Angst in Ann Arbor as school board poised to oust longtime superintendent
- Ann Arbor Public Schools board members are considering whether to oust longtime Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift
- Labor groups and former school board members have criticized the board for a lack of transparency
- Students start the 2023-2024 school year next week
ANN ARBOR—Parents, teachers and community members are bracing for a possible change in leadership at the Ann Arbor Public Schools just as the new school year is about to start.
The fate of longtime Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift may be decided at a board meeting set for Wednesday, with emotions running raw among supporters and detractors. Among the issues: a recent lawsuit involving a special education student who was abused by a district bus aide.
Earlier this month, the district’s Board of Trustees voted 4-3 in favor of two items that could pave the way to dismiss Swift. But former school board members and local labor organizations say the board’s process for coming to this decision has lacked transparency.
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As of late afternoon Monday, Swift remained superintendent of the 17,028 student district in Washtenaw County, which begins class next Monday.
Swift has been AAPS superintendent since 2013 and was previously an assistant superintendent in Colorado Springs. Swift led the district during the contentious COVID-19 pandemic where she faced steep criticism from some in the community for the district’s strict COVID policies. T
Earlier this year, Swift was a finalist to be the superintendent at Northshore Public Schools in Bothell, Washington. Previously she was a finalist at Seattle Public Schools and a finalist for Michigan’s state superintendent position.
Five of the district’s seven board members spoke with Bridge Michigan on Monday. Swift declined to be interviewed for this report. Here’s what to know:
Why are some board members critical of Swift’s leadership?
The board held its votes on Aug. 7, less than two weeks after a mother of a student with autism filed a federal lawsuit against the school district. The mother alleges her son was physically and verbally abused by a bus aide and the district did not review security camera footage of the incident showing the abuse for five weeks.
But that incident was just the “bloom atop a long vine of concerns,” board member Jacinda Townsend Gides told Bridge on Monday.
“I will say a lot of times parents come to the district with grave concerns that are never addressed,” she said. “And some of those are also systematic concerns.”
On Aug. 7, the split board narrowly voted to send the superintendent a contractually-required pre-termination notice. The board also voted to allow the district’s attorney to negotiate with Swift on a separation agreement.
Two days before that vote, a group of close to 100 people including current and former parents of district students sent a letter to the superintendent asking her to resign.
“We know that many of our special-education families have not felt safe in our district for some time,” the letter states. “We are asking for a change in leadership to move our district forward.”
Board President Rima Mohammad said the letter is one of many reasons for the board meeting on Aug. 7.
“It’s not just the letter, it’s not just the bus child-abuse situation that happened,” she said. “It’s also other things that worsened over time.”
Mohammad said she is concerned with “the inequities, academic achievement, resource gaps, special education services, mental health crisis,” and that she believes the district needs “new leadership to truly address” the concerns.
Board member Jeff Gaynor told Bridge teachers’ voices have been “inhibited” and staff is “afraid to speak up because they fear retribution.” Also, he said, special education staff members have not been given the support they need to help students. (Gaynor also outlined several concerns with Swift’s leadership in a Facebook post he said he intends to read at Wednesday’s meeting.)
“We have reported our concerns (but) she’s very protective of her cabinet level administrators,” Gaynor said of Swift.
What do the other board members say?
Board member Susan Baskett said Swift’s work “speaks for itself.” She said the board’s decision in recent weeks leaves the district with a “cloud of uncertainty” especially since finding a new superintendent could end up costing the district extra money it hasn’t budgeted for.
“This is not a performance issue, this is a politics issue.”
Board member Krystle DuPree said she voted against the two measures because she wanted more time to hear from community members.
“I also felt it was really close to the school year and that it may be rather disruptive,” she said.
DuPree said she was not comfortable commenting whether she thought Swift should remain superintendent.
What has the community said about Swift?
Gaynor said sentiment on Swift has been varied, including parents who say the process is moving too fast and others who say it is time for a change in leadership.
Last week, six unions that represent employees in the school district signed a letter that said they were “extremely distressed” with the board’s actions.
Fred Klein, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, which represents about 1,480 teachers and other professional staff, told Bridge the board’s decision to hold a last minute meeting “felt like it lacked transparency and process.”
Swift also won support from past board members, including 11 who submitted an open letter of support to MLive/The Ann Arbor News.
When will a decision come on Swift’s fate?
It’s unclear. Two board members confirmed Swift has requested a closed hearing with trustees, but Mohammad said she is not sure if that hearing will occur on Wednesday.
“Right now, it is a normal meeting. I can’t really comment on what the board will do during that meeting because everything has to happen in public,” Mohammad said.
Gaynor said he sees three near-term options: the board could choose to do nothing and Swift remains the superintendent, the board and Swift could work out a settlement and Swift leaves, or the board votes to terminate Swift and that either passes or fails.
DuPree, who raised concerns about the timing of the decision, told Bridge she expects there will be a closed session at the end of the Wednesday meeting where a “transition plan” is discussed.
“We’re trying to move slowly,” she said, “and do things step by step so it’s the least disruptive for our district.”
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