DeKalb Schools board delays budget approval

A screenshot of the DeKalb County Board of Education during its meeting on April 23.
A screenshot of the DeKalb County Board of Education during its meeting on April 23.

The DeKalb County Board of Education on Monday delayed its vote on a budget for the current fiscal year to give more time for district officials to deliberate on whether teachers should take a 5% pay cut through furloughs.

The current fiscal year began three weeks ago. DeKalb is the only major metro Atlanta school district yet to approve its budget.

District officials presented a $1.143 billion budget that, among other things, called for a hiring freeze, nine furlough days and $10 million specifically for additional instructional support amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

After the presentation, board members immediately voiced concerns about the nine days teachers and other staff members would be furloughed.

“The furlough days are an issue for me,” board vice chairwoman Vickie B. Turner said. “They are and they have been from the beginning.”

Furlough days were last used by the district as it worked through budget shortfalls amid the recession 10 years ago. In 2013, the district found itself about $14 million in debt amid the recession and issues with mismanagement, which saw then-Gov. Nathan Deal remove six members of the then nine-member board.

“We were broke, busted and disgusted,” board member Joyce Morley said.

Before the board delayed the vote, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said her staff was looking all available avenues to balance a budget while maintaining a reserve balance of more than $100 million. This is a priority for the board, as future forecasts suggest revenue shortfalls related to the coronavirus may continue several years.

“The team has reviewed every available option to us,” she said. ”Everything that we do at DeKalb Schools must start and end with mission ... and that’s providing the highest quality education to our students.”

Part of that reserve balance could be used to buy back several furlough days, board members argued.

The district’s budget is affected by several large obligations, including its first of five payments into a $117-million settlement related to a retirement contribution discontinued more than 10 years ago without proper notice.

During public comment, Ron Fowler from the Georgia Federations of Teachers reiterated the group’s stance that teacher furloughs not be implemented. Another parent mentioned no other metro Atlanta school district was considering furloughs for its teachers.

Another resident suggested the district shift back to five regions, losing several central office positions and moving about $1 million in savings back into the schools.

“It always seems to fall disproportionately on the schoolhouse,” she said, referring to potential budget cuts.

The district’s budget is being approved about a month later than usual, as the coronavirus forced the district to rethink its financial priorities and the state — from where the district gets significant funding — did not approve its budget until late June.

The school board did approve its tax levy, which would allow the district to collect more in tax revenues for the current year. Board member Stan Jester took issue with the tax increase, saying asking people for money to fund the district as officials considered furloughs was a bad look.