The Politics of Education: For The Open BOE Seat, Only Yes Men (and Women) Need Apply

In a recent post to AnnArbor.com, writer David Jesse discusses who the next member of the Ann Arbor Board of Education might be. In his piece, Jesse writes, “Responding to a question…asked, board members detailed their general thoughts about what made a successful board member, and by extension, what they’re looking for in a person to join them at the board table. In short, board members want someone who will fit with the board, someone who won’t be ‘divisive’ and someone who supports the current administration.”

In short, no one with philosophical differences to those held by the current Board members need apply. After all, the last thing we want on Boards representing the interests of the taxpayers are individuals with potentially differing viewpoints. I found it profoundly disturbing that the current Board members counseled BOE Treasurer Randy Friedman not to resign when he purchased a second home in Birmingham so his children would have a shorter commute to the private school they attend there. This act showed quite clearly that this group of people wouldn’t hesitate to put personal relationships above the good of the District, parents, students and taxpayers. Why do I say this? Not a single one of them made a peep after Friedman’s attendance rate at board meetings, committee meetings and study sessions plummeted to an abysmal 17.8 percent after his purchase of his Birmingham home. I wrote about Friedman’s attendance record here.

Alas, this propensity toward preferring to sit on Boards populated by dittoheads is not confined to the BOE that handles $190,000,000 of our tax money. It was a main topic of the 2008 City Council race, as well. Ann Arbor News writer Judy McGovern painted the City Council candidates Stewart Nelson and Vivienne Armentrout as candidates whose views were not aligned with those of the Council majority (the lot of whom were subsequently all caught up in the Council email scandal and pending lawsuit over emails sent during open Council meetings that allegedly allowed secret deliberations). 

In July 2008, County Commissioner Conan Smith and his wife, 53rd District State Representative Rebekah Warren, sent this email justifying their collective endorsement of Carsten Hohnke over the exponentially more experienced candidate Vivienne Armentrout:

From: Conan Smith [mailto:conan@suburbsalliance.org] 
Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2008 12:07 AM
To: ‘Vivienne Armentrout’
Subject: Council Race

After long deliberation, Rebekah and I have decided to give our support to Carsten in the upcoming council race.  As we studied council’s actions over the past year, we came to the conclusion that we are more concerned by the divisions that are emerging between two factions than by the actual decisions that the council ultimately comes to.  We see a breakdown in productive relationships and a disregard for effective civic engagement dominating the process.  With the momentous issues that the city will have to deal with in coming years, we feel that restoring balance to the process is the most pressing issue.  It’s our opinion that Carsten has the better chance to bridge that gap, due in part to his strong relationships with the “veteran majority” and his clear and vocal commitment to fully engage the variety of neighborhood voices that have been left out of the conversation in recent years. 

We have not made our support public as of yet but will in the next few days.  As I pledged, you are the first person that we have told.  I have no doubt that should you win this race that you will be a superb councilwoman.  You very clearly reflect our values in your actions—as has Carsten in our conversations—so it was not without significant reflection that we came to this point. 


Thanks to pieces published in the Ann Arbor News in June and July 2009, as well as in the new AnnArbor.com newspaper and on their web site, Ann Arborites have subsequently come to see thanks to FOIAed emails sent by the “veteran majority” (not to mention Carsten Hohnke) during Council meetings, that “the process” Smith and Warren fretted about protecting involved mocking citizens, playing on Facebook during Council meetings, scripting debates, rigging votes and subverting the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meetings Act. Whether Smith and Warren understood the pathology of the system to which they were trying to “restore balance” by endorsing Carsten Hohnke instead of Armentrout, is open for discussion.

The current BOE members circled the wagons after the millage defeat and took absolutely no responsibility for the District’s financial situation. According to Friedman, Susan Baskett, Deb Mexicotte, Glen Nelson, Irene Patalan and Adam Hollier the problems rest instead with state funding shortfalls, the economy, and ultimately with the evil empire that mounted the challenge to their ill-conceived support of  the millage proposal. At the December 2nd BOE meeting after the millage failed, Treasurer Randy Friedman (who made a rare appearance) lecturered those millage opponents present that, “There’s an expression in retail: If you break it, you own it. I’m glad that A2crss.org has made tangible for the community the identity of those, who through their misinformed opposition to the millage created the mess we are in.”

The millage opponents created the mess the BOE is in? Misinformed opposition? Hardly. The Ann Arbor Board of Education members had no plan to restructure the District so as to address the financial problems for the long term.

Instead, as Tony Dearing wrote in an editorial in AnnArbor.com, “Given what’s at stake, we wish we could join those who support this ballot proposal, but we can’t endorse it in its current form. We think it asks too much money for too many years, without an accompanying plan for structural changes needed to make our schools stronger, more efficient and more successful in the long run. This is, ultimately, not a ‘enhancement’ millage. It’s a status quo millage that would help shelter districts from the funding cuts that are buffeting them.”

Dearing, with his “divisive” opinions and lack of “support for the administration” would, alas, be viewed as an unwelcome addition to the Ann Arbor Board of Education by the current poltiboro. 

The current BOE members have a wonderful working relationship without “divisiveness.” Unfortunately, the only people that like-mindedness has benefitted have been the board members themselves. They covered up for Randy Friedman, their friend, and neglected to uncover the truth about District finances. The most productive boards are comprised of members who can, when opinions vary, listen objectively, and with the best interests of those whom the board represents always at the forefront of the decision-making process. The current AABOE members, in supporting a huge millage hike rather than routinely negotiating teacher contracts and budgeting in ways that reflected the half-a-decade old structural deficit are, and should be, held completely responsible for the current financial mess the District is in. 

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=2267

7 Comments for “The Politics of Education: For The Open BOE Seat, Only Yes Men (and Women) Need Apply”

  1. Thank you, Janelle. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

  2. Ms. Armentrout,

    Should you decide to run again, I would be honored to work on your campaign (I am in the fifth ward.) I have periodically checked in on your blog and your understanding of the issues is commendable. I am sure that I will not always share your positions, but I truly believe times like these dictate the need for those who ask the questions, not those that know the answers. Electing those that “know” all the answers is partly to blame for this mess that we’re in. I hope you will again consider a run in 2010.

  3. Yes, people should play well together when they disagree. Carsten Hohnke, with his slimy email to Leigh Greden about a planning session with the Mayor about how to get rid of his Fifth Ward colleague Mike Anglin, doesn’t really fall into the category of “plays well with others.” The Warren/Smith endorsement was some kind of trade-off with Hohnke and/or Hieftje. The two of them are never going to give something for nothing. It’s either that, or Conan Smith was still stinging from his defeat at the hands of Armentrout when they squared off for the County Commission seat.

    We are seeing the results of stacking boards with yes men, and it’s ugly.

  4. From the Smith/Warren letter to Armentrout: “we came to the conclusion that we are more concerned by the divisions that are emerging between two factions than by the actual decisions that the council ultimately comes to.” The decisions don’t ultimately matter? Please do tell what premise might be more faulty than this one? The Council majority/mayor and the dominatrix of the local democratic party opposed Armentrout because she could not be controlled. The need for an alternative was premised on a fear of real debate and a drive to complete control of the discourse. Hohnke was the “good” reliable candidate and he has proven himself to be a “good” reliable teammate. That quote from Smith and Warren is scary because prioritizing unity over debate and negotiation are tendencies one associates with totalitarian systems, rather than vigorous democracies. Where is the confidence in the superiority of our democratic way of life?

    As for the BOE, it needs a strong gust of fresh air from a corner of the universe where respect accorded colleagues does not require obsequious repudiation of healthy skepticism and common sense. Though one might pity the poor traveler who finds her/himself blown to a strange shore of a strange land where the bobble heads bob in one direction only–that signaling assent. Pity the poor traveler armed with only a friendly, naïve smile and the vain espoir to do some good. The lilliputs know well how to welcome a such a stranger.

  5. I should not be surprised to see that email surface, since I circulated it to my campaign supporters during the primary campaign. I was especially anguished in receiving it because Mr. Smith had given me reason to think that I would receive the endorsement (though he was clear that the decision had not been made). The language, however, is unambiguous. With regard to Leah Gunn, it is certainly true that she endorsed my opponent – and also every sitting council member of what I have called the “Council Party”, as well as Mike Anglin’s opponent. We clearly have different visions of what Ann Arbor should be about, in substance, not just in personality.

  6. Why are the opinions of the current board relevant? They don’t control who gets on BOE, the voters do. Th BOE has, among its various tasks, to deal with whomever the electorate selects.

    It was noteworthy, in the letter sent to Vivienne Armentrout, that the issue was NOT that actual outcomes at council were undesirable; rather, it was the inability of council majority members to withstand the slings and arrows of differing opinions from even a couple council members. This fear, not of not-controlling outcomes, but of simple asking of questions, and presenting alternate points of view, is curious. I have noted in comments at this site people who have derided Mike Anglin not for changing an outcome, but for simply being one against 10 on various issues. What’s up with that? Doesn’t seem like the response of people who are secure in the rightness of what they are doing.

    It’s as if the current political class senses some writing on the wall, and hopes to erase it before it’s too late.

  7. Your criticisms of the logic behind Smith and Warren’s endorsement is based on a faulty premise. You assume that Smith and Warren (and the BOE) only want people who will vote the same way as the incumbents. That’s not the case at all. The BOE Trustees often disagree on issues. The Council majority disagree with each other even more often. One need look no further than that infamous e-mail from Greden to the other Members expressing their anger at the Mayor for not supporting the Police/Courts project. In just the last two months, the majority in City Hall split on the votes to reduce funding for public art and set height limits for South University. Despite these many policy differences, the majority continues to work well together because they respect each other.

    The issue isn’t HOW a Councilmember, BOE Trustee, or County Commissioner votes on an issue. The issue is how he/she behaves and interacts with fellow elected officials, staff, the public, etc. People should play well with each other even when they disagree on the issues. Smith and Warren apparently believed that Hohnke would do that better than Armentrout. At least one other Commissioner who had served with Armentrout (Leah Gunn) agreed.

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