Ypsilanti-Willow Run merger proposal and 18 mills must pass or districts could pay for special election
Two proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot will decide the fate of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts and whether they will remain separate to deal with their budget deficits or combine to form one school district.
Both proposals must pass in order for the districts to merge.
School officials say unification is the only way for the struggling school systems to avoid a state takeover or emergency manager situation in the near future. Supporters argue maintaining local control is best for students.
No organized opposition on this issue has emerged. A phone survey conducted in the Ypsilanti area in August showed 66 percent of voters would be or were leaning toward supporting the consolidation.
Ypsilanti Public Schools currently is more than $10 million in debt, while Willow Run has a deficit of about $2.4 million. Ypsilanti also is financially at risk of not being able to pay its employees come January.
A failure to pay wages, salaries or other compensation owed to employees — or benefits owed to retirees — within seven days of the scheduled payment date is considered a potential trigger for a preliminary review, which is the first step toward an emergency manager per state law.
The first proposal on the ballot asks voters to support or oppose uniting the geographical territories of the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts to form a single consolidated district. The second proposal, if passed, would allow the new district to levy 18 mills in taxes from non-homestead properties in the combined territories for operational expenses.
Ypsilanti Township Clerk Karen Lovejoy Roe said about a dozen people recently have visited the township offices confused about the ballot proposals and, in particular, the second proposal asking for the 18 mills. A few requested new absentee ballots because they interpreted the proposal incorrectly and wanted to change their votes.
Scott Menzel, superintendent for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, said the 18 mills is what the state expects every district to levy for operational funds.
“(The proposal) will maintain the exact same level of taxes that currently are paid by everyone in the two school districts independently, so there is no increase involved. But the new district needs authorization in order to collect the mills,” he said.
A “yes” vote for consolidation essentially invalidates the two districts and their separate levies and creates one new district, which will need funds to operate, Menzel said.
The majority of voters in each district must pass the consolidation proposal in order for unification to take place. Then a majority of both districts’ populations combined must vote “yes” on the millage.
A failure to understand this aspect could result in the districts having to fund a special election, which Ypsilanti Superintendent Dedrick Martin said could mean the end of Ypsilanti Public Schools.
“We’re talking about a situation where the district could truly be forced to dissolve,” he said. “We’re worried about paying employees. How we would pay for a special election, I have no idea.”
The Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts encompass parts of the city of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township. Clerks at their respective municipalities said an election costs anywhere from $10,000 in the city to $25,000 in Ypsilanti Township to run.
Courtesy of the WISD
“Obviously it’s better if (the 18 mills) gets approved from the onset, that way the districts can spend their time and energy focusing on putting things in place to be successful as new unified school system,” Menzel said. The new school district would go into effect July 1.
Lovejoy Roe said if anyone with an absentee ballot is concerned they voted incorrectly, they can call or stop by their clerk’s office and ask for a new ballot and for their old ballot to be voided or destroyed. Voters would have up until 4 p.m. Nov. 5 to do this. She said Ypsilanti Township has issued about 4,000 absentee ballots so far.
If the consolidation fails in one or both school districts, Ypsilanti Public Schools and Willow Run Community Schools likely would have to go out for a special election anyway.
Menzel said both districts’ current 18 mills non-homestead tax is up for renewal this year. They expire June 30.
He said if the districts had not been working toward the unification, they would have had to place their separate millage renewal proposals on the ballot.
If the merger is not approved, Ypsilanti and Willow Run will have to fund special elections in their separate districts to pass their individual millage renewals.
Menzel and school officials from Ypsilanti and Willow Run have received confirmation from state education officials that they could be given an extension of up to 20 years to pay back their combined approximately $12.4 million debt. This is substantially longer than the current timeframe of two years the districts have individually.
State Rep. David Rutledge, D-Superior Township, recently proposed legislation to help out the districts. In September, he introduced a bipartisan bill that, if passed, would establish a three-year moratorium for new charter schools in communities where two public school districts consolidate.
Ypsilanti and Willow Run school leaders have blamed, in part, the number of students leaving their districts on the number of charter schools popping up in the Ypsilanti area. This year alone, Willow Run's enrollment decreased from 1,509 students in 2011-12 to 1,328. Ypsilanti schools lost 231 students this fall's head count showed, for a total enrollment of 3,357 for 2012-13.
To read the official ballot language of both proposals, visit the Washtenaw County Elections Division website.
For more information on the consolidation, visit together4ss.org.