“Well, all my friends are boppin’ the blues. It, must be goin’ round
All my friends are boppin’ the blues. It, must be goin’ round”
Carl Perkins, “Boppin’ the Blues”
By Charles Sercombe
What is going on?
First, the city – out of the blue – suddenly realizes several months ago that it’s running out of money.
By next Feb. 1 the city will likely not have enough money to meet employee payroll and could face a state takeover.
And now … the public school district is facing the same abyss.
Last January, the district had an under-control $5 million deficit reduction plan. Flash forward to this week and the public school district is looking at a $6 million deficit.
Actually, it’s inaccurate to say the public schools district’s financial crisis is sudden. The district has been charting a slow but steady decline in revenue for the last several years, according to an audit report released at a school board meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
Ah, but there is a remedy, and it was laid out for the public and school district teachers and employees on Wednesday. This was not an ordinary board meeting. Instead of meeting in the cramped administrative office next to Keyworth Stadium, the board met earlier than usual – at 4 p.m. – at the Hamtramck High School Community Center. It was set up for over 200 people, but maybe 100 showed up.
“Pathetic,” said one district employee to another about the turnout – considering the dire financial news about to be discussed.
The news, indeed, wasn’t good.
District Superintendent Tom Niczay said it’s necessary to end leasing the former St. Lad’s elementary school at the end of this school year and shift those students into the district’s other school buildings. That will save almost $500,000 a year.
That savings plan came days after the district received an emergency loan from PNC Bank for a little over $900,000 – which will cover this Friday’s payroll.
Niczay tried to show optimism, however guarded. He invited school employee union leaders to meet with him on Dec. 1 and 2 to exchange ideas and come to some contract concessions – a fancy way of saying that they will be asked to take significant pay and benefit cuts.
The alternative, Niczay said, if there are no concessions: “We will go into receivership very, very quickly.”
Why the financial crisis?
For just about everyone – except the super, super rich who have been enjoying unprecedented tax cuts under the Bush administration – there’s been a meltdown of the American economy, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1930s-era Great Depression. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and homes.
Local revenue streams for communities – including Hamtramck – have shrunk, to the point of pushing communities into insolvency.
That 1930s reference was even mentioned in an open letter from the school board to the community and school employees about the district’s financial situation. Here’s how the board began their letter:
“Today, the Hamtramck Public Schools finds itself in the same situation as our school district found itself in during the 1930s. … We are at a crossroads.”
Here are some bullet points for perspective:
In 1992, the district had an overflow of students. Total enrollment was 4,088 students, which necessitated the district to lease the former St. Lad’s elementary school.
Kosciuszko Middle School – in the 1990s – had such an overflow that 10 portable trailer/classrooms had to be installed.
Today, the district has 2,900 students. For every student who left, the district lost a little over $7,000.
Do the math. That’s a loss of $8.3 million per year in state aid.
Since last year, 151 students left the district. That represents $1.1 million in state aid gone away.
The rise of charter schools is largely the reason for the mass exodus of students, and with their departure over $7,000 per head.
Why do parents pull their kids out of public schools?
For many parents, it comes down to a sense that charter schools provide better security for their kids.
Whatever you believe regarding charter schools, though, they have consistently scored lower test scores than their public school counterparts.
The resources of charter schools are dubious at best. At one, during the school’s grand opening for the public a few years ago, the school’s superintendent proudly rolled out the schools’ “library” – a single cart filled with books.
This is the competition facing Hamtramck’s public schools.
Despite this incredibly gloomy news, Superintendent Niczay was still optimistic. At one point he said the district was ‘falling off a cliff.” Later, he rallied the teachers in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, saying: “We will survive,” pausing and then adding, “leaner.”