Ann Arbor Board of Education candidates on the issues

The Ann Arbor Board of Education, the elected body which governs the Ann Arbor Public Schools, has four seats up for election this coming November. With a record 13 candidates, including only one re-election bid, The Pioneer Optimist asked each candidate six specific questions concerning issues that the Ann Arbor district faces, that are likely of interest to students in the district. Some answers were submitted via written statements, while others were delivered over the phone.

Why should students care about the school board?

Susan Baskett

Susan Baskett (Incumbent): Students should care about the school board because the BoE sets policies that students and staff have to follow, i.e., dress policy, grades, etc. These policies can directly affect their lives. It is the BoE that hires the district’s top employee, the superintendent. This person is responsible for implementing and enforcing the policies set by the BoE. The BoE allocates resources (money, staff, and other support) to make things happen for students, i.e., technology, buses, quality of schools, etc.

Kai Cortina

Kai Cortina: The school board is the most important decision making body for everything that affects how a school district is run. Different from most other countries, in the U.S. the school administration is led by the superintendent, but the super herself has to answer to the school board, a democratically elected group of people from our community. If you care about democracy, the school board and city council are critical for local governance.


Jamila James

Jamila James: The student body should care about the school board because we make the policies that directly affect you. If there are things you want changed, you should try to get the school board involved to change these policies.



Lena Kauffman

Lena Kauffman: In Michigan, school boards are the elected oversight body on school superintendents and district operations. No other elected body has as much direct impact on students as the school board.



Jeremy Lapham

Jeremy Lapham: The School Board is/ought to be representative of the community it serves and students are part of this community. It’s important that students be actively involved in self-advocacy for their education and schools. Part of this is being able to address decision making bodies like the BOE. If I am elected to the BOE I look forward to engaging with students in policy development and decision making via community based participatory planning. 


Paulette Metoyer

Paulette Metoyer: Did not respond to this question.




Rima Mohammad

Rima Mohammad: The decisions made by the Ann Arbor School Board impacts students now and in the future, even as alumni. This is why I am a strong advocate in increasing the voice of students and providing power to students to be part of the decision-making process. My plans to do this include:

  1. Ensuring the students are represented on all task forces, committees, and the Board of Education. They will not be observers; they will be active members.
  2. Ensuring that students that are involved on student school boards, task forces and committees, are also well-represented by people of color, marginalized religious groups, underserved and underrepresented groups.
  3. Ensuring that leadership, including all administrators and Trustees, are engaged with students and be open to feedback and critique. This will be done by having regular focus groups with both leadership and student groups.
Susan Ward Schmidt

Susan Ward Schmidt: The School Board has three main responsibilities.

  1. Handling fiscal matters like passing a yearly budget, approving expenditures for all types of things from textbooks, teacher salaries, athletic, art and music programs, etc.
  2. Setting policies.
  3. Overseeing employment of the superintendent (hiring, evaluating, etc.). These decisions have an impact on the lives of teachers, administrators and students in their daily lives at school.
Barry Schumer

Barry Schumer: Students should care about their school board because decisions are made that directly affect student curriculum, social policies and overall school experience.



Andrew Spencer

Andrew Spencer: I would hope AAPS can be led in such a way that students don’t have to think too much about the school board. That said, the board is an important entity since it sets policy, long term district goals, selects and evaluates the Superintendent, approves the curriculum, and approves the budget among other activities. Students should care about the board since, here in Ann Arbor, we have the people and resources to make a great educational experience for our students … ultimately, the school board’s job is to ensure that happens every year.

Jacinda Townsend Gides

Jacinda Townsend Gides: The school board takes input from students all the time – I used to serve on a school board in Indiana – I would get letters all the time, from younger students, even, and from older students about things that needed to be changed. We’re here for students and students are the only people we’re there for. We do want to hear from you, we need to hear your voice. For instance: this year there was some question whether masks would be required, so board meetings were something that students should’ve tuned into to find out.


Leslie Wilkins

Leslie Wilkins: The school board is responsible for setting and enforcing policies that govern the schools. The school board makes decisions about what you’re learning (curriculum), how you’re learning (technology and other materials), where you’re learning (the physical conditions of the buildings), and maybe most importantly, who you’re learning from.


Alex Wood

Alex Wood: Because all of this affects you. When I was in school I was really sick of all these adults around me making decisions that affected my life that I had no say in. Sometimes that’s for the best, but not always. A lot of people forget what it was like to be in school and I think you guys deserve more input. I saw that someone is setting up a student board and I hope that the larger school board pays attention to what that student board is doing. I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to make decisions without taking input, especially from kids at the high school level.


If you are on the board, how will the AAPS be different? 

Susan Baskett: Whether I am re-elected or not, there will be a different composition of the BoE that may influence the way the AAPS operates. This could change things. Terms of the majority of the BoE are expiring. Of the remaining three trustees, two of them will have served less than one term. My perspective as the longest serving elected Black/Asian official is a valuable asset to the Ann Arbor Board of Education and to the community. There are very few people in the district and in public service who have been around as long as I have. My perspective is important to keep. I am a graduate of AAPS (Bach, Slauson and Pioneer). My partner and I have sons who are AAPS graduates and one who did not graduate. Their schools include: Bryant, Pattengill, Wines, Forsythe, Tappan, Scarlett, Huron and Community. We still have loved ones in the district at Pittsfield, Pioneer and Huron. Additionally, I have volunteered in the community for many years before becoming a school board member. For years, I have been consistently dedicated to the success of all students. This election will not change that. I am not changing. Re-electing me to the BoE will retain some institutional memory that is important as we move forward. For example, there were lessons learned from the past capital campaign work (building Skyline and renovations at other schools; buying new buses; adding new technology; buying new furniture and musical instruments, etc.). This history is important as we implement the recent $1B bond. We are building at least two new buildings (replacing the current Mitchell and Pathways Academic to Success) and a new preschool program. My re-election can also offer consistent leadership. This year, the voters will create a very inexperienced BoE. The new BoE will consist of people who have not worked with each other and who have little, if any, experience with our school community. This may stall the forward momentum that Dr. Swift and her team are creating. Re-electing me will keep some strength as the total BoE re-builds together. 

Kai Cortina: This does not only depend on me but the entire board. But I will push for more transparency and open discussion of critical issues that affect families, e.g., virtual school, childcare, or special education. The current school board and the superintendent are a little out of touch with the community they are supposed to represent and serve.

Jamila James: AAPS will be different when I’m on the board because I’m an advocate for kids. I’m not here for political gain, I’m about common sense stuff that will help students be successful in the future. Right now, I don’t believe we’re doing that. I think we’re filling your mind with information, but not the skills you need to be successful.

Lena Kauffman: Board of education trustees vote as a body and no elected trustee can promise that they will single-handedly bring a specific change. However, with many candidates running to increase transparency and bring a research and evidence-based approach to board decision making, I feel confident that these things will change for the better. Votes by the board will be clearer for the public to understand and the new board will have protecting in-person learning and increasing pandemic recovery services for students as top priorities.

Jeremy Lapham: Overall I will advocate for schools to become community centers again, including the reopening of before and aftercare programs. I will advocate for community based participatory budgeting and strategy sessions which would include students and the broader community. One of the major opportunities I see is to draft policy for students interested in trades particularly related to the greening of our infrastructure. I’d like to see apprenticeships with local unions in HVAC and electrical work. 

Paulette Metoyer: If I were on the Board now I can tell you how I would probably vote on key issues, but being only one person, that vote may not have much of an impact on what eventually takes place. So, if my opinions are adopted by the rest of the Board I would 1) not allow anyone to wear a mask in school because not only do they NOT mitigate disease transmission they actually INCREASE it in addition to forcing (in violation of OSHA air quality standards) the wearer to limit inhaled O2 and greatly increase the amount of CO2 inhaled – the same CO2 that is being blamed for destroying planet earth. I would 2) not coerce or mandate anyone to take an injection of any type as this constitutes Assault and Battery. 3) I would not mandate “testing” on someone who looks and feels well and is capable of performing his/her activities of daily living.


Rima Mohammad: I am passionate about addressing the issues facing our city and public schools, especially surrounding diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism (DEIA), transparency, community engagement and curriculum assessment. Throughout my career, I have been involved in addressing these issues through:

  • Developing student organizations and faculty, staff and student support regarding DEIA initiatives and awareness.
  • Developing and analyzing curriculum and innovative skill-based learning.
  • Utilizing critical thinking in addressing opportunity gaps in education and implementing innovative interventions and research studies.
  • Advocating for people of color, underrepresented and marginalized religious groups.

My experiences and expertise will be an asset to the AAPS board. My goals are to address these key areas:

  1. Fostering community input and discussions at all levels.
  2. Analyzing and addressing opportunity gaps in education to ensure consistency in education throughout the district.
  3. Analyzing DEIA needs and implementing sustainable interventions to ensure these needs are addressed.
  4. Ensuring open communication, transparency and inclusiveness of the schools to provide social, emotional and educational support to all members of our community.

Overall, I believe I am a strong candidate because I bring a unique perspective as a refugee, a person of color, a person of a marginalized religious group, a child that was in poverty, a woman, a mother, a working parent, a scientist, an educator and a healthcare worker. As a Trustee, I will ensure all voices are heard and addressed.

Susan Ward Schmidt: My knowledge as a life-long educator, my prior school board and other board experience and my dedication to put the time in necessary to do the job, will have a positive impact on decision making of the board. I think I can help the board deliberate more deeply and effectively to come to solutions that will make the school district even better. My experience in the areas of literacy, special education and state level policy will help our board be more effective in supporting teachers and administrators to increase literacy rates, make sure ALL students are supported in their learning and that we have effective policies to create a learning environment where all students feel valued and heard.

Barry Schumer: If I am elected, the board will be improved. I am a common sense man, with 23 years experience working in public schools. I will always put the needs of students, parents and teachers ahead of political pressures. I would also want some students to be on an advisory panel to me, so I could know the changes students need and want in their school experience. I would like to meet with this group monthly, and take these concerns back to school board meetings.

Andrew Spencer: Part of what makes me different from current members of the board is that I am a practicing scientist who “grew up” from a career standpoint in Silicon Valley (Northern California) working at small start-up companies. The cultures I worked in emphasized that everything can and should be questioned. Tough questions are asked every day. Rules were made by people … and can be changed by people … those people are us. That mindset was inspiring to me and I still carry it with me when thinking about hard problems and solutions.

Jacinda Townsend Gides: One of the reasons I’m running is equity. Not just in schools, but between schools. I went to the biggest high school in Kentucky at the height of school integration in this country. School segregation levels are, statistically, back to Brown v. Board of Education levels – even here in Ann Arbor. We have an elementary school with a 45% Black/Latino population and a 61% free/reduced lunch population; we also have an elementary school with an 8% Black/Latino population and an 11% free/reduced lunch population. That to me is unacceptable. I’d like to think about the way we’re using schools of choice. When I went to high school we had rich kids, poor kids, White kids, Black kids, Latino kids, immigrant kids, and everyone was in one school. It was such an incredible learning experience – as an adult I feel there is nobody who I can’t talk to or understand their experiences. I went to school with everybody, and it’s one thing that enabled me to do what I do right now. 

Leslie Wilkins: I’m hoping AAPS will be a more equitable and inclusive place for ALL students. My lived experiences, including serving on school PTOs, have shown me that systemic racism is still harming Ann Arbor students. In my personal anti-racism work, I’ve learned that the best way to fight this racism is to get involved at the local policy level. I’m committed to reviewing current district policies and consulting with families to determine which policies are harmful, and which ones are most helpful in supporting equity. I’m especially concerned about incidents where the district wasn’t listening or taking action when students and parents brought up experiencing a racially hostile environment. The AAPS School Board has put a lot of time into developing an Equity Plan, and I’m looking forward to diving into that work, ensuring there are performance measures in place, and then getting the plan implemented. I’m excited to be in a position where I can directly impact equity-focused decisions, and also make sure people from historically excluded backgrounds have a voice in those decisions. To be clear, this doesn’t mean I’m trying to speak on behalf of BIPOC people; instead I plan to actively listen to their voices, and bring their issues, opinions, and suggestions to the board.

Alex Wood: There are some things that I bring to the table that others don’t. I went to the Ann Arbor Public Schools myself. I know what it feels like to need disability accommodations that weren’t provided and the after-affects of how that follows you. It certainly changed for me what I was able to do after high school – not necessarily in a bad way – but, I’d like the schools to be a little more intentional in setting people up for the most success. It’s tough to say how things will be different, there are four open seats. It will be interesting to see who those other people are and to see how much work we’ll be able to get done.

What grade would you give the Superintendent and the current administration and what’s the rationale behind your answer?

Susan Baskett: I find this question interesting. The voters are choosing school board members, not the superintendent. Dr. Swift has a contract that has to be honored regardless of the BoE’s composition. However, I will say that I believe Dr. Swift and the current administration deserves an “A”. Dr. Swift, with the support of the BoE kept the district operating under some very dire circumstances. Staff, students and families were sick, potentially infecting others. The unknowns were plentiful. The political climate was very unforgiving. Yet, the district kept moving. Dr. Swift and the team identified and addressed every possible barrier to teaching and learning. Teaching and learning continued.

Kai Cortina: As an educational researcher, I do not like grades. Feedback is what matters. A grade is often misunderstood as a verdict instead of an indication that you are trying hard enough or need to put more effort in. Over the last two years, the superintendent had to maneuver completely unchartered territory. Some decisions stand the test of time (heavily investing in updating the HVAC systems), others did not (extended school closure when other districts around us had already reopened). But let’s not forget that most – if not all – of her wrong decisions were approved by the board. There is a lot of blame to go around and it is unfair to pile it all on Dr. Swift.

Jamila James: I would give the Superintendent and the current school board a C. I say that because I know they’re doing the best they can but they need to dig a little bit deeper.

Lena Kauffman: A D because they didn’t do their homework on the risk of keeping schools virtual. It was clear already in 2020 that extended virtual learning would have negative impacts on student mental health and disproportionately harm learning for students without hands-on adult help with learning at home. The district’s plan of helping with learning pods (Connections+) never got off the ground and ended up being just a website with links to non AAPS resources, most of which were also virtual. Special education students also did not get the in-person assessments that other districts provided during this time. These are services special education students were entitled to under the law and the district was sued because of it. Now that we are in the recovery period from the pandemic, our services continue to be heavily virtual and more virtual learning for students who are already behind from virtual learning isn’t particularly helpful. In-person summer school for elementary grades this year was by invitation only for students most behind and consisted of either 9 or 10 days only at one school without bussing to help children across the district attend.

Jeremy Lapham: I withhold judgment.

Paulette Metoyer: Did not respond to this question.

Rima Mohammad: It is hard to provide a grade to the Superintendent and the current administration without the subjective data. As a Trustee, I would first assess the current administration’s recent performance reviews and engage all the members of the community (students, families, teachers) before making a decision regarding their efforts. It is crucial for a Trustee to not make reactive decisions but well researched decisions. That is my approach with any issue and challenge that the district faces.

Susan Ward Schmidt: From the information I have, which is incomplete, I would give the Superintendent and administrators satisfactory grades. I say my information is incomplete, because as a teacher in the district from 2015-2019, a tutor 2021-2022 and a community member in the years between, there is much I don’t know. What I do know is that making it through a time in history where everyone and everything was turned upside down in regards to just living day to day without losing any students due to Covid-19 is worth acknowledging. Keeping a district of this size, the fifth largest in the state of Michigan, up and running was a huge challenge even when the need to go virtual occurred. Passing a $1billion dollar bond to make changes needed in the schools and build for the future is a huge accomplishment. Of course, hindsight being what it is, we all can second guess actions the administration took over the past two years, but overall our district was still able to deliver educational programs and keep students safe.

Barry Schumer: I grade the Superintendent and current administration a C-. I believe many mistakes were made during the pandemic that caused serious academic and mental health problems for students. The incident with board trustee Ernesto was outrageous, when he demanded a bulletin board be removed from a school because he and his family were not included. Dr. Swift, unfortunately, supported this decision.

Andrew Spencer: I don’t disagree with the Board’s most recent evaluation, which acknowledged Dr. Swift’s huge effort and high effectiveness while pointing out areas for improvement especially in the area of communication. I think she is highly competent even though I didn’t agree with the substance, timing, or communication strength of some important decisions such as the major changes related to before and after school care for younger students.

Jacinda Townsend Gides: I teach at U of M, and I’m a notoriously easy grader, but we’re talking about the school district. I’d give them a B+ because given the challenges we’ve had during the pandemic they have been good, not excellent, stewards. However, I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about how we’re using money that’s been freed up to solve our current problems. There’s an endless amount of administrators being hired in the district, I guarantee you that three teachers who would earn that one administrator’s salary are doing more critical work for the district.

Leslie Wilkins: I’d give the Superintendent and her cabinet a B+. If you look at the numbers during Dr. Swift’s time, up until the pandemic, enrollment for AAPS rose significantly while enrollment at other public schools in the county and the state dropped. Before and during the pandemic, the administration was able to grow revenue and grow and maintain a healthy reserve fund. There are so many opportunities for our diverse group of students to learn, and grow, and thrive at AAPS and I think the current administration is doing a good job at maintaining those opportunities and continuing to look for more. While I think the Superintendent is good at digging into and resolving issues that are brought to her attention, I also think that the bulk of the issues that are getting resolved are the ones that are being brought to her attention. There has been too much of District Administration’s time spent on things that should have been kept at the school level. But because there were noisy, persistent parents behind those issues, they got the Superintendent’s attention and time. There are other more critical issues that the District policy-makers need to be spending their time on – the lack of representation for students from historically excluded communities, and the still-present opportunity gap for those same kids, and reports of racially hostile environments. I want to see an intentional, structured method of seeking out those issues, rather than getting distracted by the “squeaky wheel” people.

Alex Wood: C-. I’m not ready to fail them yet, but I think there’s significant room for improvement and I don’t see us behaving in a way that aligns with our stated values. There’s not a mastery of the curriculum, as it were. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t understand, or if they are choosing not to do it – so there’s a significant amount of room for improvement. I hope with enough work there could be improvement.


How did the AAPS handle the pandemic?

Susan Baskett: We handled the pandemic as well as we could. Because of the generosity of our community AND the support of the BoE, our students, staff, families, everyone was kept as safe AND still teaching and learning as best as we could manage. The entire team addressed any foreseeable barriers like hunger, lack of internet services, home insecurities, social and emotional health. The team did not brag about doing the work. They did the work. I recognized that some people were unhappy and frustrated. We heard many people tell us that in various ways. Unfortunately, the angry voices were louder, but we did receive the appreciative voices as well. They didn’t have the same media coverage, but we valued them as well. School board trustees represent the entire school district, not just those who have the privileges. Comparisons to other local districts are not fair. We are a very diverse district of over 17,500 students, the majority of color. Our direct and in-direct staff members are also more diverse than the other local districts. “Science shows” that the more diverse populations were at greater risk. The AAPS did not lose one student or one staff member to Covid. Unfortunately, students and staff members did lose loved ones. This is often forgotten in the sea of criticisms.

Kai Cortina: Very poorly. Many mistakes were made. First, the school administration felt the need to second-guess public health officials and created its own “metrics” when to reopen school. This created the absurd situation where (public) Tappan School on Stadium was closed (or completely on zoom to be precise) while across the street students were frolicking at recess at (private) St. Francis. Or that schools were closed but Briarwood was open. Students were not allowed to meet at school but could hang out at the mall? Second, the school administration (and the board) was ignoring the consolidating evidence nationwide (and internationally) that “Zoom School” is very ineffective compared to regular schooling and hurts particularly those kids that come from poor families, whose parents often are not capable of functioning as co-teacher at home. Parallel to that public health research revealed that COVID transmission rates in schools are not higher than in the community surrounding them. Schools are not “superspreader” locations and the reason is simple: as every student knows for better or worse, schools are a highly controlled environment and enforcing masking rules is relatively easy. Third, the super felt compelled to constantly reassure how wonderful everything is running when, in fact, it wasn’t. She might have even fooled the board with that because they were seriously suggesting at the board meeting on February 17, 2021 to keep the schools closed for the rest of the school year. This would have been a disaster, in particular for elementary school kids. Parents, including myself, were outraged. 

Jamila James: I think they handled the pandemic the best they could with the information they had at the time. Please remember that the information rolled out slowly, at first we were told it was a hoax. I guess they did the best they can, I don’t know what it is they knew that they would have done differently.

Lena Kauffman: We spent $10 million on a premium virtual learning experience designed for children who had resources at home to use chrome books with apps and digital books. Meanwhile, we kept our buildings, including our school libraries, locked and inaccessible to the community. Peace Neighborhood Center, by comparison, provided in-person help for about 300 AAPS students using their own and other local non-school facilities. We should have done more to help children in our buildings during the pandemic, especially as we had a $1 billion facilities bond and had upgraded buildings with HVAC optimized for the recommended 5 airflow exchanges per hour, touchless doors & faucets, social distancing stickers and much more. 

Jeremy Lapham: The overarching theme that I hear from parents and students regarding the pandemic is that there was a lack of planning and communication. The district policy took an all or nothing approach with respect to opening/closing schools under the premise of “equity”. In my opinion this was a mistake. I would have liked to have seen an option where schools could have remained open, staffed by staff who were willing to teach and attended by students/families who were most in need. The pandemic fast-tracked decades of insufficient economic, social and structural investment that predated the pandemic e.g. school underfunding; understaffing; aging infrastructure; etc. 

Paulette Metoyer: The “pandemic” is a complex political issue that I can discuss. But the bottom line is that it was handled poorly and in ignorance of the sciences of cell biology, immunology, infectious disease, epidemiology, virology, vaccinology, and internal medicine. 

Rima Mohammad: I believe that school boards should refer to the experts that represent our state and local health departments, but also balance the voices and concerns of the school community, which includes students, families, teachers and community experts. I am a strong believer that a health advisory committee of healthcare and education experts, students, families and teachers should be what drives the decisions throughout the district with the guidelines and recommendations provided by the national, state and local health officials. I have been involved in a health advisory committee similar to this through a local Islamic school in Ann Arbor and we were able to balance all perspectives. Through this committee, we were able prioritize in person learning early on the pandemic to the most vulnerable students while protecting the students, families and teachers, increase vaccination rates and more proactive testing and surveillance, increase ventilation in the classrooms and CO2 monitoring, increase access to high quality masks, and maintain transparency and community engagement. This approach was very effective and I plan to implement this approach through the Ann Arbor Public Schools district. 

Susan Ward Schmidt: Being told in March of 2020, that all of a sudden school would go online was a shock to all members of the AAPS learning community. At the same time, people were watching so many die and were worried about their families, elderly relatives and how they would afford to live. These worries were happening to teachers, students and administrators at the same time they were all trying to continue school. The district, which gives meals to thousands of students due to their financial status, had to find ways to continue helping those families and had to make sure those students had the ability to connect virtually. All the while the virus continued to mutate, and we all felt we were trying to change the wheels on a moving bus. Despite all that, I think the school district’s mission was to keep from losing any students, staff or family members to the virus, while working to give the best education to its students with the limitations they had. Of course with hindsight, everyone can always question or comment on how things should have been done differently. Overall I think the district and its administration tried to do the best it could for all students. I think students and teachers were spectacularly resilient although we all know the mental health challenges that occurred and that may still be present. Now we must look to the future and learn from this historical event to make the learning community of AAPS more just, more equitable and more effective. 

Barry Schumer: As I stated above, the pandemic was not handled well. A major study from John Hopkins University, recently found that not a single life was saved due to business and school lockdowns. However, students and parents suffered significant consequences, including serious mental health problems, higher suicide and drug overdose rates, and regression in academics.

Andrew Spencer: It was a struggle and took huge effort on the part of so many members of the AAPS community. Part of the struggle was, “What is the right thing to do?” Another part was, “Now that we believe we know the right thing to do, how do we execute on the plan?” Also, “Well, that really isn’t working for my family/student/spouse/teacher/etc., so let’s try something else.” These challenges were not unique to AAPS and were experienced by others in Ann Arbor such as the University of Michigan and many businesses. While I hold a lot of gratitude in my heart for leaders who were making decisions during the rapidly-changing pandemic, I think overall AAPS spent too many days operating in virtual school mode. I am glad the district has made in-person school a priority since the fall of 2021.

Jacinda Townsend Gides: We didn’t live here during the height of the pandemic and I feel I’ve heard a lot through hearsay. But, I will say that there were a lot of considerations – I’m very pro-safety but at the same time it seems like some community needs weren’t met. Schools are wrap-around social services, there’s so little social net that schools become social centers and not just centers for education. There seems to be places where AAPS didn’t think out of the box in terms of what people needed – like before and after care for schools. 

Leslie Wilkins: I supported the district’s decisions to prioritize the health of the whole community, which in turn protected the physical and mental health of our students and staff. I wasn’t as worried about a student getting COVID as I was about a student spreading COVID to a grandparent and feeling guilty about it forever. I was glad to see AAPS set the high bar of erring on the side of caution, rather than simply following what other districts were doing. I was also incredibly impressed with the food distribution during the pandemic. From the first day of school closures, there was a well-executed, safe plan in place to get meals to the students who needed them. And that was extended to providing meals to those students’ families as well!

Alex Wood: I don’t think anyone anywhere handled it well at all. A crisis was incredibly difficult to manage under any circumstances. This one seemed to really trip people up across the board. I think early on we did the best we could with the information we had. I think a lot of us were saved with the extreme precautions taken. I did question the move to go back to in-person school with limited precautions before children could be vaccinated. In that first year back we could have chosen to provide appropriate, high-quality masks but that was for whatever reason a choice we didn’t make. There were something like 3 and 4,000 COVID infections documented at school last year, how many of those could have been prevented with small steps? I absolutely do not understand the decision to return this year with absolutely zero precautions. No equitable plan to keep higher-risk families safe, no plan to prevent infections which then turns into teacher absences. If the stated goal is to keep schools open and kids healthy you have to take precautions to ensure that happens. You can’t just throw up your hands and say “hope for the best!” That’s just not how reality works. 

School board meetings get low physical attendance … do Ann Arborites care?

Susan Baskett: It’s not appropriate to measure caring by attendance numbers, especially during this era of the pandemic. Our BoE meetings have been televised for years. We have never measured viewership via the local cable TV. We are better able to measure the number of people viewing meetings through zoom and of course noting those you view in person. The Ann Arborites do care. The Ann Arbor area community definitely cares about its schools. Good schools mean good communities. Property values, municipal bond ratings and quality of life is often affected by the quality of the school system. The passing of the $1B bond was a clear indication that Ann Arborites do care.

Kai Cortina: School board meetings are not football games. They are public for good reasons, but they do not have to be popular. The attention board meetings get heavily depends on current topics and events. Since the pandemic, a lot of people of our community have attended them via zoom and used the public commentary as a forum.

Jamila James: Yes. I think that people care, they are aware of the power of the school board. However, I think you have to take into consideration that school board meetings take place in the evening, and based on the way our capitalistic economy works, most parents are working all day and don’t have enough time to be physically involved the way they would like to be.

Lena Kauffman: Probably not as much as they should. Issues that city council deal with are often highly visible to all residents, like approving new downtown construction and road changes. Residents definitely notice when a street is closed for construction. Issues of education, like addressing how well our schools are at reducing disparities in learning outcomes, are much less visible. Frustratingly, those issues are also much more important as the education of students and the quality of our schools influence the future of our city and indeed, our whole society.

Jeremy Lapham: The fact that AAPS voters passed a $1B bond for the public schools shows that this community cares about schools and education. Part of the problem with low turnout is that the times and places that the Board meets are not conducive to participation from working parents. I would like to see the BOE meet in schools, rotating each meeting and offering different times. 

Paulette Metoyer: The issue of attendance at the meetings may be related to the times of the meetings, as they are routinely held late on weeknights and most parents work. I don’t know how significant the time is in discouraging attendance but for me it is quite significant.

Rima Mohammad: The Ann Arbor community does care about the decisions made by the Ann Arbor School Board; however, the current structure of the School Board meetings are not effective or efficient, and the accessibility of these meetings is lacking. We need to ensure that all Board meetings are accessible to all members of the community by providing options virtually, but with interaction from the people at home, conducting them at locations that are more central in the city, and providing other options for input and feedback from all members of the community. One of my priorities is to strive to foster community input and discussions at all levels. We need to get input from all members of our community, not just based on surveys and open comments at board meetings. This must be true engagement of all members of the community. These members include students, families, teachers, staff, alumni, community partners such as the University of Michigan, local and state representatives, and administration. There must be multiple modes of community input, including outreaches, focus groups, school visits from Trustees, phone calls and other methods of communication. But the crucial part of fostering community input is to ensure that all members of our community feel inclusiveness, transparency, and part of the decision-making process. As a researcher and clinician, I have worked with many different people and professionals with various opinions and perspectives. I am a strong collaborator, I am an engaged listener, and through my experiences throughout my life, I can relate to many of the members of the community.

Susan Ward Schmidt: I think it’s common that people don’t engage with the school board until they have an issue that they feel they have not been able to solve through regular channels or when they proactively want to see some sort of change. I don’t think low attendance means people don’t care necessarily, but that they are so busy with their day to day lives, sitting in a board meeting is not how they want to be involved. There are other ways people interface with the board (emails, phone calls) that some folks may find more satisfying and more productive than attending or speaking at board meetings. I can say from the discussions I’ve had with those in the school community, especially during my campaign, people definitely care. They also show they care by strongly supporting a $1 billion bond to support capital improvements–renovations, new buildings, etc. This is a clear message that people are vested in the school district and care a lot about the quality of schools for our young people.

Barry Schumer: School board meetings are under attended, I agree. But it is not because the citizens and parents do not care. It is likely because most people have so many things going on in their lives. I can assure you that parents of K-12 children care very much.

Andrew Spencer: I believe they care and most strongly support our public schools. However, school board meetings are not typically a highly efficient forum for receiving information. They are long and vary significantly in the density of information shared. As a community member, I’ve found it’s more efficient to read a transcript or detailed summary of what occurred at the meetings. Also, you can watch recordings of the meeting on YouTube at 2x speed or follow social media posts of people who live-post during the meetings. Of course, if I am fortunate enough to be elected I won’t be able to “2x” the real-life meetings!

Jacinda Townsend Gides: We live in a community that passed a $1B bond for our schools, so yes absolutely Ann Arborites care. Does that translate to physical attendance? No. A lot of people tune in over Zoom, and I’m one of them. I know that during the pandemic people were really tuned in on the edge of our seats. I think the fact that there are 13 candidates for school board shows how much people care. Some are very motivated for some candidates and very opposed to others.

Leslie Wilkins: Yes, I do think Ann Arborites care. I think one of the reasons this is such a huge race (13 people running for 4 spots on the board) is because the community cares. For many other cities, the school board race is not competitive; they’re trying to find someone to fill the spaces, and/or it’s the same two incumbents running over and over again. And I don’t think school board meeting attendance is a good measure of citizens’ investment. While there is low attendance from the public, there are usually many public comments that have been submitted that are read as part of the meeting. And the meetings are way more accessible than they used to be now, which means people don’t have to attend in person or even in real time – they can watch replays when it’s most convenient to them.

Alex Wood: I think they do. Part of it is a function of people losing hope over time. Historically the school board has not been great about listening to the voices of the community. It’s tough to say – I’ve been told that the board and the superintendent regularly meet privately to discuss things, so when they get the meeting it appears that everyone is on the same page. These meetings feel like sitting through a presentation, it doesn’t feel like sitting at a working meeting. People don’t want to show up after the fact and be told what the decisions were, they want to know how the decisions are made. They want to feel that if they asked a question that it would be responded to. I understand how people feel: “What’s the point in me showing up? They’re not going to listen to me anyways. I won’t get to see how these decisions were made. Why should I risk my health to sit through what amounts to a PowerPoint presentation?”


Would you elect to move the board’s meeting to something more centrally located?

Susan Baskett: In accordance with the law, the BoE is meeting in public, not with the public. For those meetings where the BoE is meeting with the public to review things and answer questions, we will choose meeting locations that may be considered more conducive for the public. We consider things like location availability, accessibility to public transportation and audience comfort (temperature control, acoustics, etc.). Keep in mind that the AAPS district covers 7 municipalities. Not all of these communities have access to the internet. So, where would ‘central’ be? The BoE meeting locations are dependent upon the required logistics involved. Can the

location be easily televised? Does the location have a sound system? Is the air condition/heating operating comfortably? Is it large enough for the anticipated audience?

Kai Cortina: No. Attendance is not dependent on the location. I remember the days when they were held in the downtown library with little to no attendance. But also, times when the room could not accommodate everyone (when the superintendent candidates were interviewed).

Jamila James: Yes. I would love to move the school board meetings to a more central location so that more people can participate. If that will be more beneficial, anything that enables parents and students to be more involved is a plus for me. 

Lena Kauffman: I’m curious about an offer the city made while the AAPS Board of Education meetings were held in hotel conference rooms that the AAPS rented. The Board of Education could use the city council’s meeting space, which is centrally located with video ability for broadcasting the meetings. AAPS did not disclose why that solution was more costly and difficult than either having the meetings in school auditoriums or in hotels. If the cost of using city space is the same as school building space, I would definitely be in favor of having meetings downtown as a central location might make meetings more accessible to more members of the public — students, families and community members at large.

Jeremy Lapham: See response to question above.

Paulette Metoyer: The BOE meetings should be held on Public School grounds and not in a rented hotel space as this is being done at taxpayer expense.

Rima Mohammad: We need to ensure that all School Board meetings are accessible to all members of the community by providing options virtually, but with interaction from the people at home, conducting them at locations that are more central in the city, and providing other options for input and feedback from all members of the community. One of my priorities is to strive to foster community input and discussions at all levels.

Susan Ward Schmidt: I think it could be beneficial to move school board meetings to a few locations as long as the venues are functional and meetings can be recorded effectively. Making board meetings more accessible is always good. It might also be worth discussing making some of the meetings virtual. This will give more people, especially those that would need a baby-sitter if they attended a meeting, easier access to participate.

Barry Schumer: I would surely consider voting to move school board meetings to a more central location if I felt a majority of people wanted this, and it would make it more likely to increase attendance.

Alex Spencer: I’m very open to where the location of meetings is planned. Most important to me is that it be somewhere that optimizes the public’s ability to participate and monitor what’s going on at the meetings. Part of that is enabling online broadcasting of the proceedings that can be recorded and shared easily after the meetings.

Jacinda Townsend Gides: That might pose some challenges. I’m not sure the district could afford to rent something out downtown, but the district does own a lot of property. Community High School, for instance, is centrally located. More people could get to Community, especially with public transportation.

Leslie Wilkins: I would like to see the board’s meeting location move between as many different schools in the district as possible, with some kind of pre-meeting or “meet and greet” ahead of time, where students and their families can interact with board members in a more informal way, and then hopefully stay for the meeting.

Alex Wood: It seems reasonable. I think wherever they are they need to be on a bus line, and hold these meetings during times when buses run – otherwise we are excluding portions of our population from being able to attend. I don’t think telling people that “you can watch this later” is an equivalent. For a group who likes to talk about how equitable they are, that doesn’t seem to be very equitable.