Ann Arbor school board meeting on Wednesday moved to Skyline High School amid Superintendent controversy
David Fair: The Ann Arbor School Board will meet on Wednesday, and community interest is on high. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU. The Board of Education earlier this month decided on a majority vote to move forward with a process to terminate Superintendent Jeanice Swift. Some district residents have expressed a desire to keep Swift on. Others have come out in support of the board decision. Last week, six labor unions representing district teachers, administrators and other employees and support staff signed a letter demanding the board revisit the issue in the name of transparency and due process. This week's school board meeting has been moved to Skyline High School to accommodate what is expected to be a much larger public turnout than usual. Our guest today will lead those proceedings. Rima Mohammad is president of the Ann Arbor Board of Education. And thank you for making time this morning in what is a most busy week.
Rima Mohammad: Yeah, good morning.
David Fair: Through your social media presence, you've made clear a few things. One, you are speaking for yourself and not the board as a whole. And, two, you believe the process of terminating Superintendent Swift has been transparent. For those who haven't seen your post, maybe you would like to share your explanation as to why the process has been transparent.
Rima Mohammad: Yes, definitely. So, the beginning step, and I believe I have mentioned this before, was taken on August 7th. And that began any kind of negotiation, any kind of hearing, any kind of discussion around Dr. Swift. And, you know, as far as the concerns, I know that there has been a lot of questions about, well, there hasn't been reasons mentioned for these motions, and I am currently limited to what I can say because, you know, about the actions that happened on 8/7 and this is due to litigation regarding the bus child abuse situation and, you know, in terms of negotiation with the superintendent for a settlement agreement. But I do believe, and I've stated this to the public, is that I truly believe that to address inequities, academic achievement, resource gap, special education, mental health and other crises that have happened, new leadership is needed. So, as far as transparency, I mean, again, we're limited to providing, you know, specific reasons, but this is the process based on our contract.
David Fair: Well, after issuing the letter to the Board of Education and the community at large, the presidents of the Ann Arbor Education Association and the Ann Arbor Administrators Association joined me for a conversation here on WEMU. They were clear they had no advance notice from you or anyone else on the board that a special meeting was going to be called until it was publicly announced on August 6th, the day before the meeting--one-day notice. Additionally, they said neither you or any other member voting in favor of termination reached out in advance to discuss the decision. And, as of that conversation I had with them last week, they had still not heard from you. Have you spoken with the union leadership at this point to the best of your ability?
Rima Mohammad: So, just to clarify that point about not notifying them ahead of time, there was no formal or no action that was taken before that 8/7 meeting. So, at that point, because they're not part of the board, those individual concerns or conversations that were happening before that meeting, that is 100% legal. You know, my role as the president is to hear the concerns from individual board members, and that was happening. And that led to the meeting on 8/7. However, that information is not information that we would have shared to the union at that point. But since the meeting, I have talked to the union, as well as several other board members as well.
David Fair: We are talking with Ann Arbor School Board President Rima Mohammad on 89 one WEMU. Some in the community contend Dr. Swift should be given a formal evaluation prior to moving toward separation or dismissal. And I want to clarify, to begin with, it was her wish to delay that process initially because she was a finalist for another job. Additionally, her contract is such that termination without cause does not require completion of the formal evaluation process. I think, as you have touched upon, there is confusion in the community and among district employees that there hasn't been clarity offered as to why the board believes a change in leadership is necessary. You've mentioned some topic items. But what are your concerns as to where the district is headed and why this leadership isn't taking you to the right place?
Rima Mohammad: And, as I mentioned, and thank you for catching on, there is a lot of confusion. And I know that the union letter listed some of as far as, like, due process and evaluation, and I appreciate you bringing that up. As far as I know, this community wants to have some cause, some reasons, and I listed what I believe are my concerns, such as inequities being addressed, achievement and resource gaps and other crises. And that, I believe, has worsened over time. The pandemic has not helped. But, you know, again, we are limited to say cause, especially if we have to take action on termination without cause. So, that is why and I know that there's these questions about, "Well, you're not being transparent. The board's not being transparent." But, we were advised by our board's lawyer to be cautious as far as what we say to the public just because there are these two motions happening.
David Fair: So, you can understand why the public would say there is a lack of clarity, there is a lack of understanding, and it doesn't feel at all transparent because these actions are being taken. And yet, the reasoning behind, for legal reasons, has to stay hidden.
Rima Mohammad: Yes. Well, I mean, like I said, I've already shared my concerns in general as far as like why new leadership happens. These concerns have compounded over time. There is a culture that needs to change, especially when it comes to leadership and board. Superintendent relations, I do feel like has been impacted. So, you know, for me, and I can only state for me, in order for me to govern to the best of my abilities and be the voice of the school community, I do believe that new leadership is needed. But I can see why, you know, there are members of the community that want specific this is what caused, you know, these two motions. But it is more complex than that.
David Fair: So, in an open letter addressed to Dr. Swift, signed by about 100 district parents, it stated some parents of special education students haven't felt safe in the district for some time. That letter also specifically mentioned student and community violence, ongoing issues at Pathways, a racially hostile environment in the schools, and a lack of leadership in addressing some anti-Semitic incidents--all worthy of exploration and investigation. So, what will the process be for looking into those issues as laid out in the letter from those parents outside of the superintendent process?
Rima Mohammad: Yes, I am a big believer about, you know, really having a full investigation for these issues. These are very serious issues. And there are other issues as well, having a root cause analysis, having a process and really getting the board more involved in that process. You know, in the past, a lot of that the administrators would be primarily involved with this, and we would get as much information as we can get from Dr. Swift. I do believe that we would be more involved, especially when it comes to, like, a root cause analysis. And because these are issues that have have not gone away and has worsened over time.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our conversation with the Ann Arbor Board of Education President Rima Mohammad continues in advance of tomorrow night's board meeting at Skyline High School. You stated as part of a post on Facebook that the district is working together with Dr. Swift for a smooth transition, and Dr. Swift herself has said she's committed to a smooth transition. What does smooth transition mean to you?
Rima Mohammad: So, again, I can speak for myself. Obviously, just to clarify any kind of decision or motion or anything, it has to be voted on in public with the majority vote. But my idea of a smooth transition is to ensure that, you know, we do have an interim. There is some time, some overlap potentially, but that's the least disruptive in my belief as far as a smooth transition. And, additionally, hopefully, I know there's a lot of very passionate people out there really, you know, and I want to hear the feedback from the teachers, the students, you know, the families and the community members about what their thoughts as far as Dr. Swift and how that transition looks like. But what I urge, you know, the community to allow us to be able to work together to get that transition in place.
David Fair: Speaking of the public, the school board meeting Wednesday night will be at 7 p.m. at Skyline High School. It was moved to accommodate the larger than usual public interest and anticipated turnout. Given the community interest and variety of opinions and concerns among district residents and the board seeming willingness to listen, will the public comment portion of the meeting be extended?
Rima Mohammad: As of now, it is currently slotted to that time. You know, my thought is let's just see what happens on Wednesday. But, currently, there's no plan.
David Fair: So, we are about to launch into a new academic year. It begins on August 28th, next Monday. Will Dr. Jeanice Swift be the superintendent of schools on the first day of class?
Rima Mohammad: So, as I said, and, again, to clarify, any action, I mean, I can only speak for myself. I'm only one board member, you know, regardless if I'm the president or not. So, any action that could be taken, I honestly don't know what is going to really happen tomorrow during the meeting. So, at any point, if four board members decide to motion anything and votes and passes, that is up to the will of the board. So, I can't really comment on that. And I'm hopeful that that's the case, but I cannot comment on that.
David Fair: Thank you so much for taking time today. And we will obviously have occasion to talk again soon.
Rima Mohammad: Okay. Thank you so much for having me.
David Fair: That is Ann Arbor Board of Education President Rima Mohammad. The school board meeting will be held at Skyline High School Wednesday night at seven. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.