Next week, voters will decide whether Ann Arbor schools should annex the small, struggling district next door: Whitmore Lake.
And some Whitmore Lake students say this may be the best way to save the small-town schools they love.
The 11th-graders in Jill Henry's advanced-placement government class are bright kids.
Even before they started doing their election projects about this possible annexation, they obviously knew their district was struggling.
After all, the whole district is down to just about 1,000 kids.
It’s $60 million in debt.
And people keep talking about the state potentially dissolving the district someday if those trends don’t turn around.
Meanwhile, their AP courses are dwindling and their sports are limited.
"Like, we don't have lacrosse, we don't have hockey,” student Marie Ficaj says.
“We don't have any of the sports that cost a lot of money to play."
And at least in this class, their textbooks aren’t really “books” so much as they’re pages hole-punched into three-ring plastic binders.
"It's well-loved!" laughs teacher Jill Henry.
She had the kids vote at the end of their elections projects: If it was up to them, would they have Ann Arbor annex Whitmore Lake, basically turning it into one big Ann Arbor district?
The results were unanimous: yes.
But not for the reasons you might think.
Because these kids really like their school.
"Like we know our teachers a lot one-on-one,” says 11th grader Taylor Beloskur.
“It's small class sizes so we can talk about things. Like everybody basically knows everybody."
Beloskur has an earnest face and a long curly brown braid.
Like the other kids, she says they’re for the annexation because it would let them stay in their high school.
Under the proposal, Whitmore Lake students wouldn’t have to go to a school building in Ann Arbor unless they wanted to.
But what’s in it for Ann Arbor’s kids?
“Of course there’s a lot to be gained for Whitmore Lake. I mean, this is like a lifesaver, a buoy for them. For us? Not so much,” says Ann Arbor school board member Susan Baskett.
She says she feels for Whitmore Lake, but believes this whole annexation question is being rushed. Even if the state does dissolves Whitmore Lake, that process would take years, she says.
But right now, Baskett says Ann Arbor would basically be buying a house without getting it inspected. What kind of shape are Whitmore Lake’s buildings in?
How much would it cost to revamp their programs? To reopen the middle school they closed?
The state would give Ann Arbor a $1.4 million grant to cover some of the annexation costs, though the district asked for a lot more.
But others say that what Ann Arbor really stands to gain here is very simple: more kids.
"In this model of funding, it's basically, get more kids, or you're gonna be in a financial pinch soon,” says Whitmore Lake High School principal Tom DeKeyser.
And he says right now, every Michigan school district is in a tough spot.
"Every year there's an increase in costs. And if you're getting a set amount of dollars from the state, then the only way to get out of that spiral down, is to spend whatever you've got in the bank," he says.
"Or, you try to get more students to get more money."
Annexing Whitmore Lake would give Ann Arbor's district a bigger footprint, suddenly putting them next to places like Pinckney and Brighton, which might draw some of those kids into the district, too.