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Ann Arbor School Officials First Deny Having Actual Enrollment Numbers—After Multiple FOIAs & 72 Days Officials Relinquish Numbers

by P.D. Lesko

On December 13, 2011, A2Politico posted a piece titled, “30? 40? 50? Ann Arbor Officials Have No Idea Exactly How Many Kids Are In District Classrooms.” For several days, it was among the top 5 most clicked headlines in the nation on a national site that aggregates headlines from about 1,000 progressive news sites and blogs around the country. In the December 13th piece Merry Johnson, the parent of an elementary school student in Ann Arbor  told A2Politico, “There are 38 5th graders in certain classes, such as math, social studies, science. I found out that this was the case because the substitute teacher told me. I bet there are very few parents who know this.”

Merry Johnson was right.

Ann Arbor district officials do not share actual enrollment numbers openly, and in fact employ a bit of slight of hand to lull parents into believing that children are not in over-crowded classes stuffed to the rafters with 40 or 45 other children, when “target” enrollment is set at 30 students, not a maximum, but a target. Moreover, and almost more importantly, the total teaching load of the District’s teachers is not information that is readily available to the public, either. In that same December 13, 2011 piece, using Freedom of Information Act requests, A2Politico uncovered parent emails sent to district officials, including Superintendent Patricia Green, in which Huron High School teachers, in response to burgeoning teaching loads, tell parents the number and quality of assignments will be adversely impacted: in short, if emails sent by PTO officials at the school are to be believed, Ann Arbor Public School teachers told parents they refused to assign work and grade assignments to protest classroom over-crowding.

Prying information out of bureaucratic entities can be tedious. In theory, most of the information compiled by a school district belongs to the people who pay the bills, the public. In practice, school district officials can be extremely recalcitrant about producing documents and records. In June 2011, the members of the Ann Arbor Board of Education voted to cut dozens of teaching positions. One of the obvious results was that class sizes would be increased. District officials embraced this odious bit of news, and shared what they called “target” class size numbers with the media and public. A2Politico.com wanted to see how close the Ann Arbor Public Schools were to meeting the new Superintendent’s “target” class sizes. To do this, we needed the actual enrollment numbers, not the target numbers, not the head counts, and not the class size averages, all tidbits of information readily available on the AAPS web site.

So, on October 10, 2011, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the AAPS for a list of class sizes broken down per teacher, per class, per school. Education reporters working at newspapers around the United States confirmed in response to a query by A2Politico to the Education Writers Association listserv that they had secured exactly the same information from their own districts.

This is the story of what it took to ferret out exactly what the total student loads are for every teacher in the AAPS, and exactly how many students are in classes that are either above or below target class sizes.

Liz Margolis wears two important hats in her job with the Ann Arbor Public Schools. First, she is the spokeswoman for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She is also the official who handles Freedom of Information Act requests. This is a full-time job in some Districts, where the local media have K-12 education reporters who cover that beat aggressively and full-time. AnnArbor.com lost its education reporter David Jesse to the Detroit Free Press, and for several months had no staffer who covered higher education or K-12 education full-time.

Kellie Woodhouse is the new higher ed. reporter at AnnArbor.com, and has done a credible job thus far. However, AnnArbor.com has no full-time K-12 reporter to cover the 16,000 student Ann Arbor Public School District. AnnArborChronicle.com covers what is said at Board of Education meetings. At the A2Journal, there is a full-time K-12 reporter, James David Dickenson. Dickenson, however, mostly provides school board meeting write-ups.

What this means is that the Ann Arbor Public Schools can have a part-time FOIA coordinator. What that means to District parents and taxpayers is that they are often fed dribs and drabs of information by District officials.  Over the past 24 months, however, officials have posted more of the District’s financial information online. AnnArbor.com’s Paula Gardner recently posted a piece about the number of AAPS employees earning over $100,000 per year. She found and reposted information posted on the District’s web site. Several years ago, the Ann Arbor News published a similar piece based on FOIA requests, that piece provided information about all District employees earning $75,000 or more, and named names.

As Gardner’s post shows, while there’s a lot of information available to nosy parkers and reporters who have the time to spend looking through the District’s web site, it’s often through FOIA that parents and taxpayers get glimpses behind school district’s carefully tended veil, and access to information that officials would not otherwise voluntarily make public. The District web site contains no information that would enable parents to determine the exact number of students in each of the District classrooms. For example, after cutting over 62.3 teachers prior to the start of the 2011 academic year, District officials told AnnArbor.com that the “target” number of students per high school classroom was 30.

Emails from District parents produced in response to the October 10, 2011 FOIA revealed polite, reasonable, but ultimately frustrated parents complaining to District officials, including new Superintendent Patricia Green, that classrooms at several schools were filled well above target class sizes, and students were without desks and books. Parents at one local high school pleaded for more teachers, several parents writing that overburdened staff were refusing to assign and grade writing projects in response to large teaching loads. Other emails showed parents and school parent groups politely begging District officials for additional teachers in order to reduce class sizes that were well over the District’s target number for that particular grade.

A2Politico’s October 10, 2011 FOIA asked for the following information:

1.  Copies of the 2000-2011 AAPS student count records
2.  Copies of District’s analyses of the 2000-2011 student count data (denied by AAPS)
3.  Copies of the AAPS average class size reports for the years 2000-2011 (denied by AAPS)
4.  Copies of emails sent to any District official concerning the issue of class size sent between the dates of Monday September 12, 2011 and Monday October 10, 2011.

The District responded on October 10th and asked for a 10-day extension to respond. On October 26, 2011 A2Politico contacted Ms. Margolis to remind her that the 10-day extension period was well past. She responded via email that, “FOIA law allows for five plus ten days to respond. The response date based on this is Monday October 31. You may either pick up the response by 5pm or I can mail it. It will be ready after 3pm.”

So, 21 days after A2Politico requested the above information, Ms. Margolis responded by filling a portion of the request. Numbers 2 and 3, above, were denied. Margolis writes, “After review of all records, Ann Arbor Public Schools does not have the documents as requested in the Freedom of Information Act request.”

On November 2, 2011, I emailed Margolis:

“In going through FOIAed emails, I came upon one between AAPS employees titled ‘secondary staffing info for comparison.’ Alice Chamberlain emailed Joyce Hunter on October 5, 2011 an attachment or attachments that included enrollment and class size data for each high school. The report is by school, by teacher. I am attaching the email. I’d appreciate a copy of that same information, as well as enrollment and class size data by teacher, by school, for the middle schools and elementary schools.”

The response came back the same day: “Can you clarify what organization you represent and what you mean by ‘going through FOIA’d emails’?”

On November 4, 2011 Margolis emailed that:

“Each year when the district administration begins staffing process schools are staffed based on a ratio based on student projections. We do not calculate year by year on class size but rather on staff ratios. There is no report that exists based on your request.”

This despite the fact that AAPS staffer Alice Chamberlain’s email (provided to A2Politico is response to the original October 10, 2011 FOIA) had her asking for and receiving information on AAPS enrollment and class size by school and by teacher.

On December 13, 2011 A2Politico appealed the FOIA denial to AAPS Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Legal Services, David Comsa:

Mr. Comsa,

On October 10, 2011 A2Politico.com submitted a FOIA for the following materials:

1.  Copies of the elementary school records of class size and enrollment by school, by teacher, by class.

2.  Copies of the middle school records of class size and enrollment by school, by teacher, by class.

3.  Copies of the high school records of class size and enrollment by school, by teacher, by class.

The request was denied with the explanation that the documents do not exist.

According to emails released to A2Politico.com in response to a FOIA, on October 4, 2011 Alice Chamberlain asked Julie Ziesemer to produce a report by school, by teacher with their scheduled classes and class sizes for each of Ann Arbor’s high schools. (Email attached).

On October 5, Julie Ziesemer replied by email to Chamberlain, Hunter, Flye, Ryan and Landefeld. She provided class size data (by school, by teacher with their scheduled classes and class sizes for each of Ann Arbor’s high schools) for their review.

These emails sent between AAPS employees on October 4 and October 5, 2011 contradict the grounds of the AAPS denial of my October 10, 2011 FOIA. Furthermore, Ms. Margolis writes in her denial that “Under the Freedom of Information Act a governmental body does not have to create documents on request.

In response to a FOIA emails sent between AAPS employees were provided to A2Politico.com. On October 24, 2011 Ms. Margolis sent an email to Landefld and Emmendofer in which she writes, “A2Journal – Suspension data- I believe you were creating a report with 9/10 and 10/11 suspension data, not by category.”

This email contradicts Ms. Margolis’s assertion that AAPS does not create reports in response to FOIA.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

On December 21, 2011, 72 days after the initial request, the materials arrived. There are 60 plus pages that show the actual class sizes per teacher, per class, per school, for every school in the Ann Arbor public Schools.

So how many students are really in Ann Arbor Public School classrooms? Which schools are meeting District class size targets and which are not? Which math teacher in the District has a student load of over 200 students? How many math, science and English teachers are saddled with classes of 40 students and above (35 percent over target class size levels)? Is the AAPS meeting its own target class sizes at the elementary, middle and secondary levels? Should you care?

Absolutely.

Tomorrow, A2Politico will begin a series of posts that answers the above questions and more. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=11645

7 Comments for “Ann Arbor School Officials First Deny Having Actual Enrollment Numbers—After Multiple FOIAs & 72 Days Officials Relinquish Numbers”

  1. @rose there was also the reply in which she reminded me that the District would be charging me fees—right after I submitted a FOIA request. I reminded her that when records are used to educate the public, FOIA law allows 100 pages free per request.

  2. @Joe, I think District officials are making great progress putting information out there for the world to see. However, I would argue that officials pick and choose that information carefully. There are no purchasing card records, and the District has yet to make its checkbook electronic so that expenses can be viewed by the folks paying the bills.

  3. @Kai they were counting the students, and counting on no one asking them for that information, perhaps!

  4. I thought… that in school… one was taught about math. It should be easy to get calculations about the number of students in class. Or perhaps, administrators just don’t remember how to do simple math? I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be willing to teach the admins that math can be used for counting students, and not just for firing teachers and calculating raises for the 6 digit money-makers. If they can’t count students in a timely manner, then that’s just shameful.

  5. Why would they circle the wagons? Deceit can only work for so long, what’s coming up that will fix all of this (or we don’t know what, yet)? Enquiring minds want to read tomorrow’s post.

  6. I’ve had similar experience in trying to extract information from the AAPS. When I got a high price for providing copies of financial reports I asked for electronic copies. I was told that the AAPS financial software could not produce electronic copies that could be read by those without the software. When I got the name of the software vendor and checked their website I discovered the reports could be exported in multiple formats, including PDF, that I could read on my computer.

    I also got questions about who I was working for, which I found odd coming from the FOIA coordinator.

  7. I had to laugh, although somewhat unhappily, about Liz Margolis and her responses. This one is my favorite…because well it’s so…so circuitous… The response came back the same day: “Can you clarify what organization you represent and what you mean by ‘going through FOIA’d emails’?”

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