Cuts to DeKalb schools won't be immediate

In 2004, an outside auditor said more than a third of the system's non-teaching staffers were being paid more than the maximum recommended for their jobs. That audit, by accounting firm Ernst & Young, cost taxpayers $341,000, yet it triggered no major overhaul.

Now, a new superintendent has commissioned another review, this one costing as much as $175,000, that again says the county is spending too much on employees outside the classroom. It recommends cutting more than 300 central-office jobs.

Yet Cheryl Atkinson, who was hired to lead the district this summer, is counseling patience, explaining it will take a while to determine where, and how deeply, to cut.

"I know everybody's chomping at the bit," Atkinson said. "But we don't want to fix it wrong."

Critics who have long contended that DeKalb wastes money on administrators hail the most recent report as proof, and they hope something will come of it.

Back in August, Atkinson acknowledged "a perception of nepotism and cronyism," during her introductory speech to parents, teachers and community leaders. She said she would be studying and realigning the organization "and probably downsizing it."

Recently though, she has sounded a cautious tone. The review by Virginia-based Management Advisory Group recommends cutting 385 positions from the central-office payroll and adding another 48.5, for a net reduction of 336.5. Atkinson told her school board that she would be doing her own methodical assessment before making changes. Many job titles don't match the responsibility and pay, she said, and those need to be sorted out first.

Most of the nearly 1,200-page document comprises current and proposed pay scales and a new set of job titles and descriptions.

The document contains little that explains the determination that the central office is overstaffed.

Carolyn Long, the president and chief executive officer of the consulting firm, declined to comment directly, preferring to go through DeKalb schools spokesman Walter Woods. He said the firm reached its conclusions based on comparisons to "peers, best practices, industry standards" and decades of experience reviewing school districts.

Woods said the report recommends the elimination of actual positions filled by real people, not vacant positions that exist only on paper. But he also said layoffs were unlikely. About 200 administrators leave the school system each year, he said, so those in any eliminated positions would likely get reassigned to open positions.

Some school system observers are impatient.

Jim McMahan has two children attending DeKalb schools and wants more money pushed down to the classrooms. He said he was disappointed with the district's unenthusiastic response to the 2004 audit and said he was hoping for results this time.

"Redundancy is waste," he said. "They're spending millions and millions of dollars on bureaucracy instead of in the classroom."

School board member Don McChesney said overstaffing has been an enduring problem. "We've known about this for a long time," he said. "The problem has been getting anybody to do anything with it."

Officials will soon know more. This phase of the review looked only at the 1,499 jobs on the central-office payroll. The final phase, due March 15, will report on the rest of the system's 15,000 positions.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.