Opinion: DeKalb’s new budget shortchanges students, classrooms

A DeKalb parent says the school board is directing millions of additional dollars to central office expenditures, including additional staff for finance, human resources and IT, instead of to students and classrooms.

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A DeKalb parent says the school board is directing millions of additional dollars to central office expenditures, including additional staff for finance, human resources and IT, instead of to students and classrooms.

Parent: New funds went to finance, human resources and IT rather than teachers, kids

Diana Bate Hardy is a former civil litigation attorney now taking a break to focus on raising her young daughters. A DeKalb parent, Hardy is the creator of Civics Education for Families, a social media project to help parents teach their children the rights and duties of citizenship. She spends most of her spare time volunteering with the PTA.

In this guest column, Hardy shares her disappointment over the DeKalb County Board of Education’s approval Thursday of a $2.6 billion budget that she says undermines schools like hers.

By Diana Bate Hardy

In the past few weeks, parents at Briarlake Elementary School learned that as part of the DeKalb County School District’s efforts to “right-size” our schools after the pandemic, we are facing the probable loss of our STEM teacher, our gifted liaison teacher, one or two homeroom teachers, and three paraprofessionals. Additionally, our instruction in art, music, and PE will be cut in half.

Our school was already reeling from the loss of 25 staff members, partly due to the “great resignation” brought on by COVID-19 and partly due to teachers taking new jobs. It is not an exaggeration to say that our wonderful little school is in crisis. And we are not alone.

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Diana Bate Hardy

Credit: Courtesy photo

Diana Bate Hardy

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Diana Bate Hardy

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Not only are schools across the nation experiencing a mass exodus of teachers who felt undervalued before the pandemic and entirely burned out since, but DeKalb is also seeing a 5.3% drop in student enrollment just since the pandemic, likely a result of many students moving to private schools. The assumption was those students would return to public schools in a post-COVID-19 environment, but enrollment data seems to suggest that isn’t happening.

Sadly, although the fiscal year 2023 budget shows there are millions of dollars available, the DeKalb district is choosing to “right-size” by dramatically cutting the teachers and staff that work directly with students while directing those millions of additional dollars to central office expenditures, including additional staff for finance, human resources, and IT, to name a few.

This approach is only driving more concerned parents and teachers away. Surely, any effort to “right-size” that asks schools to make do with less should also be asking the same of the central office.

Over the past three years, the federal government infused $488 million in COVID-19 relief funds into our school district in response to what was deemed a national emergency. As parents, we’re still trying to fully understand how all of that money was spent, but one positive effect for teachers and students was a decrease in class sizes.

ExploreDeKalb school board approves budget with tax increase

In an attempt to help with social distancing in the classroom and address concerns with learning loss, DCSD continued to allocate points based on pre-COVID enrollment even though actual enrollment was declining. This had the effect of lowering class sizes in some schools, which provided some bit of relief to teachers. While smaller class sizes are typically one of the more expensive interventions for student success, they are also an effective one, especially in terms of teacher retention.

The Board of Education vote Thursday approving the budget was a huge missed opportunity for DCSD. Now really is the time to “right-size” public education.

When the political will exists, our federal and state governments can provide vital funding in an emergency, and we’re definitely in one. Public education has been in an increasing state of crisis for years, and, if we don’t act now, some experts are predicting it could very well be the death of public education as we know it.

At a bare minimum, we must ensure that every school, regardless of region or annual enrollment, has full-time art, music, PE, and STEM teachers. Anything less amounts to a denial of students’ rights to a well-rounded education.

Right now, DeKalb Schools is experiencing the financial good fortune of a soaring real estate market and a higher than usual millage rate. As evidenced by the requested $132 million additional funds in our current proposed budget, we have an opportunity that might never present itself again to show what can be done for public school students when our programs are properly funded. It’s time for our budget to properly reflect our values.

Our students cannot afford for DCSD to continue to prioritize the “business” of educating over the actual work of educating. It is past time for us to direct the vast majority of our resources to the places that matter most — the classrooms.

And it’s time for us to come together as parents and educators and insist on bipartisan legislation that makes permanent the investments made in our students and teachers during the pandemic. That is the only kind of “right-sizing” that makes sense.

The author of this guest column is Diana Bate Hardy, a DeKalb public school parent.