Labor unions demand Ann Arbor school board revisit process used in moving toward firing of Superintendent Jeanice Swift
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. The Ann Arbor Board of Education's decision to begin the process of reaching a separation agreement with the district superintendent is underway. Back on August 7th, the school board passed two measures to begin the termination and settlement agreement process with Dr. Jeanice Swift. It was a split vote, with four of seven members voting in favor of both measures, and it has brought out a divide among community members--some in support of the decision, others in support of Dr. Swift. Now, there's one area where there appears to be no divide, and that is among the unions representing the workforce in the Ann Arbor schools. Five labor unions have signed onto a letter to the school board and the community demanding the decision be rescinded and the process reopened with more transparency and objective decision making. On the other end of the WEMU phone line are the presidents of two of those unions. Frederick Klein is president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, which represents the district teachers. Thank you for being here, Fred.
Fred Klein: My pleasure, David. Thanks for having me.
David Fair: And the other voice you will hear is that of Natasha York. She is president of the Ann Arbor Administrators Association. Thank you for your time today. I appreciate it.
Natasha York: Hey. Well, thank you for having us today, David.
David Fair: Right off the bat, I will ask this of both of you. And, Fred, you can answer first. Were you caught off-guard by the special meeting that was called one day before that August 7th meeting where these decisions were taking place?
Fred Klein: Yes, that was a big surprise. The decision to move the regularly scheduled board meeting up by two days seemed very cloak and dagger, and we were unaware of what was going on until just prior to the meeting.
David Fair: And Natasha. Same question.
Natasha York: I agree with Fred here, David. We were on the eve of returning to school. We had our first day on Tuesday, and all of a sudden, we got word that this unexpected meeting was being called. So, the night before we were to return to work, we all had to sit through this event and were very astonished with the results of it.
David Fair: So, the four members of the school board, including its president, who voted in favor of moving forward with dismissal, did any of them take counsel with either members of the district's teaching staff or the administrative staff in advance of putting this measure on the agenda?
Natasha York: David, as an administrator and president, none of my members were aware of this meeting or that this would be taking place.
Fred Klein: Same with my membership, David. We were caught off-guard by this, and the fact that they didn't reach out or send some kind of survey to us was one of our main concerns with the apparent lack of transparency and process in the way they are moving forward with this.
David Fair: Again, a question for the both of you. In drafting this letter in which five unions are represented, including the both of yours, how much conversation did you have with your membership in taking the position that you did, that this is a process that needs to be revisited?
Fred Klein: We had a meeting with our representative council, which is our reps from each of the buildings in the district, and then we held a general membership meeting via Zoom, and that was the input we received from our membership. You know, we wanted to make sure that we were representing a vast majority of our members before we took any position.
Natasha York: And similar to Fred, David, our membership is well, at this point or at this avenue of the game, we had tried to get our members as quickly involved as possible, so that we could better understand what was going on. The lack of transparency, as Fred mentioned, made it incredibly difficult for us to not only have conversation, but to really understand what the decisions were that were being made by the board were being asked of Dr. Swift by the board.
David Fair: We're talking with the presidents of the teachers' and administrators' unions in the Ann Arbor School District, Frederick Klein and Natasha York. Fred leads the Ann Arbor Education Association and Natasha the Ann Arbor Administrators Association. So, just to be very clear, in this letter, you were calling for the process to be revisited, that the measures be rescinded, and that there be a more transparent process and objective evaluation of the district superintendent. Should that be construed is that all of these unions support Dr. Jeanice Swift to continue as superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools?
Fred Klein: So, David, we want to make it very clear that this is not about a person. This is about a process. So, we're concerned that the process lacked transparency, that there didn't seem to be due process given in making this decision, and if they were basing it on, you know, what criteria they were basing this decision on. We had no clue as to that. And we still don't.
Natasha York: And I must agree with Fred said this is not about a single person. This is about making sure that each and every one of our collective groups receive the equal treatment that we expect from anyone from our board as they're leading us throughout the year.
David Fair: Have either one of you received any kind of communication since the issuance of this four-page letter from members of the school board who have chosen to move forward with the termination process?
Fred Klein: Our vice president, Pamela Bell, and myself have reached out to each of the trustees, and we were unable to make contact with Ernesto because he's out of the country. But we did reach out. None of them reached out to us immediately after this or even prior to this.
Natasha York: At this point, we have not heard from any of the trustees regarding a position or how we have been asked to support or whether we support the transparency on their end. And the conversation and communication has been nothing to us. I will give Trustee Gaynor a little credit as we ran into him at our beginning PD. He did ask for us to reach out if we had concerns, but, at this point, it was still an issue of transparency. We weren't exactly sure what the concerns would be as we're not familiar or do we understand what this was all about.
David Fair: Initially, it seemed that the timing would indicate this was about the abuse of a special education student on a school bus. A lawsuit was filed against the district, which, by the way, did not include Dr. Jeanice Swift, the superintendent, as part of the lawsuit. Nonetheless, the timing seemed to indicate that perhaps this was a motivating factor. Yet, in my conversations with the president of the school board, Dr. Rima Mohammad, she indicated that this was a culmination of a number of things, and that it was not a response to that incident. Do you have an understanding as to why this process has gotten to the place it has?
Natasha York: I think that goes back to our question of transparency and better understanding what this is about. There are a lot of holes in exactly what you just asked us, and all we're asking for is for those holes to be filled in, so that we can make good choices and help move the district forward.
David Fair: So, Frederick, there was an open letter that 100 parents signed on to that indicated that a lot of special education families haven't felt safe for a while. There was also mention of ongoing racial issues within the school district. How do your teachers feel about those allegations from district parents?
Fred Klein: Well, it's very concerning. Student safety is always our number one priority as teachers interacting with the students every day. And we fully support any kind of investigation into where this is occurring and why this is occurring and then consequences for people that are committing what these parents have accused the district of. You know, investigate this, and let's get to the bottom of it. And then, assign responsibility where it needs to be assigned.
David Fair: Even if that's members of your union?
Fred Klein: We support our members, and none of them have been named in anything related to this situation.
David Fair: And as head of the Administrators Association, Natasha, you're working directly with Dr. Swift. Have you been made aware of prior to this open letter from the parents and to this lawsuit of parents who are unsettled about the manner in which the district is being run?
Natasha York: I think the best way to answer your question is, as an administrator, we all go into this job doing what's best for students. We recognize that our choices and decisions might not always be the ones that are supported by everyone. But we make the best choices to keep students safe. And as we move through this process, if something is deemed as unsafe, the process needs to take place for full transparency and for due process as it relates to making sure everybody has their day to share and to express their view of what happened in every situation.
David Fair: Well, the Ann Arbor Board of Education is scheduled to meet next Wednesday. Frederick, what would you like to see happen between now and then and what action would you like to have happen next Wednesday evening?
Fred Klein: Yeah, well, we're planning to be there at the board and establish a presence with all of our units. Actually, there are six unions being represented in this letter, and we're encouraging all those members to show up to the board meeting. We're encouraging members to sign up to speak at public commentary. And Natasha and I will be sharing our concerns at our reports from associations, which is a time given to us at the board meetings.
David Fair: And, Natasha, should there be no action taken and the process continues to move forward with what you consider a lack of transparency and objective determinations, would the Administrators Association and like-minded unions support recall of the responsible school board members?
Natasha York: You know, I think goes deeper than that. David. I think we need to first establish what happened before we can establish what steps need to be taken. Just like we are asking for a process to be taken in this situation, I think a process needs to be taken in the next step we move with the board. And those need to be made together. We're asking for togetherness, and we're asking that all voices and all stakeholders be able to have an opinion. And I think, as we move forward with this board, that the voices of our community be honored and be accepted in whatever decisions and choices we make to move forward with them as well.
David Fair: I'd like to thank you both for the time today. I appreciate your perspectives, and I look forward to our next conversations.
Fred Klein: Great. Thank you, David.
Natasha York: Thank you so much, David.
David Fair: That is Fredrick Klein. He is the president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, representing district teachers. And Natasha York, the president of the Ann Arbor Administrators Association. Both are working with the other unions in the district, imploring the Board of Education to rescind its decision to begin termination proceedings against Dr. Jeanice Swift and revisit the process itself. The situation is not over. WEMU will cover the Ann Arbor Board of Education meeting next Wednesday and will stay on top of the story between now and then. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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