Atlanta plans to spend savings to add teachers

Atlanta Public Schools would be able to shrink class sizes and plug a budget hole by spending down its savings to minimal levels, according to recommendations by school board members Tuesday.

The proposals call for hiring 39 new teachers at large, crowded schools at a cost of $3.2 million and spending another $2 million from reserve funds to plug a gap created when the Atlanta Beltline didn’t make a scheduled payment to the school system.

These late expenses came just two days before the school district’s $594 million budget for the 2013-2014 school year is scheduled for final approval Thursday.

By adding the new teachers, the school system would keep average class sizes under 30 students in high schools and middle schools, and below 24 students in elementary schools.

“We feel confident that every school should be at these numbers,” said Budget Commission Chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks.

Most board members had shown displeasure that their budgeting process didn’t do more to reduce class sizes, which in some cases exceed guidelines outlined in state law. Before Tuesday, the budget had proposed keeping class sizes near current levels.

“These teachers are going to the places where we have the highest class sizes in the district,” said Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel.

The cost of adding new jobs further strains a budget that abruptly fell $8 million short last week because the Atlanta Beltline hasn’t made a $2 million payment that was due in January and doesn’t plan to pay another $6 million-plus that’s owed next January. The Beltline is a 22-mile loop of blighted land that’s planned to be transformed into a necklace of trails, parks, transit and mixed-use development by 2030.

Through a complicated funding agreement, the Beltline has been receiving a portion of Atlanta Public Schools’ property tax revenue in exchange for fixed payments that started coming due this year. School officials have said they’re open to renegotiating after tax revenue to the Beltline fell short of expectations.

School system Chief Financial Officer Chuck Burbridge told school board members that a $6 million gain in property tax projections will make up for most of the cost, leaving the remaining $2 million to come from the district’s savings account.

Even before the new drain on its reserves, the school board planned to withdraw $21.5 million to cover its expenses.

The additional $5.2 million in spending would bring the school district’s savings below $43 million if no further cuts are found, but board members asked Superintendent Erroll Davis to suggest about $1.3 million in additional cuts that could keep the savings account healthy in case of unexpected money problems. The board has said it doesn’t want the school system’s savings to drop below $41 million.

Cuts could include a fourth teacher furlough day, privatizing custodial services or closing schools.

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