“Glenn, would you sit down with me?” Jim Vibbart asked. “Are there any ways we could partner with Ann Arbor?”
Vibbart is vice president of the school board in Whitmore Lake. Glenn Nelson is treasurer of the Ann Arbor board. And Vibbart’s question, asked at a Washtenaw Association of School Boards breakfast in May, quickly rippled outward.
Nelson brought the request to Ann Arbor board president Deb Mexicotte. “They, as a small district, are really struggling,” Mexicotte explains.
Whitmore Lake opened a state-of-the-art, $33 million high school in 2006, just months before Pfizer announced the closing of its Ann Arbor lab, where many Whitmore Lake residents worked. Then came the real estate crash and recession. As families moved away, enrollment plunged 25 percent, to fewer than 1,000 students. (Ann Arbor has about 17,000). Millions of dollars in state funding followed the students out the door.
Vibbart projects soft-voiced earnestness, but, by the time he approached Nelson, he was feeling desperate. Whitmore Lake’s board had already privatized custodial services, closed its middle school, cut elementary art classes, and left many teaching jobs unfilled. Yet cash reserves were almost gone, and the board knew fewer students would be starting school in the future–Michigan’s birthrate hit an all-time low last year.
“They just saw the difficulties they were going to have in the next couple of years,” says Mexicotte. “They had already done anything they could think of.”
Vibbart works for the U-M, overseeing maintenance of a number of buildings on Central Campus. He and Nelson met over coffee at the Michigan League. Nelson was sympathetic–but already, Mexicotte says, it was clear that just sharing some services wouldn’t give Whitmore Lake the financial relief it needed.
That morning, Nelson and Vibbart agreed to make a startling recommendation to their respective boards: that Whitmore Lake’s schools be annexed to Ann Arbor’s.
At a joint meeting in July, the two boards agreed to put the question to the voters on November 4. If both communities approve, Whitmore Lake’s school district will cease to exist–and Ann Arbor’s will expand for the first time in fifty years.
The boards negotiated the fundamentals of the annexation: Whitmore Lake’s district administration and school board would be dissolved, but its schools would remain open. The two districts’ debts would be combined. But because crucial details–including the effect on property taxes–wouldn’t be known for months, some criticized the boards for moving too quickly.
Board members say they had to act fast, both to get the issue on the November ballot and to meet a grant application deadline: the state was offering a $4.3 million pot to assist districts that agreed to merge or share expenses. After visiting state elected officials praised the boards for their “visionary” initiative, members hoped they might get it all. Adding urgency, says Ann Arbor board vice president Christine Stead, was the fear that “if we let another year go by, Whitmore Lake might be operating in deficit” and at risk of being closed by the state.
Supporters argue that while the annexation would increase costs for Ann Arbor schools slightly in the short run, long-term the change will strengthen the district. “Annexation is an important component of our growth strategy,” Nelson says, noting that the district’s school-age population is projected to fall 4 percent between 2015 and 2020. Adding Whitmore Lake’s students would fill the gap, with a little to spare. And Nelson is excited by the chance to attract “schools of choice” students from Whitmore Lake’s neighbors–Pinckney, Brighton, and South Lyon.
The extra 900 students would add about $8 million a year to Ann Arbor’s budget. But the district would also be operating two more buildings and teaching 900 more students–and those costs would increase as teacher salaries were raised to match Ann Arbor’s.
The state did approve a consolidation grant, but just for $1.4 million (eleven other districts shared the rest). And while the state now gives Ann Arbor more per student than Whitmore Lake, it would “blend” those rates in the enlarged district, so that revenue would be a wash. There is one sweetener, however: the state is paying a $100-per-pupil bonus to districts that combine, which would bring in about $1.8 million a year.
Whitmore Lake residents would see their property tax rate fall by about .37 mills, or $37 a year for a home with a taxable value of $100,000. Ann Arborites’ rate would increase by about .25 mills, or $25, for a similarly priced house. (For a recently purchased home, taxable value is half of market value.) “For that we get an expanded enrollment area,” Mexicotte points out. “From an altruistic standpoint, we’re helping out a district right on our borders, every bit as deserving as ours for good public education.”
Trustee Susan Baskett, who voted against moving forward with the annexation, is unmoved. “My responsibility as an Ann Arbor school board member is not to take care of their children,” she says. “That’s their job … It would be nice to be a benefactor–but there are a lot of struggling school districts out there.” Baskett also objects that overwhelmingly white Whitmore Lake lacks “diversity.”
Trustee Andy Thomas joined Baskett in voting not to move ahead with the annexation (the motion passed 5-2). He says that while he’s sympathetic to Whitmore Lake’s plight, “it’s unclear what the benefits for Ann Arbor are.” Noting that Brighton and South Lyon have excellent schools, he’s less optimistic than Nelson that Ann Arbor will be able to lure their students to Whitmore Lake.
Thomas wonders why anyone from Whitmore Lake would oppose annexation. “What’s not to like?” he asks. “They will get lower taxes and better schools.” Elementary art would be restored, and the high school would gain more language and AP classes.
But annexation would mean that Whitmore Lake would lose its small central staff (its superintendent is planning to retire, and its financial manager just took a job with the AAPS). While the schools would remain, all decisions about them would be made by Ann Arbor. And Whitmore Lake would lose some of its identity.
The area the census calls “Whitmore Lake” is split between Northfield and Green Oak townships–it has no local government. “We need the schools to hold the community together,” one resident says. Whitmore Lake High School principal Tom DeKeyser notes that while Ann Arbor has many features that define it, Whitmore Lake only two: “We have the lake and the schools,” he says. “That’s what we have.”
A tall man in a pinstriped suit, DeKeyser shows me around the cleverly designed two-story high school. A green building with geothermal heating and cooling, it has a good-sized swimming pool and gym, both open to the public.
When I ask what makes their school different, students mention its small size–one girl tells me that’s why she transferred here from Ann Arbor as a schools of choice student. Asked if there is anything they wish their school had, one boy says more language classes–currently, the school offers only Spanish.
DeKeyser supports annexation, but says the community is divided. In September the town was smothered with red-and-white lawn signs reading “I Believe in Whitmore Lake.” Residents say they were distributed by Jeff Vega, the only Whitmore Lake trustee who opposes annexation (Vega did not respond to email messages.)
But others see Ann Arbor as their schools’ last chance. As parent activist Julie ReBeau posted on a local blog, “If we vote no on annexation, our district WILL go into deficit and will likely be dissolved by the State. Maybe not next year but it’s coming.”
Monique Deschaine lives in Ann Arbor and runs her business, Al Dente Pasta, in Whitmore Lake. While she acknowledges that the two towns “have a bit of a complicated relationship,” she says, “It baffles me that people wouldn’t be all over this annexation … I worry if they don’t do it, in the very near future they may be forced to do something they don’t want to do anyway.”
Ann Arbor superintendent Jeanice Swift offers no opinion on the annexation, noting that it’s a board initiative and a community decision. While appreciating the benefit of increased enrollment, she points out that two buildings and fewer than 1,000 students would not be “a huge addition to what we’re doing.”
But Washtenaw Intermediate School District superintendent Scott Menzel paints the choice in more dramatic terms. Before the Ann Arbor board adopted Swift’s plans to build enrollment, he points out, members were facing the need to close schools and transfer students. “If you say no to this growth strategy,” he warns, “the board has a very difficult decision to make right now” about how to balance its budget.
Jim Vibbart–who has a grandson in the schools–reflects that any rescue from the state “would take a sea change in Lansing.”
Though he doesn’t believe that annexation’s defeat would sound an immediate death knell for his district, he’s worried about Whitmore Lake’s ability to survive on its own. “I would like to know when I retire, I’m leaving the district in really good hands.”
A Crowded School Board Race
“We have four seats up,” says Ann Arbor school board president Deb Mexicotte. “Two incumbents [Susan Baskett and Christine Stead] are running, and two [Irene Patalan and Glenn Nelson] aren’t, so we’ll have at least two new board members–and with ten [people running], it could be anyone.
“But even if four new members come on, it doesn’t mean an upheaval,” Mexicotte adds. “An election doesn’t change how much funding we get from the state.”
The incumbents running for reelection agree. “Funding is the biggest issue,” says Susan Baskett, fifty-four, “how to provide a quality education with severe financial constraints.”
“We have suffered inordinate cuts,” emails Christine Stead, forty-two. “Ann Arbor has been donating more of its taxable revenue to other districts as part of how our state controls and allocates funds for schools.”
Seven of the eight challengers also rank finances as their top issue:
Jeffrey Harrold, fifty-eight, echoes Baskett that the challenge is “how to provide the best education possible for our students at a time when funds are limited.” “The fiscal funding crisis is the number one issue facing all schools in the state,” agrees Donna Lasinski, forty-six. Patricia Manley, sixty-nine, notes that “Determining how to balance the budget has been a cause for much frustration as it has led to cuts and outsourcing that has been very controversial.” “Lansing has continually under-funded and de-prioritized public education,” emails Deirdre Piper, forty.
“[T]he legislative majority in Lansing is demanding that schools do more with less each year,” emails Hunter Van Valkenburgh, fifty-five. “The biggest issue is managing the constant funding, and finding ways to make sure our solutions include all the stakeholders,” emails Don Wilkerson, twenty-eight. And Roland Zullo, fifty-three, says that state funding constraints “have compromised on the ability of AAPS to provide a wide range of educational programming for all students.”
Only Jack Panitch, fifty-four, ranks other issues higher. “The biggest issues are stability [in board leadership], communications and funding,” he says. “If forced to pick, I would pick stability [in board leadership].”
The candidates are also united in their desire to balance the budget without cutting educational programs. After having to close projected $10 million deficits every year for a decade–and draining $35 million from the district’s rainy-day fund balance in the process–both incumbents are hoping that superintendent Jeanice Swift’s plan to grow enrollment will make further cuts unnecessary.
“I am looking forward to continuing to execute a growth strategy,” says Stead. “That means competitive programs and attracting back students within and outside of our district.”
“We can balance the budget by growing,” Baskett agrees. “We can increase revenue by increasing enrollment.” Lasinski also agrees that “[w]e need to shift from cutting to growing and improving”–but, she adds, “we need to look at millaging opportunities” to increase tax revenue, too.
Harrold says he “would be in favor of exploring all available options and gaining input from all district stakeholders,” while Panitch says he’d support cuts if “the Superintendent and the community through full and timely communication deem [them] to be in the least worst interests of the students.”
“I would not want to make cuts that decrease the level of student success or that push out employees,” writes Manley. “We cannot take any more from teachers,” writes Piper. “Everything else is on the table.”
Van Valkenburgh says that “[a]nything discretionary is on the table”–but adds that he wouldn’t “want to cut any programs such as music, art, or sports.”
“We might be able to cut certain things if we are able to find other things to compensate for them,” Wilkerson offers. And Zullo hopes that “with the improvement in the State economy future cuts would not be necessary.”
The candidates are also divided on what activities they’d ask families to pay for to balance the budget–or even if the schools should charge.
“I don’t want to charge anything more,” says Baskett. “We had pay-to-participate sports and we saw fewer kids.”
“Ideally, I would not want to charge for anything to balance the budget,” Manley agrees.
“Our musical ensembles look different now that we charge to rent musical instruments,” writes Lasinski. “Every time we levy a fee, we reduce opportunity.”
“Not everyone has the resources to blithely pay more,” writes Piper. However, “sports fees could inch up as long as there are scholarships available.” Zullo and Stead agree with her. “Charges for anything should be equitable and affordable,” says Harrold, “giving all parties the opportunity to feel included.”
Van Valkenburgh suggests that the district could “charge for more popular sporting events and concerts on a sliding scale to encourage the same type of income-based giving as some museums do.” And Wilkerson proposes that it “partner with other organizations throughout the community to help sponsor all or part of these services/activities.”
Asked what they would add to the schools, Piper and Wilkerson both say they want to expand open education.
“We need more vocational and tech education,” says Baskett.
Harrold says he “would put in place an infrastructure that would enable us to reduce class sizes.” Manley would expand “staff Professional Development to enhance their understanding and delivery of programs coming through the Federal and State legislature.”
Panitch praises the new International Baccalaureate program, but wants “to ensure that there are no barriers for students from families of limited economic means to remain in the program after the middle school level.”
Stead “would like to see our middle schools revamped to be the destination middle school environment in Ann Arbor.” And Zullo “would integrate more scientific problem solving into the curriculum.”
All the candidates are campaigning individually–there are no slates. However, four current board members have made endorsements.
“I had only one candidate ask me for my support and that was Susan Baskett,” emails Simone Lightfoot. “I said yes.”
Glenn Nelson endorses Donna Lasinski, Jack Panitch, and Don Wilkerson, citing their commitment to students’ interests, their knowledge of fiscal and educational policy, and their ability to “combine leadership with respect for the views of others.” Andy Thomas and Irene Patalan are also backing Lasinski, Panitch, and Wilkerson–“I have been urging [Lasinski] to run for school board for years,” Thomas emails–as well as incumbent Christine Stead.