Critics suspicious of school budget and cuts

Frustration. Suspicion. Outrage.

Those are among the sentiments of parents, teachers and taxpayers in DeKalb County who learned in recent days just how financially damaged their school system is.

While hard times have hit most school systems in metro Atlanta, none has been hit quite as hard as DeKalb. Most districts could turn to cash reserves to cushion the blow of declining tax revenues and increasing costs. In DeKalb though, officials expect to finish this fiscal year in debt. The dire situation and the resulting deep cuts have left many feeling that mismanagement, is to blame.

"It's ridiculous how much money does not make it into the classroom," said Bill Armstrong, a parent at a public Montessori school who expects to see teachers eliminated as part of the cuts.

Armstrong was among the lucky dozens who got a chance to speak Wednesday night at the DeKalb County School District's second and final public hearing on the fiscal 2013 budget. Such hearings are usually quiet affairs that attract some staffers and a few gadflies, but this one drew a spillover crowd of over 200.

Last week, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson revealed that the current budget approved a year ago had cloaked tens of millions of dollars in costs for which money was not set aside. Those costs, the board learned, could drag the school system into a $6 million deficit by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.

For some, that was just another in a long series of mishaps that undermined trust.

Before Atkinson's revelations, there was the news that money had not been set aside for interest payments in the school construction program. That misstep, revealed in the winter, led to cutbacks in the building program. Before that, there were the fraud indictments against former Superintendent Crawford Lewis and a key administrator, alleging that they used school funds like a piggy bank. Before the indictments, there was the lawsuit with a construction management company, which is still ongoing and has cost taxpayers millions in legal bills.

Those incidents confirmed the suspicions of people such as Rick Callihan who feel the school system operates as a job network for insiders.

"I think there is plenty of evidence that DeKalb hires friends and family instead of seeking the best job candidates," Callihan said before the meeting. The board member of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association said the one-mill tax increase that officials are proposing to help fill the breech is unwelcome in his neighborhood.

"I've talked to several of my friends and none of them are in favor of it," said Callihan. "They don't see the school system operating efficiently."

Members of the school board polled each other Tuesday and found a majority willing to raise taxes by one mill, half the amount Atkinson requested. The first increase in nearly a decade would add $14.8 million to the budget and push the school system about one mill shy of the 25-mill cap set by voters.

Atkinson took over the school district last fall, and has tried to address the doubters. She's laid off 73 employees in the central office and proposes to peel away another 70 next year, for a total of $10 million in reduced head office personnel costs. It's unclear, though, whether she has gone far enough.

"I would pay more taxes if I knew I would get something out of it," said Caroline Lord, a parent from Tucker who addressed the board at Wednesday's hearing. "But right now, I don't want to give you any more money. I want to see some drastic cuts: I want to see the nepotism gone."

School board members could agree on only $60.6 million in cuts and needed the tax increase to cover the difference.

In discussions Tuesday, a majority was willing to make these systemwide cuts: increase class sizes in regular schools by cutting about 100 teaching positions, eliminate more than 250 librarians, library clerks and teachers' aides and furlough teachers two more days a year (for a total of six days). Most also were willing to cut special programs, such as pre-kindergarten, special bus routes and 80 supplementary teachers at magnet and Montessori schools.

Programs on the chopping block have supporters who can quickly turn into critics. Last week, when board members suggested closing the Fernbank Science Center, a decades-old educational facility in Druid Hills, it triggered a quick backlash and a petition. By Tuesday, the board pulled Fernbank off the closure list despite the $4.7 million it would have saved.

The difficult decisions will only be starting when the school board votes on a final budget June 11. The proposed general fund budget of around $760 million is unlikely to produce much in surplus funds, meaning DeKalb could come to the 2014 budgeting process with no reserves again. Should anything in the equation change for the worse -- if healthcare costs rise or property values fall more -- officials will have to cut more or raise taxes -- or both.