Atlanta’s tentative budget keeps existing class sizes

Atlanta’s school board approved a tentative budget late Thursday night that maintains class sizes, furloughs teachers for three days and starts school a few minutes later for middle and high schoolers.

The Board of Education voted 5-2 to pass the $592 million spending plan for the 2013-2014 school year after struggling to shift more money to student instruction. In the end, the best the board could do was to avoid class sizes from growing worse.

The board added 26 teachers to its original budget proposal at a cost of about $2 million, but that was only enough to preserve existing student-to-teacher ratios.

“Unfortunately, we’re just not in an economic climate where we can add teachers,” said board Chairman Reuben McDaniel. “We’re glad we didn’t have to raise class sizes.”

The two board members who voted against the budget, Nancy Meister and Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, wanted a greater effort from Superintendent Erroll Davis’ administration to shrink large classes, which in some schools exceed state limits.

“In my opinion, there’s been a complete disregard of what the board wants to get to,” Meister said.

The budget for the 43,860-student school district relied on furloughing teachers, eliminating a planned 3 percent bonus and tapping $21.5 million in reserve funds in order to become balanced.

Atlanta plans to spend about $12 million more than it did in the 2012-2013 school year, in large part due to an increase in health care costs and pension liability payments.

The budget scraps a plan for the school district to create its own police force, instead opting to pay an additional $1 million to hire more Atlanta Police Department officers to work in schools.

That option will put a police officer in every school without the additional cost of buying vehicles or paying for training, McDaniel said.

“If you don’t have a feeling among students that they’re in a safe place, they’re not going to learn at their best,” he said.

Jarod Apperson, a Midtown resident and forensic accountant who has followed the budgeting process, said he was disappointed that the school district’s spending priorities will remain similar to last year’s.

“There’s been no presentation by the administration that takes a higher-level view to move the school system forward,” Apperson said. “This administration has more or less considered the same practices as in the past, with minor tweaks.”

Board members wanted to slash what they called “fluff” in the school district’s central office, and the superintendent committed to look for between $500,000 and $1.5 million in cuts to administration, McDaniel said. Atlanta Public Schools has the highest administration costs of any school district in the state.

School start times will change under the new budget, with middle school beginning at 9:05 a.m. instead of 8:45 a.m. and high school starting at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8:15 a.m. First bell at elementary schools would continue to be at 8 a.m.

The adjustments in bell times allows the school district to save about $1 million by reusing buses for up to three schools each morning.

The budget also calls for selling property — possibly the site of Atlanta International School — but it’s unclear whether the school district will move forward with that plan or attempt to sell other unused buildings.

“There are a lot of trade-offs,” said school district CFO Chuck Burbridge. “You’re really balancing a lot of interests, and it all comes together in the budget.”

A final vote on the budget is scheduled for June 27.