Gentle readers, a few weeks ago, Erika and I were approached by Steve Gray, a candidate for Ypsilanti Community Schools Trustee. Steve was Erika's clinical law professor while she was studying at U of M. We met with Steve and decided to do googledoc based interview/ candidate questionnaire with him. We, Damn Arbor, are interested in providing an opportunity for other YCS Trustee candidates to answer our questionnaire as well. If you are a candidate, for YCS Trustee, or for any other public office in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and would like to do a questionnaire, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damn Arbor: What position are you running for?
Steve Gray: Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education Trustee
DA: I realize this is a broad question, but why are you running for YCS School Board Trustee?
SG: I am a firm believer in public schools. I think they are one of the last strongholds of democracy. My community school (YCS) in particular faces a unique set of challenges. I want to help our community meet those challenges and see our kids thrive.
DA: Could you explain to our readers a little about what the School Board does?
SG: Generally a school board is charged with educating We have four major areas of responsibility: (1) Finances: setting our district budget and overseeing major expenditures, disposition of school assets and financial decisions, (2) Superintendent. Hire, fire and evaluate our district superintendent (3) Curriculum. Oversee and approve curriculum and (4) Employee Contracts. Oversee and approve teacher and staff contracts.
DA: One of YCS’s biggest challenges is the loss of students to other districts through school of choice and the loss of students to charters. How would propose to address these issues?
SG: One thing we can do, and I think YCS is doing, is offer great education choices to families in our district. With the new international baccalaureate, elementary, middle and high schools, the ECA program with EMU and the STEMM Middle College with WCC with have a lot of great options.
With these options in place I think we need to focus on the students we have and give them the best education we can.
Here are a couple of ways I think I can help with that:
ConsistencyDA: In the last decade, the ranking of Michigan’s public schools has dropped greatly. YCS is not alone in the issues that face it. Are there other districts in the state that are experiencing success in spite of the current state of public education in Michigan? Could any of these districts serve as a model for YCS?
I will work to maintain consistency across all areas of our District. We have been plagued by high turnover at many key positions in recent years. That, along with other factors, has resulted in frequent programmatic changes. The high volume of change creates serious challenges for teachers, students and families. Over the past year we have made some solid hires at key positions. Now we need to ensure we a solid plan for meeting our challenges in place. Then follow the plan, measure our outcomes and hold ourselves accountable.
Keeping and Supporting Great Teachers and Principals
Teachers are the heart and soul of a school district. I won’t sugar coat the fact that we lost some great teachers after consolidation (and with them some good families). But we have replaced them with a talented group of teachers who have followed their calling to teach. I want to do everything in my power to keep great teachers in the district. That means paying them fairly and ensuring they are supported. In turn principals have a profound impact on the atmosphere in a school. They ensure fair and just discipline is maintained. They are key to keeping and supporting great teachers. I want to work with the Superintendent to ensure we keep and support great and effective principals.
Marshal Support of Local Governmental Leaders
As part of this campaign I have spoken to many local leaders. I am struck by how important a strong local school district is to the overall health of a community. Our local elected officials are aware of this and keenly interested in the success of our school. I will work to ensure we have regular communication with local leaders and engage them in the work of meeting our challenges
SG: If you take the average of all 550 or so districts in MI, our state has lost ground. But the disaggregated rankings tell the real story. The districts that have locked-in higher foundation grants are doing just fine. (There are 10 or so - A2, Grosse Pointe, East GR, etc.) Also, the districts that are experiencing growth due to suburban sprawl are financially stable (like Novi, and Caledonia which is outside of GR), which means they can sustain their programming and pay higher wages to the teachers who run it. These successes aren't predicated on innovation. These districts are simply the beneficiaries of a system stacked in their favor. All the schools in MI that look like YCS are struggling (high poverty due to job losses, majority minority student body, often adjacent to a wealthy district that siphons students via SOC or surrounded by charters). That should be a red flag that systemically something is broken.
In terms of innovation Ypsi has done some amazing (and courageous) things! In some ways, we hope to be a model ourselves. But as long as funding follows kids, and kids can jump to charter schools (without the same contracts or expenses as we have) or SOC (make no mistake - A2 is balancing its budget on our back), we will have to balance our own budget by cutting our cool programs, and salaries and benefits, and deal with the fallout of high teacher turnover.
For models for YCS and our state, we should look to other states where charters are capped and held accountable, funding follows kids over multiple years (ex 25% over 4 years), and so-called virtual academies get a fraction of the grant (seriously - how do you even make a case for receiving 100% foundation grant funding when there are NO BUILDINGS?). I'd also ditch the whole SOC thing. Competition means there are winners and losers. That might be ok for coffee shops, but not for kids and communities.
DA: Make us a pitch. Why should our readers vote for you?
SG: My background as an legal aid lawyer means I have a demonstrated commitment to fight for marginalized groups. My involvement in county-wide party politics means I have the skills and connections to build relationships with community leaders and engage them in the work of our schools. I am ready to invest my time and energy in building a thriving school in our community.