Fiery debates continue to flare in the new school year over AAPS decisions regarding childcare and busing

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Ari Jacob

Changes in bus routes and child care services have left families upset about the district’s decisions.

 

With the dual complication of the Covid-19 pandemic and a labor shortage sweeping the country, Ann Arbor Public Schools decided last spring and summer to cut childcare services and reduce busing. As the new school year has started, these decisions are creating complex problems and reinvigorating heated debates between the district and parents.  

 

Childcare Cuts

Starting last year, when the district was planning for this upcoming year, problems with childcare became evident. 

Jeanice Swift, superintendent of AAPS, says it was necessary to redesign the program in order to maintain the separation of grade cohorts in the elementary schools.

“Most of our programs were really large so they would occur in the gym, the multi-purpose room, or the cafeteria,” said Swift. “We could see last spring that that model was not going to be Covid safe.”

With this redesign came the need for more staff to oversee the implemented cohorts. The district quickly ran into a problem when only 20 percent of childcare staff said they would plan to return.

Given these challenges, the district announced it would eliminate the childcare programs. Dozens of parents, many of whom were single parents or from low income households, urged the Board to reconsider their decision. 

“Our family has two working parents and we rely on this childcare as part of our family infrastructure. Asking parents to find childcare on their own is an unfair and nearly impossible burden to place on parents that would require transportation to and from the program” said one parent at the public commentary during a board meeting.  Another parent called their situation now “vastly more difficult.” 

Eventually, AAPS opened up reduced childcare programs at several Title I elementary schools in Ann Arbor. 

“We worked really hard all summer to get staff and we were able to open five schools,” said Swift. “In all of those schools, we were able to meet all of the demands of parents who asked us for childcare.”

Despite these AAPS programs and outside childcare programs added at three other elementary schools, thirteen elementary schools are without a traditional childcare program.

 

The Economic View

Justin Wolfers, a labor economist at the University of Michigan, says the unique aspects of the childcare labor market during the pandemic are contributing to these problems. 

“Childcare is a historically poorly paid occupation,” he said. “If people feel that they can get by, some number of them are going to choose not to work. The other thing about childcare is that it’s a very intensive face-to-face occupation. You’re dealing with kids and their spit and their sneezes, and their poo and wee all day.”

Many of these problems can create a snowball effect. “A lot of childcare workers are women at a child bearing age or are themselves parents, and so if they can’t find childcare for their own kids, then they can’t work,” he said. “So childcare for childcarists turns out to be a very important issue.”

However, Wolfers says that there is a simple fix to this labor problem. “I’m certain that it’s the case that if you were to pay childcare workers more, you could get more of them, including teachers,” he says. “Right now, many teachers could earn $30 an hour tutoring, or $12 an hour doing after school care, so of course they are going to do the tutoring. But if you offer them a higher wage, after school care becomes much more attractive.”

Swift argues that the district is doing all it can on this front. “We have increased the hourly rate of pay, we give paid time off, our childcare workers are members of a union, and they do have retirement benefits,” she said. “That level of pay and prioritization of childcare workers that we do is not typical across school districts. So we are making every effort and yet there are some extreme limitations.”

 

The Ensuing Debate

Liz Lin, a parent who has been an advocate for childcare, finds the districts’ decision and response both shocking and disheartening. “The district claims to be very progressive and claims to value equity, but this is such an inequitable decision,” she said. “Something is better than nothing, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of the actual need that’s in the community.” 

Lin went on to express her dismay. “Those programs were only reintroduced after the enormous community backlash,” she said. “They just announced that they were getting rid of all before and after [school] programs, and it wasn’t until the community pushed back they were like, ‘Okay, okay, okay, we’ll open these five programs that are inflexible and cost $600 a month.’”

School board member Susan Baskett said that she did not expect the backlash from parents. 

“We had discussion early in March and April when Trustee DuPree brought up her own search for child care,” she said. “I was surprised that anyone was assuming we would have child care because we never announced that we would in the fall.”

Along with the concern Lin over the cuts due to staff shortages, she also believes that the district was at least partially motivated by their mere desire to stop providing before and after school care as one of AAPS’ services. She claims Baskett has been “trying to get the program cut since at least 2019,” a charge Baskett says is worded to inflame the discourse but is nonetheless consistent with her budget priorities.

“‘Trying to get rid of the program,’  implies that I had some evil intention,” Baskett said. “I do not and have not [the intention]. I have been intent on building upon what is the purpose of AAPS, and that is to provide a quality education to each and every student.”

Board member Ernesto Querijero indicated a similar view at the Board’s May 12 meeting of last year. “Childcare has nothing to do with education,” he said. 

In response, Lin says the district provides many other services that are not directly under education such as food, mental health, and sports. 

“Obviously, education should be the priority of school, but schools provide so many essential services for children and families because school is where kids are,” she said.

Baskett argues that her focus is on the core mission of the district. 

“As a trustee, I have a responsibility to advocate for the well-being of the entire district,” she said. 

 

Bus Stops 

During Early August, the district also announced its annual busing changes. AAPS has a policy that mandates the service of busing for all students living more than 1.5 miles away from their school. Many exceptions to this rule had been made due to safety concerns such as the danger of crossing a busy street or the lack of a sidewalk. Yearly, the district reevaluates these routes and makes a determination of whether to continue busing in certain neighborhoods. The announced changes for this year, however, created even more problems for students and parents.

Lulu Zhang, a senior at Pioneer High School, says that the bus in her neighborhood was completely cut. “The replacement that Mr. Lowder gave us was to take the city bus, but that arrives at school thirty minutes early,” said Zhang. “Because of that, most people I know are car pooling instead of taking the bus.” Zhang is also concerned about the environmental effects from all the people driving to school.  

Parents were particularly frustrated with what they felt was a sudden change to the bus routes just a few weeks before school started. Despite these changes coming as a surprise to many, school board member Trustee Susuan Baskett says that this change had been coming for years. “The changes to the busses were part of our overall adherence to our policy, which is 1.5 miles,” she said. “This is not a new thing. It’s something we’ve been working with over the years. Unfortunately, people don’t follow our work over the years, so for some, it did seem like it was a new thing but it’s not.”

Molly Kleinman, a parent with children in both Bryant and Pattengill, says that the changes to busing have created a logistical nightmare. 

“Pre pandemic, my oldest [child] took the bus home and the bus would go from Bryant, to Pattengill, to our neighborhood” she said. “That had been our plan. On our kids’ first day of school, I got a phone call from the school secretary at 4:05 asking me what bus my child was on. When I told her the bus number she said, ‘That bus doesn’t exist’.” 

After much confusion and running around, Kleinman learned what had happened. “Even though that bus still exists, and even though it still stops at Pattengill and goes to Bryant, [certain] kids were no longer allowed to get on that bus at Pattengill,” she explained, due to the 1.5 miles limitation. 

Although Kleinman and her family live within 1.5 miles of the schools, Kleinman feels it’s unsafe for her children to walk to school and cross Packard road alone when there is no crossing guard.

The busing problems, along with the cuts to childcare, left Kleinman with limited options and little help from the district. 

“I couldn’t have my older child stay at school until her older sister’s bus arrives a half an hour later,” said Kleinman. “She’s not allowed to just wait there unattended. The fact that they cut childcare and transportation is leaving parents completely unsupported at a time when we’ve been living in a pandemic for 18 months, and I would argue parents and children need more support, not less from their schools.”

Kleinman says her children have been stressed by the situation. “She knew the bus because she rode that bus everyday from her old school, and to be told that her bus doesn’t exist and that her school doesn’t know how she’s getting home, she was really freaked out,” she said. 

For her first grader, this situation has compounded the normal nervousness of going to elementary school for the first time. “Our plans after school have been changing day by day. So my younger child … panics because she doesn’t know if I’m going to be in the right place, or if she knows where she’s supposed to get off the bus.”

In response to the concerns of parents like Kleinman, Baskett explains her experience from when she used to be in school. “I have a perspective as a student who did not ride the bus,” she said. “I had to walk 1.2 miles to my middle school. There was no noise made then. I grew up with parents who were not as resourceful. They said, ‘Look if that’s the rules, we don’t have a car, we have to get to work, you have to get to school, make it happen.’”

But Kleinman worries that with all these changes, disadvantaged families are being left behind. “What I’m seeing at drop off and pick up is that many many people are driving their kids to school,” she said. “For families that don’t have a car, or that have only one car and a parent needs to use that car to get to work, all of this is going to be that much harder. The district is calling this a blanket policy but there are disparate impacts that are being felt particularly hard.”