Ann Arbor school board president gives further insight to superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift's pending removal
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and it appears changes are coming to the Ann Arbor Public School district. I'm David Fair, and on Monday night, the Board of Education authorized two measures that indicate the tenure of Superintendent Jeanice Swift is coming to an end. The board approved a measure to issue Dr. Swift notice of termination without cause and separately voted in favor of authorizing the district attorney to enter into negotiations to reach a settlement agreement. There are a lot of moving parts to this development, and we wanted to see if we could gain more insight. That's why we invited Ann Arbor School Board president Rima Mohammad to join us. Thank you so much for the time. We appreciate it.
Rina Mohammad: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me here. And I'm happy to address any questions or concerns from the community.
David Fair: Well, for clarity's sake, the decisions on those two items were not unanimous. Each of the votes was 4 to 3 in favor of moving forward. What was your personal vote?
Rina Mohammad: So, my personal vote was in favor of moving those two motions.
David Fair: So, let's step back a minute and take a look at some of the lead up to these decisions. In December of 2021, a special needs student was assaulted by a school bus aide in front of other children. And there's certainly no disputing that. It was caught on surveillance video. But despite the video, the bus aide remained on the job supervising children for well over another month. The mother of that child wasn't informed of the assault until five weeks after the incident. In a lawsuit filed by the seven-year-old's mother in June of this year, it is alleged that, despite being immediately available, the video wasn't reviewed by the district for that period of time, and it took a teacher breaking ranks to inform her her son had been abused. Is this incident and the resulting lawsuit the primary reason for the actions taken against Dr. Swift?
Rina Mohammad: No, it is not the primary reason. There are many other reasons and things that we've heard from the community, you know, definitely over the time that I have served on the board, which has been almost eight months, but also other trustees had a lot of concerns. So, no. It is not the primary reason.
David Fair: Just to stay on that topic for a moment, though, it should be noted the lawsuit that was filed in U.S. District Court names the Ann Arbor School District, Carpenter Elementary Principal Michael Johnson, and Durham Transportation, which provided the bus service in this incident. It does not name Dr. Swift. So, is there a notion that she knew about it and failed to act or that she should have known about it and acted?
Rina Mohammad: Honestly, we are still, you know, information gathering when it comes to this incident. So, honestly, I don't have a lot of information from what is known currently about that incident. So, I'm sure there will be a full investigation regarding this.
David Fair: So, you mentioned that you and other trustees had some concerns heading into this separate from the incident. On August 5th, a group of almost 100 parents in the district signed a letter requesting that Dr. Swift step down in not only mention that specific bus incident, but more broadly said that many special education families didn't feel safe in the district. Now, I'm sure you've spoken to some of those parents. What were those more broad reasons they expressed to you?
Rina Mohammad: So, Dr. Swift has been with the district for almost over ten years. She has done amazing things initially and throughout her time with Ann Arbor Public Schools, it's just that, at this time, we just don't...you know, what I've heard is that we need change. And with especially dealing with the post pandemic--I hate saying that word. But, you know, the pandemic, the effects of the pandemic and how it had on our district, our students, you know, our families and our teachers, it is just time for change. And so, that those were the things that I have heard. Again, I've been with the school board for, you know, 7 to 8 months. And those are the repeated things that I've heard. And especially, we want to be able to have a strong working relationship with the superintendent. And, as trustees, we need to be able to govern to the best of our abilities.
David Fair: You are listening to 89 on WEMU, and we are talking with the president of the Ann Arbor Board of Education, Rima Mohammad. That letter from almost 100 district parents: it also said they were aware of a racially hostile environment in the Ann Arbor schools and a lack of leadership in addressing anti-Semitic incidents. Was that your impression of the Ann Arbor Schools prior to receiving that letter?
Rina Mohammad: Again, you know, these are concerns that have come up many times throughout my time on the school board. These are concerns and experiences from parents. So, those are definitely things that has been considered. And I can only talk about myself, but I have also considered. So, we just need, you know, more transparency, more accountability and more action, especially when it's related to a lot of these issues that parents are bringing up.
David Fair: I'm glad you brought up the issue of transparency. Prior to Monday night's meeting, 11 former school board members signed on to an open letter that was sent to MLive's Ann Arbor News. It not only offered support for Dr. Swift and her leadership, but it also alleged that by holding a closed executive session prior to the public special meeting that the school board had violated the state's Open Meetings Act. Why, in your estimation, are they wrong?
Rina Mohammad: So, I can tell you, and, again, that letter that came to us is inaccurate. The information provided was inaccurate, as well as some of the statements. Again, what was surprising is that there was no decision that was made or before the meeting yesterday. So, we have followed the Open Meetings Act, and we have been and will be working very closely with legal counsel to follow up appropriate procedure and process. And yesterday was the first step of the process. So, again, no formal action was made by the board. And this is just the first step of the process that happened last night.
David Fair: We are talking with Rima Mohammad on 89 one WEMU. She serves as president of the Ann Arbor School Board. So, let's talk next steps. Has Dr. Swift officially been given that notice of pre-termination?
Rina Mohammad: She has. Yes.
David Fair: When might separation negotiations begin between the district attorney and Dr. Swift's legal representation?
Rina Mohammad: So, since that motion has passed, that happens immediately.
David Fair: Do you fear this could end up the subject of a lawsuit or have to be settled in a costly court case?
Rina Mohammad: I can't comment on that because I can't predict the future. But we are following everything that is in the contract that is legal.
David Fair: Have conversations taken place about a potential interim superintendent once Dr. Swift has departed the district?
Rina Mohammad: We are starting. Of course, this is very, very new. Again, no action can really be taken or next steps until what we did yesterday was passed those two motions. But we are going to be working very quickly to also identify an interim. But, again, this is still very new.
David Fair: I assume that any search for a permanent replacement for Dr. Swift would be a national search.
Rina Mohammad: Yes, of course. But, again, there has not been any decision yet with her termination, because that is the formal board action. And then, as far as the national search and all of that, that is still obviously in the works, and nothing has been started yet.
David Fair: So, there's been a lot of big words bandied about, a lot of big concepts, and it's rather unsettling. We're talking about racism, anti-Semitism, we're talking about violence against children. How do you come to a place where things are moving forward in a more cohesive and unified manner?
Rina Mohammad: So, when it comes to what would happen with the superintendent, no formal decision has been made as far as termination or resignation from her end. But, just talking, what is going to be very important is that we need to start really listening to the community, you know, investigating these situations that have happened. But, again, when it comes to like any formal investigation, you know, that is something to be discussed. But, you know, we definitely want to hear from the community and from the parents that have faced these very unfortunate situations and experiences. So, that is what we hope to do.
David Fair: I will say, for the record, that WEMU did reach out to Dr. Swift and offer her an opportunity to speak on the subject today. Due to scheduling in the district, she was unable to join us. But we will continue to offer, and we'll see if she so decides to take us up on it. Obviously, this is a situation that is developing and will evolve and change moving forward, and I look forward to the opportunity to check in with you again as the district makes its way through the process. So, thank you for the time and sharing your perspective today. I appreciate it.
Rina Mohammad: Yeah, of course. And I'm happy to talk and follow up any time.
David Fair: That is Ann Arbor Board of Education President Rima Mohammad. For more information on this story and our conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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