Community High Reacts to District Wide Budget Cuts

Julia Kortberg and Emma Share

Community High School didn’t fill its last teaching position until September 1st, 2010 — six days before school began. Following the failure of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) Enhancement Millage in November, each public school anticipated many changes to be put into affect the fall of 2010. These changes were based around the fact that the Ann Arbor School District needed to cut $20 million dollars from its budget.

Dean Jen Hein, of Community High School, along with other Ann Arbor administrators, was prepared to make tough decisions about modifications for the start of the fall school year. Administrators began planning 18-24 months in advance for the potential cuts. They based these reductions upon their budget, which was determined by the state’s revenue. With the tough economy Michigan has been facing, layoffs have been a frequent occurrence. “It’s very difficult for families to think about paying more when they’re living with reduced income or on unemployment so we knew, everybody knew in the county, that it was going to be a very tough battle. Everybody knew that,” said Hein.

CHS students may recall the difficult process of preparing for schedule A and B last spring. The creation of two separate schedules was a result of the uncertainty that the millage caused. At the end of the 2009-2010 school-year, CHS staff could not predict the succeeding year’s teachers and their positions. An extensive negotiation between the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA) and the school district, determined the outcome of the scheduling dilemma.  “If there hadn’t been an agreement or contract settlement that ended the way it did, we would have gone to plan B,” said Dean Jen. The specific negotiation details are undisclosed because of AAEA confidentiality.

Last May, teachers without tenure were issued pink-slips. At the time, these notifications stated that their job positions could no longer be funded and had been dismissed. CHS teachers included: math teacher Moe El- Husseiny; science teachers Courtney Kiley, and Tod Tharp; jazz band director Jack Wagner; and physical education teacher Diane Dudley. “We knew it was coming…you know, not knowing where you’re going to be teaching, if you’re going to be teaching, is a really scary thing, especially when I love being here so much,” said Kiley.

Incredible support from staff was expressed by CHS teachers. “The old timers are looking out for the young kids,” said Hein. “Many of us who are older have experienced the same thing in our teaching career because we have worked for other districts that have gone through the same thing. And it’s not easy, and until you know for sure that you have your job back, it’s hard to sleep at night.”

Luckily, all CHS teachers returned at the start of this school year. However, not all of them are teaching the same amount of hours.  For those who retired, CHS only replaced a small percentage of their job position in order to save money. Their FTE (full time equivalent) has been reduced.  For example, CHS Dance Body has been restructured. Deborah Sipos-Roe, who retired as the Dance Body director after 30 years, taught .4 in Dance Body classes, .2 in PE classes and .4 in the Community Resource (CR) department. The new Dance Body instructor, Connie Trahar has refilled .2 of Sipos-Roe’s position.

Along with reducing teacher’s FTE, class sizes at CHS have been filled to their contractual limit. The average is 33 students. Also, classes with historically lower enrollment were amongst the first to be eliminated as an official part of the schedule. The social studies department was hit especially hard, with all non-requirement classes being eliminated. Psych and Film, Model UN, and Mock Trial were removed from the schedule and now are only offered as CR credit.

Examining graduation requirements helped CHS staff look at the bigger picture. “We needed to balance what the graduation requirements [are] with what prepares our students to get ready to go to the top colleges and universities when they graduate, so it’s a fine balance… you have to put thought into what is it gonna be in the best interest of kids, and how can we make this work knowing that we have to do it with less,” Dean Jen said.

Some classes were combined in an effort to reduce costs. Latin 3, 4 and 5 are now taught as an integrated language course, as well as French 1 and 2 and French 3 and 4. “We had to look at some creative ways not to eliminate things that are important to the education of the kids; we are just trying to find a different way to do it,” Dean Jen said.

Three school districts in Washtenaw County worked together to reshape how the transportation system operates. Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Willow Run, consolidated their bus programs. Part of this process involved sending pink slips to every bus driver within those three school districts. Not all lost their jobs, however, they did have to reapply during the summer and are currently working at a lower pay scale.

A decision was made to not eliminate any bus routes in the first year of the transportation consolidation. With this in mind, Dean Jen worked to accommodate the growing number of dual-enrolling students between Skyline High School and CHS. There is now an AM and PM shuttle between the schools.

AAPS was able to expand in a time of reduction because of fund equity. “[Fund equity] keeps us in a place where we can always pay the bills and always make sure people get their pay checks,” Dean Jen said. “And some school districts weren’t able to do that and so they had to let people go in the middle of the year.”

Dean Jen feels that the changes were reasonable considering our size. “We’re not in a great place, but we can certainly get the job done and continue to be one of the best high schools in the state of Michigan with what we have right now.”

However, the negotiation process was extensive. Dean Jen lobbied to keep reductions at a minimum. She feels that the reductions were lower than other schools of our size. “It’s not magic; it’s about working really hard to recognize that all of the teachers at this building add so much to what makes Community so exceptional and it’s worth fighting for…when you go to the table and you have to fight for your school, you need to go with a real firm backbone and you need to be insistent about what your school needs,” Dean Jen said.

She is not expecting any further reductions or drastic changes to occur this school year. “I think that it was a difficult time, but it’s behind us. We have a lot of very positive things to focus on. I thought opening day at St. Andrew’s was great and was a real kick off for what we think is important and what we value at Community. I’m really looking forward to a year of embracing the idea that everybody’s gonna let their light shine. I think it’s going to be a good year.”