Michigan school district board working to regain trust after budget shortfalls, lawsuit

The Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) district in Michigan is performing damage control after “a year of bad news” including miscalculated budget shortfalls, a lawsuit and divisive board…

The Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) district in Michigan is performing damage control after “a year of bad news” including miscalculated budget shortfalls, a lawsuit and divisive board policies.

“Good news generally has been hard to come by for AAPS in 2023-24, amid a string of controversies in a city referred to as one of America’s most educated,” reported Martin Slagter for MLive.com.

School board trustee Susan Baskett blamed certain members who had “driven their personal agendas and ambitions” at the expense of effective, unified leadership.

“This board has been the most dysfunctional organization I have ever worked with,” she said. “I have offered my time to new trustees to debrief on meetings in order to learn how to make the next one better. I have been scoffed at. I have been rebuffed as ‘part of the establishment,’ and thus not worthy of being heard.”

Miscalculating a $25 million shortfall

In an effort to reduce its current budget shortfall of $25 million, the board approved a plan in May to cut $20.4 million from its budget for the coming year.

The plan eliminates 141 staff positions – 94 of them in teaching – along with reducing retirement savings.

However, auditors questioned how the miscalculation occurred in the first place.

“Without significant expenditure reductions, the obvious red flags should have been identified by management and the board, for which responsibility for the current situation is shared,” Michele McHale said in a June 26 auditor’s report.

McHale noted the district had approved increasing payroll costs by an estimated $12 million, although the budget hadn’t included any revenue to support the increase.

“There were signs that we were facing annual deficits, but the new budget had (the fund balance) going back up and we trusted the budget,” said board trustee Jeff Gaynor. “In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t have because unless we had a reason to understand why it would go back up. It didn’t make sense. So that is on us.”

Alleged assault on a school bus

Meanwhile, the district is facing a lawsuit filed in July 2023 by Jamie Nelson-Molnar, the parent of an autistic student. 

In the lawsuit, Nelson-Molnar alleges a bus aide, Rochanda Jefferson, physically and verbally abused the then 7-year-old boy on Dec. 14, 2021, while the district didn’t review surveillance footage of the abuse until five weeks later. 

“Defendants ignored and concealed reports of the abuse from other children on the bus based on stereotypes that children with disabilities are ‘bad’ kids who are unreliable and poorly behaved,” the lawsuit stated

Surveillance footage shows Jefferson attempting to restrain the student with a harness, which violated his individualized education plan, according to the suit. 

“Video shows that, with the boy restrained in the harness as he continued to scream, Jefferson hit him forcefully and repeatedly, each time raising her right arm into the air before striking him, the lawsuit alleges.” 

Even though multiple children reported the assault to district staff, Nelson-Molnar only heard of it through a teacher who “broke ranks to tell the truth,” the lawsuit alleged. 

Jefferson was later convicted of fourth-degree assault in June 2023. 

Also that year, three veteran board members didn’t seek re-election, which led to the arrival of new members Susan Ward Schmidt, Rima Mohammad and Jacinda Townsend Gides. 

“With these new members came a clear divide in opinion on some issues, including the performance of Superintendent Jeanice Swift, who left in the fall,” Slagter wrote. 

“The lawsuit served as a catalyst for the board scheduling a special meeting where it voted 4-3 to start the process to remove Swift, with some members suspicious of the intentions of the majority who pushed it through.” 

Longtime trustees like Baskett warned members of potential consequences dismissing the 10-year superintendent just before the school year started. 

“Going from concerns to dismissal without following the contracted evaluation process is a rookie mistake and a financial one that could cost us,” Baskett said at the meeting. “We have no plan for succession here. You all ran (on) transparency and you’re not going to tell the public why you’re really trying to get rid of the superintendent. 

“This is more than us, this is about the children who are going to be coming here in just a few days. For us to look incompetent is bad enough – believe me, we are now the crazy board.” 

Not all the new members agreed to rush through the process, with Schmidt expressing concerns like Baskett’s. 

“I think the reason this is being rushed is they may not have the votes (in the future),” she said. “I think it’s that simple.” 

Controversial policies 

In addition to budgetary and legal woes, the district has drawn criticism for policies seemingly unrelated to academics and divisive within its community. 

One of the board’s most controversial resolutions – calling for a bilateral ceasefire in Israel and Gaza – highlights the neglect of academic issues in favor of politically motivated rhetoric, said Ann Arbor attorney and parent Sharon Sorkin. 

“It demonstrated that a few of the school board members are not here for the students – that they are here for their own political agendas,” Sorkin said. 

Sorkin shared her concerns in a video published by The Detroit News on Jan. 10, saying she found the resolution personally hurtful and alienating to her Jewish community. 

“There’s a huge rise in antisemitism across the world, across the country, in our own community, and this sends a message that we’re not part of it, of the community, and it’s really, really divisive,” she said. 

“We all want peace. But I don’t believe that a resolution that a local school board passes is going to create peace in the Middle East.” 

Other recent controversies include “therians,” or students identifying as “a species of non-human animal on every level except physical,” according to The Center Square. 

“The students show their animal identity by wearing masks, a tail and running around on four limbs called ‘quadrobics,’” the article states, noting journalists uncovered 196 school district documents concerning therians through a records request. 

“A document links to a blog post titled ‘Why autistic people might prefer kink.’ The article warns it has ‘in-depth discussions of adult topics of kind and BDSM and brief mentions of sexual content.’” 

Additionally, the district has set policies not to require parental notification if a student decides to undergo gender transitioning or use pronouns different to their biological sex. 

Before the 2022 midterm elections, a law firm sued the district for allegedly censoring conservative students’ speech and won a temporary restraining order against the district. 

The speech concerned Proposal 3, the “Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative” making abortion a “fundamental right” recognized by the state Constitution. The measure was eventually approved. 

While Skyline High School allowed students to speak in favor of the proposal, it refused to allow its Republican club president to read a statement against it. 

“The Court finds that Defendants seek to silence Plaintiffs’ appropriate speech as to Proposal 3 by refusing to broadcast it with their morning announcements, while permitting students in favor of Proposal 3 to cut classes, and to demonstrate on school property in favor of Proposal 3,” wrote Federal District Court Judge Paul D. Borman in granting the motion for the order. 

Ultimately, the AAPS board must take active steps to address the “frustration” from its community “about whether we’ll keep the district excellence as it has been,” Gaynor said. 

“It’ll take some time to regain the confidence of the families we have and the families who have been maybe sitting on the sidelines – those families who left.”