Albion Community School (ACS) is in danger of closing.
The K-8 has been battling debt for years, but the State Department of Treasury has now stepped in to issue an analysis of its fiscal condition. With its results to be released within the week, the citizens and school board of Albion are examining their options for the future of Albion’s schoolchildren.
How did the school get to this point? “If you ask ten random people on the street in Albion this question, you’d get ten different answers, and they would all likely be correct,” said Dr. Nels Christensen, Albion School Board member and Albion College English professor. “So it’s complicated. But the quick answer is this: decreasing enrollments.” A decline in student taxes has also been a large factor.
The school board, superintendent and citizens of Albion gathered in the Charles Snyder building on Nov. 17 for a Community Informational Forum regarding the struggling ACS. Superintendent Jerry-Lynn Williams-Harper detailed the situation to a crowded room, with more people than plastic chairs.
“It’s been an ongoing situation,” said City Manager Sheryl Mitchell.
Albion Community School has been losing around 150-200 students per year for two decades. More and more parents are choosing to send their children to neighboring school districts. As ACS loses students, it loses revenue from the government. According to Williams-Harper, about 20 school buses travel in and out of Albion each school day from different school districts.
Students aren’t the only ones leaving. Teachers haven’t gotten raises in seven years, and this past year, everyone in the district took a five percent pay cut. Three teachers have already decided to leave for the next school year. If nothing is done, dissolution is inevitable—the Albion School District will cease to exist.
However, options are available. According to Mitchell, there are four: annexation, where ACS will be absorbed into another school district; consolidation, where a new school district will be created that encompasses all communities; a new managerial system or public-private partnership, which will allow the school to continue to keep the current entity or dissolution, where the school would disappear and its children split by the intermediate school district. Williams-Harper emphasized the priority of keeping Albion’s children together in Albion.
“There are definitely local residents who want to maintain a school presence here, and that school identity and just having a facility that’s close where you can easily access your children if need be,” Mitchell said. If annexation occurs, a school will most likely remain in Albion.
Williams-Harper has been discussing annexation with Marshall’s school district in particular, as well as discussing consolidation options with other school districts. She urged citizens not to look at annexation as a negative option. “Our kids aren’t bargaining chips. We want them to have the best that we can possibly have,” she said.
In view of the difficult decisions ahead, the Albion School Board created the Albion Citizens Education Committee. The committee allows citizens to participate in the decision making process. Its approximately 30 members will give the board a recommendation for a course of action on Monday, Nov. 30. The board will then vote on a course of action. Their decision will be brought to a popular vote in March 2016.
The Committee met on Nov. 19 to hear from other school districts. At the beginning of the meeting, Albion School Board President Michael Bearman spoke. “As you can see, this is not about me, not about the board, not about the superintendent; it’s about the education of our children for Albion, Albion township and Sheridan township,” he said.
President of the Marshall School Board Richard Lindsay, Homer Superintendent Robert Wright, Concord Community Schools Superintendent Al Widner and Jackson Superintendent Jeff Beal all spoke to the committee and citizens to express their willingness to support Albion with mutually beneficial partnerships.
Beal presented another idea to the committee. He described a plan in which Albion Public Schools can pay off their debt with non-homestead taxes while contracting Jackson to run a school directly in Albion.
Whatever its fate, ACS will not have to worry about closing or merging next semester. On the long term, however, nothing will be definitive until the Treasury Department’s assessment is given.
“Part of their decision-making will be if they want to allow the school district to devise their own deficit reduction plan or if they want to interject an emergency manager or a consent agreement relative to the operations,” said Mitchell.
Although ACS will do anything to prevent it, if all plans fail, dissolution will occur. However, transportation—a problem many citizens of Albion cannot provide to their children due to work—will be provided.
“This situation is tough, really tough, on our town,” Christensen said. “But Albion has proven itself resilient over and over again. I believe our community will come together and figure out what is best for the education of our kids—which is the heart and soul of any healthy community.”
Photo by Alex Carey