Two Washtenaw County communities are taking a marriage born out of necessity and using it to try a bold set of educational reforms – changes that could find their way into other school districts across the state.
On July 1, the school districts of Ypsilanti and Willow Run merged into a new district, Ypsilanti Community Schools, that represents the largest school merger “in recent memory,” if not in state history.
The new district, which will serve more than 4,000 students, will not be your average Michigan set-up. Starting Sept. 3, Ypsilanti will:
--Have a school day that has been increased by 30 minutes.
--Have a school year of 187 days, compared to the state minimum of 175.
--Have an even longer work calendar for school employees.
--Have a faculty working – for now – without a union contract.
What will not have changed, though, is the financial stresses that had the two component districts operating at a deficit – about $9 million in Ypsilanti and $2 million in Willow Run – in their last year.
Still, advocates see the new district as a fresh route to both economic recovery and academic achievement via such reforms as longer school days and a longer school calendar.
“Consolidating creates an opportunity to hit the restart button,” said YCS Superintendent Scott Menzel, who is also superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. “We have the unique opportunity to create something that really reflects 21st century education, that addresses the academic challenges and struggles that both districts were facing, and allows us to build a sustainable budget from the ground up to address the economic challenges that really called into question the ability of the districts to survive independently.”
Michigan Education Association representatives say they, too, are confident the district will eventually become a source of pride for the community. But they say many are angry about the evaluation process that left 350 teachers and support staff from the two districts without jobs, and they’re concerned they won’t be compensated for the additional days they’ll work.
MEA spokeswoman Nancy Knight said not enough time has passed since voters approved the merger in November 2012 to make sure the transition was as seamless as possible.
“I think mergers, handled properly, can work well because it’s a good way to utilize resources, particularly in small districts where it’s so hard to have a full range of curriculum,” she said. “But to collapse two school districts in about a six-month time period really doesn’t give enough time to be thoughtful about what you’re doing.”
Menzel agreed that the compressed timeline was challenging, and that it would have been better to have more time to interview and selecting staff, but dragging out the transition would have “prolonged the inevitable.”
The struggles in Ypsilanti and Willow Run were the result of decisions within the district, funding levels at the state and the economy, Menzel said.
The Willow Run district had been running at a deficit since around 2005. Ypsilanti’s deficit began in 2009, but their deficit was almost $10 million last year compared to Willow Run’s $2.8 million.
As families left the area, a downward spiral began as fewer students meant a slashed budget, which resulted in fewer programs, which led to a loss of even more students.
“If we didn’t do something dramatic, the state would appoint an emergency manager to govern the affairs of both districts independently,” said Menzel, adding that “something in the DNA” of both communities indicates a can-do attitude in overcoming obstacles.
As for finances, the new district will operate with a $50 million budget, and will receive $7,536 per student from the state. It also is negotiating with the state on a timeline to bring the books into balance, with Ypsilanti pushing a 15-year plan, and the state countering with a 10-year line, Menzel explained.
Administrators hope to lure students back
Many of the “missing” dollars can be traced to decisions by families in the two communities – decisions to seek learning elsewhere.
In the 2011-2012 school year, 2,600 students from Willow Run and Ypsilanti took advantage of the school choice program and left for another public school district or charter school.
As a result, $19 million in state per-pupil grants left the districts.
Menzel is hoping the new district will lure many of them back, so that teachers on a waiting list will be rehired and closed buildings reopened.
“This is part of a larger economic and community revitalization strategy on the east side of Washtenaw County,” he said.
One of the lures is the longer learning periods. The goal is to evolve into a “balanced calendar” with fewer consecutive days off in the summer, which is aimed at boosting achievement.
Research by the RAND Corporation has found that summer learning programs combat the “summer slide” in which students regress during the summer months.
During a media conference call, RAND senior policy researcher Catherine Augustine said summer vacation disproportionally affects families low-income children, who are also less likely to participate in library reading programs, sports teams, camps and family vacations during the summer.
She said research shows that while all students come back to school in the fall having lost some of the knowledge and skills they learned from the previous year, students from low-income families return to school having lost ground in reading skills while their wealthier peers maintained or even gained reading skills.
“We also know that this loss is accumulative over time,” she said, noting that, by ninth grade, a large proportion of the achievement gap can be blamed on summer vacation.
Knight of the MEA has no problem with longer school days and a longer school year. “But teachers should be compensated,” she said.
The Ypsilanti and Willow Run had two very different contracts previously, but when the merger eliminated the old districts, the union contracts went out as well.
Once there is a defined union according to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, teachers will be represented at the bargaining table discussing wages, hours and work conditions. Until then, the district has the right to set its own work parameters.
“I hope it won’t be a long process,” said MEA UniServ Director Donnie Reeves, who has been meeting with local teachers. “I think brevity would be important for the district, as well as the teachers and support staff.”
Reeves said the most upsetting issue has been the brief evaluations of teachers used to decide who would move on to the new district, and who would be out of work. He called the method “ridiculous.”
Still, he’s optimistic that, a year from now, realtors will be able to boast about the district to potential clients.
“I believe my members’ hearts and souls are in this new district along with mine, and we want it to be successful,” said Reeves. “It’s going to take everybody rolling up their sleeves and doing the right things by each other. You can’t treat family members wrong and expect the whole family to be productive.”
Template for future consolidations?
Most of Michigan’s consolidations have been between very small districts, most recently in Lenawee County, where the Britton/Macon and Deerfield districts consolidated. But those districts weren’t running deficits and didn’t face the same socioeconomic challenges of YCS. (About 85 percent of Willow Run students and two-thirds of Ypsilanti students qualified for free or reduced school lunches last year.)
“So what we’re tackling here is something that absolutely could be a template for how to address struggling districts in urban environments, and change the trajectory for kids,” said Menzel.
Citing the desperate situations in Buena Vista and Inkster that paved the way for legislation to dissolve the school districts there, Menzel said he is encouraged that 61 percent of voters in the November 2012 election agreed to the voluntary consolidation of Ypsilanti and Willow Run.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “The change is difficult because it impacts people’s lives … But if people participate as active players in this process, then I’m confident that the people in this community have what it takes to make the merger successful.”
“It goes back to the family, and when I say family, I’m not just talking about a student’s immediate family,” Reeves said. “I’m talking about that family along with the educational and business communities. Everybody plays a role.”
Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.