DeKalb reveals school budget shortfall

The school budget news in DeKalb County is both good and bad.

First the bad: cuts are probably coming; no surprise there. But here’s the good: they won’t be anywhere near as deep as last year, when officials slashed spending by about 10 percent.

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 has not been presented yet, but Monday, at the first of three public hearings, officials released a document showing a projected shortfall of $14.7 million, or about 2 percent of the current budget. And that shortfall was down about $1 million from the last time they handed out a document with projections a couple weeks ago.

Bus mechanic Gregory Davis has been showing the projections to acquaintances.

“Every time I show this to someone, they say ‘good’ because that number is not 89-point-something-million dollars,” he said.

Davis said he watched half his colleagues lose their jobs in layoffs after the last round of cutting a year ago, and said it created a logistical nightmare. About 100 buses are idled and awaiting repair on any given day, he said, forcing drivers to do double runs and parents to adjust pickup and drop-off times.

He was among several employees — teachers, custodians, counselors — who told the school board that their departments are already operating at the limit and cannot bear further cuts.

Last summer, the school board cut $78 million, producing one of the harshest budgets in metro Atlanta. The district eliminated jobs in nearly every category, pushing up class sizes and cutting services.

That decision was driven in part by a steep decline in housing values and resultant property tax revenue.

Property values are still dropping this year. Chief Financial Officer Michael Perrone said to expect around $10 million less than last year. But that loss should be neutralized by a similar-sized increase in revenue from state coffers, he said.

The projected revenue of $732.4 million is $400,000 over the current year’s take.

The shortfall is driven by a rise in non-negotiable expenses, including pension payments, health care costs, salary step increases and charter school costs.

Perrone said the shortfall may be relatively small, but he said it’s harder to find fluff after several rounds of cutbacks. “After five years of cutting,” he said, “it’s going to be a lot more difficult than it sounds.”

The new budget is due by June. Superintendent Michael Thurmond said he will unveil his budget proposal by the next public budget hearing on May 8.