Gathering Storm

By Glenn Cook

In his second go-round as superintendent, 66-year-old James Hawkins is running out of options. To reduce a $5.5 million budget deficit last year, Michigan’s Ypsilanti School District closed two elementary schools, implemented an early-retirement program, and laid off support staff.

Hawkins, who served as Ypsilanti’s superintendent for six years in the mid 1980s, returned to the district in an interim role to help out. Along with two of his top administrators, he is working as an independent contractor without benefits to save money -- a necessity, as the district faces another $3 million deficit this year.

“We have tried to be innovative and creative to save costs and dollars,” says Hawkins, who approved the sale of ads on school buses and is trying to get surrounding districts to band together and privatize transportation. “But we haven’t been able to find a way to totally correct the deficit,” he says. “The things we did last year were one-time opportunities. You just can’t close schools every year and still protect the quality of instruction.”

As districts finalize budgets for 2006-07, the sobering financial picture Ypsilanti faces is playing out in schools across the country. And it is complicated by a host of factors that school boards have little ability -- or authority -- to fight.

State funding is flat, federal money is falling, and local governments are flailing as they struggle to deal with skyrocketing costs for pensions and health care. Add to that a slower-than-expected recovery from the post-9/11 downturn, escalating fuel costs, and an aging workforce that is living longer in retirement, and you have a growing percentage of fixed costs that are being used to pay for resources outside the classroom.

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