DeKalb adopts budget with school closings

Without a citizens’ panel recommendation, DeKalb County will move forward with the closure of four schools to help meet an anticipated $115 million budget shortfall.

The school board voted 5 to 4 on Monday night to tentatively approve across the board cuts and no tax increase. The reductions include at least 430 layoffs, four elementary school closings and staff furloughs.

Further complicating matters, the citizen's task force, after earlier voting not to shut down any schools, will vote on a recommendation on Tuesday for the district to close Gresham Park Elementary and Knollwood Elementary, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. Closing those schools would only save $1.18 million. The board is hoping to save at least $2.35 million with school closings.

However, the board likely will ignore the task force vote, figuring the citizen's group already had its opportunity to provide input on the controversial subject. The board next will hear from residents at two public hearings before issuing a final approval on the $735 million budget on May 10.

While including the controversial school closings in the fiscal year 2011 budget, the board didn't identify the facilities that it will close at the end of this school year.

“This is not the final product, merely the starting point,” board chairman Tom Bowen said.

Although only a tentative adoption, several board members refused to support the budget, indicating they were against school closings and wanted to raise taxes.

“I’m not going to vote for any proposal that does not include a millage increase,” board member Eugene Walker said. “I feel if we adopt the budget that is being proposed, it will have a severe and very adverse impact on our capability to teach our kids.”

Several parents said they would rather raise taxes than lay off staff. The budget includes cutting 150 central office workers, 200 paraprofessionals, 59 media clerks and 18 technical specialists.

“We know this will be devastating and mean increased stress to the teachers, especially with the increased class sizes,” Tonna Harris-Bosselmann, a mother of two students, said about the paraprofessional layoffs. “We must look at additional revenue with a millage rate increase. It’s the only thing possible right now.”

Even with many of the district’s 11,000 empty seats found in south DeKalb schools, some board members continued to complain about the southern end of the county being targeted. Many of the south DeKalb neighbors house African-American families.

“I hate to talk north and south, but everything in the north has been taken off this budget plan,” board vice chair Zepora Roberts said. “At some point, we got to have something left in south DeKalb.”

Latasha Walker, a parent, told the board on Monday night that she was upset they were looking for savings by closing schools instead of trimming money spent on administrators and lawsuits.

“My daughter’s school is not on the list, but it seemed to be a coincidence that the majority of recommended schools were African-American,” she said. “I’m bothered by the fact that any schools on the north or south side are even up for closure.”

The board will identify schools headed for closure on Friday, Bowen said.

That’s when the board likely will go forward with a recommendation from school staff and not rely on further information from the Citizens Planning Task Force, board members said.

Two weeks ago, the task force – a 20-member group charged with recommending schools to close – voted to not close any schools. After months of reviewing data, the group decided the school board should identify the targeted schools. That decision drew complaints from board members who felt as if the task force earlier wasted everyone's time.

“After hearing complaints from the board, the task force chairman bowed to the pressure and said we should reconsider the vote,” task force member Bruce McMillian told the AJC on Monday. “We made a decision. It was fair and objective. There is no reason to go back and revisit it.”

Task Force chairman Thad Mayfield said he wasn't pressured by board members, but decided that the task force should “refine” its recommendation. He declined to say what the task force will discuss Tuesday.

“I don’t consider it changing our minds,” Mayfield said. “We want to make sure we give it one last look before we submit our final recommendation to the board and the superintendent.”