Dear Ann Arbor Community,
I am writing you today to update you with the information we have about the annexation efforts and the upcoming vote to decide whether the Whitmore Lake enrollment area will become part of the Ann Arbor Public Schools as of July 1, 2015. As an AAPS Board member that voted in favor of bringing this vote to our community in November at a joint meeting of both Boards on July 30th, I feel strongly that you understand how this effort came about, and what has been accomplished in working with local and state officials to create the best possible environment in which annexation might occur. In the past couple weeks, more information has become available and I want to take this opportunity to address many of the questions our community has around how it might affect Ann Arbor and what potential benefits – and challenges- such an annexation might bring. I acknowledge this is a very long letter, but the issues are complicated and the questions require a thorough explanation.
How did this annexation effort come about?
Back in May, the Vice President of the Whitmore Lake Board approached us to see if we might be interested in consolidating services between our districts as a cost saving measure. They, like many small districts in the state, had been unable to maintain their educational programs in the face of rising costs and stagnant school funding, and were anticipating the prospect of dissolution as a district in the future. After examining the possibilities, the small group of Board members meeting from both districts concluded that consolidating services would not yield the hoped for outcomes for Whitmore Lake, but then discussion turned to whether annexation might be in both districts’ short-term and long-term interests. Joint Board meetings were held, an exploratory committee was formed; WISD administrators were brought in; and State legislators, agencies and legal counsel were consulted to seek available information as well as the best possible financial and organizational package possible for both communities.
How did the AAPS Board come to the decision to put annexation on the ballot with the provision that both districts share their debts mutually?
Annexations can occur without the shared assumption of debt, and we considered that option. We could have left each community’s debt in its respective community, in which case if Whitmore Lake voters decided they wanted to be in AAPS, it would just happen (since we were, as a Board, also in favor of accepting them). This arrangement was seen as problematic because although it would not raise AAPS tax rates, it would maintain a division in the two communities’ obligations, as Whitmore Lake would not be taking on our Technology bond or other debt millages then either. It would also create a challenging situation in WLPS; if they approved annexation their total tax rates would increase by about 6.7 mills due to paying their increasing debt levy and the additional AAPS Sinking Fund and Hold Harmless (even after obtaining some relief by having their current recreation millage end). Both Boards felt that a shared financial investment across the new district was important, but also important was the assent of both communities – through the voting booth – which the Boards agreed this commitment to shared indebtedness required.
The ballot language can be a bit confusing, as it focuses on the shared indebtedness (since that is the point of law connected with the annexation effort that AAPS voters need to approve) rather than on the concept of “annexation”. So, the annexation proposal on the November ballot reads:
Ann Arbor Public Schools – Proposal 1
PROPOSAL TO ASSUME THE BONDED INDEBTEDNESS OF WHITMORE LAKE PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT
Shall the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor, County of Washtenaw, Michigan, assume the bonded indebtedness of the Whitmore Lake Public School District, if the electors of the Whitmore Lake Public School District approve both annexation by the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor and the assumption of the bonded indebtedness of the Public Schools of the City of Ann Arbor, which annexation and assumption, if approved, will be effective as of July 1, 2015?
What are the known financial implications of annexation for the district and the taxpayers in both communities?
We have just learned we will receive 1.4 million dollars in annexation grant funds this year, and plan to apply for some additional funds next year as well. These funds can only be used for annexation related costs. While the AAPS administration believes this will be sufficient to begin the process of blending the districts successfully, the modest initial funding will dictate a more deliberative timeframe to implement all expected changes. We plan to again ask for grant monies for annexation on this year’s cycle of State funding to augment the speed as well as the quality of the annexation effort, based on those items we identified as qualifying for this support in last year’s grant application.
After working with the Michigan Department of Treasury on a plan for refinancing some of that shared debt (the WL School Bond Loan Fund loans), we estimate the overall homestead and non-homestead millage rates paid by homeowners and businesses respectively would increase .25 and .30 mills in Ann Arbor and decrease 0.37 and 4.81 mills in Whitmore Lake. This decrease will occur in Whitmore Lake even after taking on Ann Arbor’s Sinking Fund, Hold Harmless Millage, and both districts’ debt obligations, such as the Tech Bond. Without annexation tax rates are expected to decrease slightly in Ann Arbor, and are expected to continue to decrease over time – even with annexation – if our property values rise incrementally as expected over the term of the WLPS debt assumption. And, for reference, a .25 mills increase would be approximately $25 a year for every $100,000 in taxable value of a home or business.
The current foundation for Ann Arbor Public Schools is $9,100 and Whitmore Lake’s is $7,126.
The current estimated enrollment is 16,838 (AAPS) and 950 (WLPS) respectively.
Based on these figures and on current law that adds $100 to a blend of both districts’ foundation grants, the estimated foundation grant of the new combined Ann Arbor Public Schools district is expected to be approximately $9,095 ($5 less than our current foundation allowance), which would apply to all of the approximately 17,788 students in the combined district.
This will equate to an increase of $1,778,800 of state aid for the new district as compared to current funding prior to annexation.
What assets does Ann Arbor acquire through annexation?
Whitmore Lake is very small compared to Ann Arbor. It has three school buildings (one at each level), only two are currently housing students (they closed their middle school as a cost saving measure). Their high school has a 650-student capacity and is one year older than Skyline (and designed by the same architects).
There are approximately 950-students currently enrolled district-wide, so comparable in number to the Mitchell-Scarlett campus. They will all bring the new blended AAPS per-pupil foundation allowance with them (as opposed to their current WL per pupil foundation allowance if they came to us through school of choice or initially through forced dissolution of the WL district).
They would constitute approximately 6% of registered voters of the combined Ann Arbor/Whitmore Lake voting pool. Our recent Tech Bond millage passed with a margin of 41% – almost 7 times the total WLPS percentage.
I can see why this will help Whitmore Lake, but what is in it for Ann Arbor?
Simply stated – the opportunity to grow. Growth in enrollment area; growth in the number of students we could attract both by bringing back WLPS students enrolled in other districts and expanding our school of choice area northward, and growth through the increased development that is likely to occur in Whitmore Lake if it is part of AAPS. We have taken a pro-growth stance in Ann Arbor, under the shared leadership with our new Superintendent, Dr. Jeanice Swift, which has resulted in the largest fall enrollment increase in our district in a decade! With additional students come additional funding, the possibilities of greater financial stability and the flexibility to create and implement new and innovative educational programs across the district – bringing in more students and families!
If you believe, as many of us do, that in the current State funding climate traditional public schools with a strong reputation, such as Ann Arbor, will need to “grow, or die”, and annexation is a way to gain capacity – adding students and enrollment area within the current district and utilizing buildings and properties that already exist in WLPS.
There is also the potential to bring additional program choices to current AAPS students, such as attending a small comprehensive high school.
Who will be in charge of the expanded AAPS district after annexation?
The Ann Arbor Board of Education, the AAPS Superintendent and the current AAPS administration will be the governing and administrative bodies for AAPS as they currently are. The Whitmore Lake Board of Education, Superintendent and central administration will all be eliminated, resulting in some of the savings and efficiencies you would expect through annexation efforts.
What if we just let Whitmore Lake dissolve– won’t we get all of the benefits without the tax increase?
We won’t get the tax increase, but we will also not get all the benefits. Each of the previous district dissolutions in the State was unique to that district’s specific circumstances, and we would expect any such dissolution in Whitmore Lake would be as well. However, local State Representative Adam Zemke has publicly stated that those forced dissolutions were very difficult for the affected students and communities, and, in each case, neighboring districts also were affected.
For a tax rate increase of .3 mills or less, AAPS will receive all of Whitmore Lake’s current students, all their buildings, a new set of taxpayers funding our district, and the potential for growth in that population that an AAPS education might attract. We also receive the 1.4 million dollar annexation grant with the possibility of an additional grant next year. Our legislators have also asked their colleagues to increase our per-pupil funding even more than the $100 annexation bonus if we complete annexation, and, though this is uncertain to pass, it is certain to not move forward if annexation doesn’t.
And, like a local millage, annexation is a pro-active step we can take here in our community to raise additional funds and steer our educational path.
How will this annexation affect my child’s education in Ann Arbor?
Annexation is not expected to affect the quality of education in the current Ann Arbor district in the short-term – but is hoped to improve our prospects for all students in the long -term. If the combined district were able to successfully add students, attract taxpaying businesses and development, and raise property values over time, this could improve educational programming for all our students, and strengthen our long-term financial sustainability.
Does Whitmore Lake support school millages the way we do in Ann Arbor, and if not, what does that mean for the success of such measures?
As I previously said, Whitmore Lake has approximately 6% of the total likely voters of the combined Ann Arbor/Whitmore Lake voting pool. While they did recently vote down a bond issue, they have voted to support programs and facilities to benefit their students in the recent past. They approved the bond to build a new high school (completed in 2006) and voted in support of the last county-wide Special Education millage, as examples.
If it is such a good deal for Ann Arbor, why was the AAPS Board not unanimous in placing the question on the ballot?
Those Trustees that were enthusiastic in putting the ballot question to the voters and are pro-annexation saw the positive growth potential, the additional funds that would come through grants and increased student enrollment, the acquisition of additional buildings and grounds to support those increases, the additional voice we might have in guiding educational policies as the 4th largest district in the State (and one who had successfully completed an annexation to the benefit of both districts), and the relative small scale of the millage increase, the workload, and the Whitmore Lake electorate as being worth taking on the potential challenges. They also saw the dissolution of the Whitmore Lake Public Schools as a real possibility within the next two years, and any benefits after that dissolution that came to Ann Arbor would be much harder to leverage toward our overall financial stability and our long-term growth prospects.
I would say all Trustees felt sympathy (and empathy) for the position in which Whitmore Lake finds itself, and expressed a sincere appreciation for being asked to help and to fully explore the possibility of annexation.
I encourage you to continue to consider this matter and seek out any additional information you need prior to casting your vote. To help with this, I also encourage you to attend any of the remaining community forums on annexation in Ann Arbor scheduled as follows:
- Tuesday, October 21, 6:30pm-7:30pm Huron High School Cafeteria, 2727 Fuller Rd., Ann Arbor
- Thursday, October 23, 6:30pm-7:30pm Pioneer High School Cafeteria Annex, 601 W. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor
I also encourage you to read through the online Annexation FAQ document and the slides presented at each of the forums that have been posted on the Ann Arbor Public Schools website. You may also submit additional questions there to help us update and improve on this important informational resource! There are also a number of articles, podcasts and links to other forums held in Whitmore Laker available from a variety of media sources as well as on The Whitmore Lake Public Schools website.
We are striving to be one district with one vision – that of continuing and increasing the educational excellence and opportunities for ALL our students through combining our efforts and extending our outreach. Our aspiration is to indeed be stronger by joining together!
If you have any additional questions, or would like to set up a time to speak with me, please do not hesitate to contact me at mexicott@aaps.K12.mi.us.
Deb Mexicotte, President
Ann Arbor Board of Education