currently represent, and displays an attitude of disregard that seems consistent with the attitude of past board members. We, the community, the parents, the teachers are on the ground every day in our schools, we know, better than anyone else what the health of our educational ecosystem is because we live and breathe it. Our impressions and ideas are not just irrational “reactions;” they are informed by experience, and in the case of the teachers, real knowledge about the best educational environment for our children. As a board member, and our representative, your commitment, your compassion, and your respect, should be as available to us as it is to the current superintendent. Someone said last night, out of earshot, “Ypsi will never change.” After Chapelle closed, many, many people said the same thing, but we remained committed to the schools and passionate about their success. Over the last three years that passion has waned, as we have watched our schools slowly decline. We no longer encourage new parents to enroll their kids, and when people express doubts about the schools, we no longer passionately defend them, we merely shrug our shoulders and say “it is what it is.” This is tragic. The closing of Chapelle did not break us, it was what followed: the revelation that David Houle (who Martin hired from Willow Run and who called for the closing of Chapelle) had made our finances vastly worse (and hidden that fact), the half-baked curricular changes that were introduced to the public seemingly at random, the dysfunctional consolidated busing system, the reactionary resistance to field trips and other enrichment activities, the unwillingness of the administration to engage ANY new ideas (contrary to Martin’s assertion, New Tech was in the works before his arrival), the disaster at the high school. By any measure the last three years have been a depressing parade of failures. This is not a personal attack—it is an accurate diagnosis of REALITY that is backed up by our lived experience as well as the district’s declining enrollments.
When this consolidation effort got underway, I joined it because I still had an sliver of hope that we could turn out schools around. We were promised a “complete reboot” and though many of us had doubts about consolidating, we mobilized our friends and family to support the effort. Over the last few months I have been involved with the process, and I have been impressed by the WISD’s ability to bring many stakeholders to the table. I work over 60 hours a week, and I still dedicated every Thursday I could to helping the process along. Last Thursday at yet another meeting, I sat through an interview that simply blew me away, and I began to believe that we could really make this happen. As I listened to Sharon Irvine talk, I began to see a new vision of Ypsilanti Community Schools. I saw a leader that could stop the flow of students out of the district, and who might even bring a few back! I saw someone who could get people behind her, even when she was asking them to make deep sacrifices. I thought: “we won’t find anyone better, even if we do an outside search.” And I began to hope again, and dream, just a little bit, that things would be better. I came home, singing her praises to my husband, and I began to see a glimmer of hope in his eyes as well.
Last night it was a different story. I saw the same old dysfunctional decision making at play. I saw the condescension and outright hostility towards anyone in the community who spoke their mind when their opinions didn’t concord with those of certain board members. I saw appeals to consider the “bravery” and “resilience” of superintendent candidates for undergoing a consolidation process that was inevitable, coupled with the outright disdain for the bravery of teachers, who risked their professional futures by speaking out. I saw an upside down world in which a candidate who has no support from his current staff and has earned the outright hostility of many members of the community he supposedly represents, being praised for “taking-risks” and for making decisions that were unpopular. I saw people on the board suggesting that his lack of support was actually a “plus” and enjoining us to support whomever was chosen, for the good of the district, apparently not realizing that support from the people needs to be EARNED not demanded.
So I let my passion for the future of our schools get the best of me, and I lost my cool.
Yelling is never the answer, I know that, but a lot is riding on this decision, and, as I said last night, my commitment to the district is both deeply personal and political. I believe, very strongly, that the public schools, especially in a place like Ypsi where divisions between communities can run deep, are one of the last civic and social places where people come together. There’s lots of talk of the “diversity” of our schools, and usually its empty rhetoric, but just last Friday I was at a dance at Estabrook and I marveled at all of the people there. It was a true cross section of our community, with people of all races and classes mingling freely as their children ran like crazy all over the place. For me, this has always been the wonderful thing about Ypsi schools, and it has kept us here even when the future seemed very bleak. As I have said many times before, the public schools are our last, best, laboratory for democracy. They are places where people from all sides of town come together, with a singular mission, to teach our children that we must all stand together or fall apart. Ultimately, this is less about who will guide our future, than about how decisions are made, and whether the input of a community’s primary stakeholders carries any weight at all in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, in Ypsilanti, the community has been seen as an impediment, not a primary partner in this process. I thought this would change with consolidation, but after last night, I realize that I was wrong.
Personally, it seems odd to me that the board would even consider bringing back either Martin or Lisiscki without first doing a comprehensive outside search. That, to me, is lunacy. I can accept that one of them might be the right person for the job, but I don’t see how the board could be expected to make a decision of that magnitude without first knowing who else is available and willing to take on the challenge. Not doing a broad search for a position of such critical importance is, in my opinion, irresponsible at best. As Maria points out, we have a huge opportunity here, and we cannot afford to make the wrong decision when it comes to leadership. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is the last shot that we have to turn around Ypsil public schools, and we cannot squander the opportunity. Now is the time for bold change, and we need a visionary leader to make that happen. And, to be quite honest, I haven’t seen the potential of that from either of our previous superientendents.
The meeting to select a superintendent has been delayed until this Monday, February 25, at 7:30 PM. The meeting will take place at the Willow Run Community Schools Auditorium at 235 Spencer Lane, and it promises to be a doozy. A PDF of the agenda can be found here.
Also of interest: Apparently, the YPSD has taken down its own Facebook page because it was getting overloaded with negative comments, but some rebellious community members have established their own Facebook page to replace it, and ensure that information gets out in a timely fashion.