DeKalb schools’ finance chief leaves amid questions about the budget

The same day the cash-strapped DeKalb County School District released a proposed budget with millions of dollars in surprise revenue, the district’s finance chief turned in his resignation, two events a district spokesman said were unrelated.

Michael Perrone's decision to leave Tuesday had nothing to do with the district's release of a budget that day with $27 million in revenue that did not exist in his earlier projections, district spokesman Jeff Dickerson said.

“He left on amicable terms and all is well,” Dickerson said, adding that Mike Bell, a government finance veteran, will step in temporarily.

Perrone’s departure after an accounting discovery obliterating a projected shortfall for fiscal year 2014, which begins in July, left some observers uneasy.

“With the discovery of what has been called a surplus, there are a lot more questions than answers,” said Gil Hearn, a Dunwoody parent. The founder of Parents for DeKalb County Schools said some worry the new money is not real. “It introduces significant doubt into the process,” he said.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution how he found the money: Some of it, such as a state subsidy associated with a growing population of students who don’t speak English, was always there and unrecorded, he said. But some of it DeKalb had failed to collect, he said. For instance, the district gets federal dollars to feed children, but failed to bill the government for the cost of administering the grant, Thurmond said.

“Some of it, we got it but we didn’t know we had it,” Thurmond said. “Some of it, you had to know to ask to get it.”

School board chairman Melvin Johnson said he’s confident in Thurmond’s discovery. He said DeKalb can collect the unbilled money for the current fiscal year, and will try to recoup money from prior years — though he was less optimistic about the prospects for that.

Johnson said he assumed Perrone left because of the revenue revelation. “He probably looked at the budget and saw the discrepancies that had been revealed and decided to resign,” Johnson said.

Perrone did not return messages left on his district cellphone or on an older cellphone he brought with him from Florida. No working number could be found for him in the Jacksonville, Fla., area, where he worked as a school finance officer before he was hired last year by former DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson.

Perrone is the first member of Atkinson’s cabinet to leave under Thurmond, who took over in February.

School board member Marshall Orson said he does not know why Perrone left but said it could have been a simple changing of the guard.

“It’s not unusual when you have a change in leadership that some people end up going,” Orson said.

The new superintendent's budget is a sharp departure from Atkinson's. With Perrone's help, Atkinson engineered some of the deepest cuts in school district history. DeKalb sheared off $78 million in spending, implementing a $730 million budget that increased class sizes by reducing teaching positions, laid off library workers, interpreters and bus mechanics and imposed two additional furlough days — unpaid leave — on teachers.

Thurmond is recommending a $759 million budget for fiscal year 2014 that cancels one of those furlough days and gives bus drivers and other support workers a cash incentive for showing up to work regularly. He is also asking the school board to buy new textbooks, hire interpreters and invest in planning for a career academy when they adopt the budget in June.

Teachers advocate David Schutten said the canceled furlough day is a welcome, if small, concession. The president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators visited a half-dozen schools Wednesday and said teachers at all of them expressed “hope but cynicism” about the newfound money.

Schutten was surprised to learn of Perrone’s departure and said it will only deepen suspicion. “He struck me as being competent, so I’m just kind of taken aback,” Schutten said. “What people are going to want to know is, does this have anything to do with the money?”