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Future of Albion Schools Depends on May 3 Vote

Sehvilla Mann

Few towns face a bigger decision next week than Albion. That’s when voters will decide whether neighboring Marshall should permanently absorb Albion’s school district. Faced with dwindling enrollment, Albion sent its high school kids to Marshall in 2013 - and its middle school kids earlier this year.

But annexation would still be a big step beyond that. Those in favor see it as relief for a struggling district, while those against say it would be the undoing of local control over education.

On a warm day in April, Albion College students heap mulch by a tidy garden behind what used to be Albion’s public high school. Now there are only elementary kids here, playing at the end of the school day. Aside from early childhood programs, this is Albion’s last public school.

Professor Trisha Franzen is one of the garden project’s leaders.

“The middle schoolers left in January so now we are working mostly with fifth graders. But during summer school work with all ages from the smallest ones up,” she says.

With most of Albion’s kids either in Marshall through cooperative agreements, or elsewhere through schools of choice, only a few hundred children remain in the district. That’s led the school board to consider annexation with Marshall. Friends and families sometimes find themselves on opposite sides in the debate, where the big questions turn on resources, representation and race.

Let’s start with money. Neither side denies that Albion schools are deep in debt. The total amount is around $3.6 million.

“Albion has suffered 20 years of economic downturn,” says Albion Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Amy Robertson.

The Chamber belongs to the Albion Alliance for Annexation. Robertson says Albion has started to see its businesses grow and investment come in from outside.

“The economic vitality dependent upon getting some of this old debt and old burden off of the community so that we can start being a community people want to purchase homes in, move to, have a job in and reinvest,” she says.

But parent and Albion School Board Trustee Sonya Brown does not see the debt as a reason to let the district be annexed. Brown has cast several lone “no” votes on the way to the May third proposal. She says instead of annexation, Albion Public Schools could partner with another school system.

“Another district would come in and operate our school. The Albion school board would still be intact, and we would share services. We would contract out the services to another district,” she explains.

Brown says that arrangement, known as the 105-c option under state law, would give Albion schools a way out of debt.

“During that time our 18 mills that will be collected under any option – it’s just a question of where the money’s going to go – the 18 mills under the 105c option can pay down our debt at the rate of $1 million a year,” she says.

The district would still need to borrow a substantial amount of money to get going in the fall.

Jackson Public Schools had floated the idea of such a partnership. But it withdrew a tentative proposal after the Albion board voted to put annexation on the ballot.

Under an annexation, Marshall and Albion would share a school board. Parent Shymetha Wilson says she’s confident Albion’s interests would be represented. Wilson says she hasn’t found the current Albion district very responsive.

“Because they [in Marshall] are reaching out trying to figure out, okay, well this is a different environment of children, and it’s a lot of them now so how are we going to deal with it. So you know, we’ll probably have more input at Marshall than we did here,” she says.

But parent Shawna Gamble, who opposes annexation and who’s campaigned with the ‘no’ group Albion’s Future, points out that Marshall’s school district has about 3000 more registered voters than Albion’s.

“What makes you think that we are going to have adequate representation on their board when they can out-vote us?” she asks.

The pro-annexation side says Albion’s children can get a better education in Marshall than they can in Albion, particularly now that Albion has lost much of its extra programming to budget cuts. Parent Aisha Ridley-Melton says she’s glad her daughter did not go to high school in Albion.

“They just had the basic classes. It was nothing that would prepare her for college so Albion High School was not even an option for us,” she says.

But Shawna Gamble says for her, Marshall’s academics are not so strong that annexation is the only option.

“Their curriculum – it’s a basic curriculum. Obviously it’s better than what we have today but I feel like the yes people aren’t pushing for a better curriculum,” she says.

Gamble says in many ways, it’s Marshall that stands to gain from an annexation – from greater access to educational resources such as Albion College.

People from both sides of the debate in Albion agree that racism targeted at Albion students has been a problem all through the district’s cooperative agreements. Several parents told me that their kids had been called by racial slurs at school in Marshall. That includes Shymetha Wilson.

“It was a shocker because I couldn’t imagine that. I thought we were so past that,” she says.

But Wilson says for her, the educational benefits of annexation outweigh the drawbacks. At some point, Wilson says, kids are going to find out about racism.

“It’s better for them to learn now that racism does exist. It’s still very much alive in the world today everywhere,” she says.

But Albion schools trustee Sonya Brown sees things differently. Her son is a tenth-grader at Marshall High School.

“He knows he is a black male because society taught him that when he was a young child, even before he went to Marshall,” Brown says.

“But since he’s been to Marshall it’s been more in his face, and we’ve had to have more talks about race and racism and being a black male in America within the last two years than we did the prior 13 years of his life,” she adds.

At the Albion district’s last school, a bus driver who gives his first name as Tramaine is waiting to pick up students.

“I personally, I believe no is the way to go and that’s the way I’m going,” he says, standing in the door of his bus.

What does he hear from the students?

“I asked a kid the other day, and she said she did, she did want to stay in Marshall. I asked her why and she said, better food. I mean and this was a high schooler so – it’s not like kids are going to look deep, look deep at the scope of things,” he says.

But he says overall students' opinions are mixed.

“I have some kids saying no and some kids saying yeah. Just like the city I guess, reflecting probably their parents,” he says.

If Albion voters approve annexation, it would take effect July 1.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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