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Dr. Jeanice Swift addresses potential end to tenure as Ann Arbor Schools Superintendent

Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to add to the dialog on what is taking place in the Ann Arbor School District. I'm David Fair, and on Monday of this week, the Board of Education called a special meeting and voted to approve two measures that begin the process of ending the tenure of the district superintendent. On identical 4 to 3 votes, the board approved a measure to present notification of pre-termination to Dr. Jeanice Swift and to authorize the District Attorney to enter into negotiations with Dr. Swift and her legal representation on a separation agreement. On Tuesday of this week, we brought you a conversation with School Board President Rima Mohammad. She provided her perspective after voting in favor of both of those agreements. Today, we have the opportunity to hear from the subject of those votes. Our guest on WEMU is Dr. Jeanice Swift. And thank you very much for making time for us, Dr. Swift.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, good morning, David. Thank you for having me. It's great to be here today.

David Fair: I'm going to go back just a bit and explore how we got to where we are today. In many of the conversations that you and I have had over in the past, you have spoken rather glowingly about your relationship with the Board of Education. What in your estimation has changed?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, David, you know, I am confident that we will continue to work on behalf of our children. And, really, our focus is not only on those matters. You know, in just two weeks, just a little over two weeks, we will be welcoming our 17,000 students into Ann Arbor. David, this incoming tenured class is the class of 2026--2036. And so, we have so much really to focus on right now. And as I shared on Monday evening, that is really the focus. Our teachers will be back with us in just a few days. They are busy preparing. You know, we have the best staff anywhere. And our focus really needs to be on supporting our students and community through a strong back-to-school start for this 23/24 school year.

David Fair: There is most certainly work to do as we approach a new academic year, and yet, the public focus is elsewhere. Things appeared to come to a head when a lawsuit was filed against the district by the parent of a special education student. The seven-year-old student had been the subject of an assault by a school bus aide that was captured on video. Despite that video being immediately available, it wasn't reviewed by the district until five weeks later, when, for the first time, the parent was made aware of the incident. When did you first become aware of that incident?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, you know, David, the details of that response timeline that are being reported are those are detailed in the lawsuit. We absolutely are very deeply concerned when we hear reporting of this nature. It will be very important. And we have always done so that we will be working through a process to account factually for every single step that we employed in the response to that very unfortunate situation. And we are deeply concerned by it and very sorry for the harm that was caused to the student in the family. You know, David, safety is our number one priority. And when things go in a way that they shouldn't, our response both at the time and then later as we need to follow up and doubly and triply confirm, we will absolutely be committed to that process over the coming weeks. So, I just continue to reiterate that safety is our focus every day, every member of this Ann Arbor public schools team.

David Fair: So, it should be noted that Dr. Swift is not named in the lawsuit that we are discussing. The parent has taken action against the school district, the principal of Carpenter Elementary School, Michael Johnson and Durham Transportation, which provided the bus service in that incident. Dr. Swift, in my conversation with school board President Rima Mohammad, she said this incident was not the primary reason for its move toward termination or separation. She said it was the need for a change in leadership. Why do you believe the board is looking to remove you from your position?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Well, you know, David, we will leave those details to our attorneys, who are very capable to work through those processes. And I know that, as we've been out in the community and in the spring, we had the great fortune, as I have on many years in Ann Arbor, to sit face-to-face with hundreds of parents in a listen-and-learn. And it is certainly true that as the fourth largest district in Michigan and coming through this very hard time of these previous three years, we are going to need to face our challenges just like every other school district in the community and the country. What's wonderful about our Ann Arbor community is that folks here are deeply about their schools. So, I will share with you that, in hundreds of conversations all over this community, we gathered that input and feedback through talking. We have feedback from more than 2000 individuals, and I directly sat and heard from hundreds. And we have clear patterns that will need to be addressed. And whether those are addressed by, you know, me as superintendent or anyone else who may be leading this district, we have challenges. And we need to work together to face those.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Dr. Jeanice Swift, the current superintendent of the Ann Arbor schools. And after the bus incident came to light, you mentioned your conversations with parents, and you named safety as a top priority in the school district. Well, a group of about 100 parents signed on to a letter asking you to resign. And that letter said, and I quote, "Many of our special education families have not felt safe in our district for some time." Those are strong words. So, in your conversations with parents, what is your reaction to them?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: So, those are strong words, and we take them very seriously. And we heard specific patterns and themes throughout our conversations in the community. And I would just really want to note that when it comes to our parents and students with special needs, you know, those are often the most vulnerable students in our schools. We want to hear from those parents, and we regularly do. And we heard from them over the conversations in the spring. We hear from them consistently. We want to work in good faith with any and every parent who may feel that somehow we are missing the mark in supporting students and families. I would say, David, that there is no finer or stronger teaching support staff and leadership team anywhere than what we have in Ann Arbor. We have an engaged community that cares deeply about their schools. We have all of the necessary components to work through the challenges we face, and those will be the next steps for all of us in this community. We've never shied away from those processes, and we continue to look forward to work through any issues that our parents feel they need to they need us to attend.

David Fair: Prior to Monday night's special school board meeting, 11 former board members signed on to an open letter offering support for your leadership. They also called into question the legality of the proceedings themselves. They contend there was reason to believe a violation of the Open Meetings Act had occurred, and that the four board members that voted in favor of moving toward dismissal had had discussions on the topic prior to calling the meeting. When were you made aware that this was coming?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: You know, David, again, I'm not going to get into those details. Our capable attorneys will support us in working through a process. It's going to be so important to keep our focus on our critical mission, which is serving our students I've heard that throughout the community again and again. And we know that that is our priority. The circumstances of adult issues can be worked through in the proper channels. What we need to focus on is this new school year and the tremendous opportunities that our children have ahead of them. Our teachers need support in getting their classrooms ready. We have 50 projects on the ground and in our schools that need to be buttoned up and get the doors open. On Sunday, I'll be up in Interlochen with our art groups for their arts concerts. There's a lot of important work to do, and I believe everyone involved--our parents, our students, our AAPS team, and certainly the Board of Education and I--we're ready to roll up our sleeves and get that priority work done for our children.

David Fair: Dr. Jeanice Swift is our guest on 89 one WEMU. As we look ahead to what comes next for her and for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. I am told that you were given immediate notice of pre-termination, which satisfies one of the measures passed by the school board Monday night. The other authorized the District Attorney to enter into negotiations on a settlement agreement. Quite clearly, through the course of our conversation, it is clear you cannot comment specifically. But have those negotiations begun?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Again, David, we'll leave all of that to our capable attorneys to help us and support it through a process. We have ahead of us an important chapter. We're transitioning into a new school year. If there are other transitions we need to see about, we're going to work hard and work together to make sure that we do them with a focus on children.

David Fair: I have to ask understanding what the likely answer is. Would you consider pursuit of a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Ann Arbor Public School District or the Board of Education?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: And again, we'll leave that to our capable attorneys. I have the great honor and privilege every day, David, to serve the Ann Arbor Public Schools. It has been a deep, deep honor, and it continues to be. I look forward to welcoming students in just a few days.

David Fair: So, let's talk a little bit about transparency. Obviously, as legal issues play out, it's very difficult to discuss them. But should there be a settlement agreement in the offing, I'm guessing that would include some sort of nondisclosure agreement preventing either side from discussing it. One of the issues that has been going on with this particular process of potential dismissal or termination or separation is that there hasn't been a great deal of transparency. What is the message being sent to the school district about how the district administration and its Board of Education are working?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: We absolutely continue to work together on with the focus on our children. You know, David, it'll be, as it always is, up to the community to support this process of starting a brand new school year. I feel very confident that we can work through the proper channels and tend to those matters in the appropriate legal process. But I also feel like we can all come together for that one priority, and that is every child, every day. And you've heard me say that many times. That continues to be our single primary focus.

David Fair: So, again, we are on the precipice of the start of a new academic year. Best guess, Dr. Swift, will you be the superintendent of Ann Arbor Schools when the school year starts?

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Absolutely. Absolutely.

David Fair: Well then, we will have occasion to talk again. And I will look forward to that opportunity. Thank you so much for the time today, Dr. Swift.

Dr. Jeanice Swift: Very good. Thank you, David. It's great to be with you. And we look forward to seeing all of our children very, very soon.

David Fair: That is Dr. Jeanice Swift, the current superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The school board has made its intentions clear to end that relationship. WEMU will stay on top of the process and keep you informed as more information becomes available. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Ann Arbor Public Schools

Dr. Jeanice Swift

MLive: "Autistic boy’s assault on Ann Arbor school bus wasn’t reported to parent for 5 weeks, lawsuit alleges"

MLive: "Former Ann Arbor school board members support superintendent amid calls for resignation"

Open letter from parents requesting Dr. Jeanice Swift's resignation

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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