Saturday, July 31, 2021

We Almost Lost Ann Arbor

The old joke about Ann Arbor is that it’s a bubble, 27 square miles surrounded by reality.

In a state, Michigan, where people historically work with their hands, Ann Arbor produces brainworkers. 

A 2009 Wall Street Journal story compared the divergent fates of brainy Ann Arbor and brawny Warren, two towns of 100,000-plus people.

“In 1979, the average family in Warren made $28,538 annually, not much below Ann Arbor’s average of $29,840,” the Journal reported.

In 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Warren was $50,000, compared to $66,000 in Ann Arbor.

Nice brainwork, if you can find it.

A parent can send their child to the University of Michigan and have them leave with world-class training in law, engineering, medicine, business, social work. UM has top 10 programs everywhere.

Michigan also has a pretty good football team. Historically, anyway.

But Ann Arbor’s bubble almost burst last week. Its school board voted to keep school all-virtual for the rest of the school year, with no set-in-stone plan for in-person school in the fall, either. 

If the schools have operated with an “abundance of caution” in keeping classrooms closed since last March, parents have extended an abundance of patience. 

That was fine a year ago, when nobody knew anything. 

But Catholic schools in Michigan have been open for in-person class since the fall. 

That was fine, too, because public schools are understood to be different. 

But seeing nearby districts, such as Plymouth-Canton and Dexter and Ypsi-Lincoln, all either open their doors or set a date to reopen them, made Ann Arbor stand out in a bad way.

The walls closed in. A parents movement formed a political action committee and has raised money to pursue litigation. High school students rallied and demanded a return to the classroom. Even the city council and the mayor’s office got involved, asking, in the most Ann Arbor of ways, the schools to get their story straight.

On Tuesday, the Ann Arbor News reported on a new partnership between Ann Arbor Public Schools and Michigan Medicine, which will quickly vaccinate teachers, speeding their return to the classroom. 

On Wednesday the school board will vote again on reopening schools. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole world is watching.

The University of Michigan uses every resource it can to attract the best academic talents to Ann Arbor. 

From housing to child care, UM tries to cover so many bases that any would-be professor or visiting fellow can rest easy. Their family will be fine in Ann Arbor. Sometimes these people are coming in from different countries, and don’t have the luxury of visiting. They have to act on faith, and scan the headlines.

For people with older children, the top notch public schools are a major draw.

So news headlines portraying Ann Arbor as a place that’s unserious about educating children don’t help anyone. Not town, not gown, not parents, not students, and not teachers.

Some parents have already pulled their kids, and have no plans to bring them back. Some students will never do another day of in-person schooling. Some of the damage done to the district’s reputation, and to relationships once strong, will take time to repair.

But the bleeding has stopped. 

What would losing look like? Losing just 100 students would cost the district more than $1 million in state funds. 

And expenses don’t go down at the same rate revenues do, especially when you’re funding the retirement of former employees. The death spiral comes when school districts run out of fat to cut, and when innovation is no longer in the budget, only survival.

It takes a village to raise a child. This time, in Ann Arbor, the village came together to get its kids back in the classroom and avert disaster.  

For now. Possibly. Stay tuned.   

This piece first ran on the author’s blog.

James David Dickson
James David Dickson blogs at storiesaboutstories.com and writes crime stories at his day job. Find him on Twitter @downi75.

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