What's next? Merger puts Ypsilanti-Willow Run school districts in 'uncharted territory'
Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com
Those were the words of Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Scott Menzel the morning after voters decided to merge the financially struggling Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts.
More than 61 percent of voters in both districts approved consolidating the public school systems Tuesday night in hopes of forming what educators have said will be a new “destination district.”
“Many of us in the community have been working on this effort,” said Lavada Weathers, a Willow Run resident. “I’ve heard a lot of congratulations; we’ve done it; we’ve got a lot of work to do — but mostly people are looking forward to it. There's a lot of enthusiasm.”
The final vote Tuesday showed 14,496 people voted in support of the merger and 9,048 people voted against it.
As school leaders and community members look ahead to the coming weeks and months when decisions can finally be made about how to shape the new district, one fact remains clear: This has never been done before.
“It really is (uncharted territory), especially given the unique nature of this merger,” Menzel said. “You have two larger-sized districts and both in deficit. It definitely complicates it, but it really is something worth watching and worth supporting.”
He stressed while going to the polls and voting “yes” was helpful, the community still has work to do to help the new district make good on the promise of improved outcomes for children.
The immediate first step will be interviewing the 19 applicants, including several current Ypsilanti and Willow Run school members, who have applied for an open seat on the consolidated district’s new seven-member school board. Two public interview dates have been set for 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. The first will take place at Willow Run High School, the second at Ypsilanti High School.
The WISD Board of Education will appoint the seven individuals, who will then be charged with operating the existing Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts separately until the new district becomes official at the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year, which is July 1.
Danielle Arndt | AnnArbor.com
What will happen on July 1 is still unclear, Menzel said.
“A lot of the nuances of this will be new for everyone involved, the attorneys included,” he said. “Legal counsel will be sought at every step of the process. There is a lot of work on the plates of the seven individuals who will be appointed and many things will need to be addressed on the front end to prevent a mass exodus to the doors and to create as smooth a transition as possible.
“Being focused, acting quickly and maintaining positive attitudes so that both districts can conclude the year on a high note for the children, so the children can have a successful year, will be very important.”
The WISD has been the facilitator of the merger discussions from the beginning. But what role it will play moving forward really will be up to the new board, Menzel said.
The WISD likely will hold the purse strings on any grant money the two districts are awarded for consolidation efforts.
Ypsilanti and Willow Run leaders are banking on receiving a “sizeable portion,” Menzel said, of Gov. Rick Snyder’s $10 million in aid that was set aside in February to help districts consolidate services.
The deadline to apply for Snyder’s grant money is Nov. 30. Menzel has been told the award decisions likely will not be made until January or February 2013, he said.
The WISD could front the deficit districts the money until then. The grant is intended to cover the startup costs of the consolidation — “anything from legal expenses to the additional staffing and consultation that is required to do the work” — and can be used to recover costs incurred all the way back until the election, which was the approval point of the merger, Menzel said.
Menzel said the new district will need to bring in experts to help it develop instructional programs that will boost student achievement. “There is also the fact that these schools are on two different technology systems and the changeover of official names and logos — those things all have expenses associated with them.”
Combined, Ypsilanti and Willow Run have a deficit of more than $15 million. The consolidation is expected to extend the payback period for possibly up to 20 years.
Which buildings will be used has been one of the most frequently asked questions of the consolidation process thus far, and Menzel said it is an important one. But answers on building usage likely will come after decisions on staffing and a superintendent have been made.
Danielle Arndt | AnnArbor.com
Working together is the best way to build success, he added, stating it is his hope the new school board will approach the topic of staffing collaboratively with the current districts’ union leadership so as to “set the right tone.” A teacher and administrator union for the new district could not be established until after June 1 and after the staffing decisions are made.
“So teachers contracts won’t be bargained in the traditional sense (for the new district),” Menzel said, explaining the appointed board would make the decisions on compensation, both wages and benefits. “Once the staff has been set, they would have to gather and vote to affiliate.”
Menzel said while the task before the community now, post-election, may seem daunting and still surrounded by unanswered questions, the mission is simple: Ensure the vision of the cradle-to-career education system that residents and school leaders of both districts developed during the summer becomes a reality.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to really be creative,” he said.
People in the business community and in local government positions praised the merger Wednesday morning.
“I’m glad to see this,” said Ypsilanti City Council member Ricky Jefferson. “If the schools are successful and showing some improvement, the city is more attractive and can draw people to move into the city.
“I believe the two school districts could not have survived without consolidation. And that would have been devastating.”
"I think generally — and this is born out by the results — there was a sense in the community that this was a smart move, a good move, a prudent move to try to do everything we can to get a good education system for this community," he said. "I think the broad support for this effort stemmed both from the good things that could come from it and the bad things that could be avoided."
"This gives us hope," said Linda French, owner of Sidetrack Bar and Grill in Ypsilanti's Depot Town. "Before with the way these districts were in deficit, there was no hope. ... I have staff whose children are affected by this and if they're OK with it, I am. I look at it as a resident and a business owner, and whatever is good for the schools is good for me in both respects."
Menzel praised both Bates and Willow Run board President Don Garrett for initiating these discussions and being "courageous leaders" in the process.
WISD Communications Director Emma Jackson said both districts sent out an email to staff Wednesday, letting them know the consolidation proposal has been approved.
Kim Carter, PTO president at Ypsilanti’s Estabrook Elementary, was glad the merger passed but said it’s hard to take a risk, with so many unknowns, when it comes to your children.
“I’m worried a lot of our great teachers will no longer be at our schools and about what will be the priority of the new district — will it really be education or will it be paying off the debt?” she said. “We all hope this was the lesser of two evils. I’m sure neither district wanted their schools to change.”
While Carter said it would be nice to hear from the district regarding the consolidation’s approval, she doesn’t expect it, stating officials need to focus on establishing the new board and determining a superintendent. She also said she is glad that at Estabrook, the teachers have been focused primarily on teaching the kids.
"Obviously, you want to inform them on an age-appropriate level, but there is no sense in putting all those questions out there in front of them," Carter said. "Kids, especially at the elementary level, need to feel secure and safe and not be thinking about 'will my school be closed.'"