DeKalb schools to go on state remedial budget plan to make up for $24 million shortfall

The DeKalb County school board will have to work with the state to pay down a $24 million deficit left from the last school year, even as its current budget appears headed for another shortfall of almost the same size.

The school board knew this was coming, since by state law school district budgets must be balanced.

Scott Austensen, Georgia Education Department chief financial officer, told the board’s finance committee Friday that once the district submits its final financial figures from the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, the state will audit the numbers and set up a remedial budget plan that will require the board to detail how it will reduce the budget in monthly reports. The process could take a couple of years.

The board will be dealing with last year’s deficit while still figuring out how to handle a projected deficit in the current budget.

“What if we fail to deliver a report on time, what happens then?” board member Donna Edler asked.

“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Budget, Audit, Finance & Facilities Committee Chairman Paul Womack Jr., who was defeated for re-election and has been a vocal critic of the board’s handling of the budget.

Austensen, who was invited by Womack to address the committee, played down the significance of his visit at a time when there is growing pressure on the board from residents — and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting agency — to get its financial house in order.

“I’m here to just answer questions,” Austensen said. “This is not an official review.”

Other Georgia school systems are similarly strapped by fewer state funds and tax digests that have shrunk. DeKalb should not feel singled out, Austensen said.

Austensen and the committee did not address DeKalb’s current school year budget, which was approved by the board in June. This year’s budget is about $80 million less than last year’s, but it’s on track to be about $20 million over budget, thereby ringing up another deficit if the board doesn’t make cuts. In July the board rejected one plan to reduce the budget by laying off about 250 teachers.

School system spokesman Jeff Dickerson said Friday the board has been open about last year’s deficit and looks forward to working with the state to come up with a plan to pay it down. He said this year’s budget shortfall likely will be handled by staff attrition. “We think we’re close to that now,” he said.

This week DeKalb school Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson responded to complaints from SACS about the board’s handling of management and financial matters by outlining 16 initiatives since she took office less than a year ago. One was the hiring of new Chief Financial Officer Michael J. Perrone.

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