DeKalb school board rejects teacher layoffs

DeKalb County schools has put itself in a position to spend $20 million beyond its recently approved budget after board members Monday again rejected a plan to layoff about 250 teachers.

By law, school districts must have balanced budgets. So the DeKalb board's refusal to cut teachers, which it agreed to do when it approved its $730 million general operating budget last month, may only delay the inevitable.

"If they don't do it now, at some point during the school year, the numbers aren't going to match up," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "It's going to be pay me now or pay me later."

The DeKalb board Monday instructed Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson to find $20 million in cuts elsewhere if teacher and paraprofessional attrition doesn't take care of the problem first. The layoff proposal included 120 paraprofessionals, or teachers' aides. Cutting teachers and their aides has been an unpopular option among some parents. And at least one candidate for school board said members of the DeKalb board — those who face re-election July 31 — don't want to make the tough choice of approving teacher layoffs so close to voters going to the polls.

But DeKalb schools may be out of options. It's unlikely enough teachers will choose to retire or quit to get to the number needed to balance the budget. The district has already agreed to $60 million in cuts to support staff and programming, and may not be in a position to absorb more cuts.

"She's got to come up with a different plan, one that does not include reduction in force," board chairman Eugene Walker said before the 5-2 vote against layoffs. Only Tom Bowen and Jay Cunningham voted for the layoffs, with Pam Speaks and Paul Womack absent.

Throughout the budget process, administration officials had been telling board members that they hoped to avert teacher layoffs. Typically, far more retire or leave voluntarily each year than the number of positions cut from the budget.

Walker and other board members said they didn't think they'd have to lay anyone off when they voted for the budget. But board member Jay Cunningham said he understood that layoffs were a strong possibility. It's "common sense," he said. "If you vote for this, this will happen."

In recent weeks, teachers have been leaving at a rate of about 20 per week, too slow to meet the requirements of the budget cuts.

Laying off teachers once school starts will be more difficult emotionally because children and parents will have developed relationships with teachers, Garrett said.

Some teachers who attended Monday's meeting praised the board's decision. So did Lisa Lake, whose child attends a Montessori program affected by the teacher cuts. "They're saying we need to stop and re-evaluate now," she said.

Avoiding layoffs, however, is just wishful thinking, said David Schutten, president of teachers advocacy group the Organization of DeKalb Educators. He said the board gave false hope and that he expects layoffs eventually, or else the school system will spend money it doesn't have and wind up in debt next summer, unable to make payroll.

"It's just not fair to people because they need to be out looking for a job," Schutten said. He said DeKalb will start dipping into its projected reserves next year of $8 million in order to pay the extra teachers when they return to work Aug. 7, a week before school.

Some board members made suggestions for alternative cuts. Nancy Jester, for instance, said the DeKalb school system needed to spend less on legal fees.

School board candidate Marshall Orson said he thought the board's behavior was influenced by the July 31 election. Despite all the talk of re-opening the budget and cutting anything but teachers, no board member has put a formal option for alternative cuts up for a vote.

"Lots of throwing out ideas for political pandering," Orson said. "The consequence is we are left in this hole with no clear direction for how we're going to dig out of it."

Jester is not up for re-election July 31, but four board members are, including the two who were absent Monday and two who voted against layoffs.

Bowen, the board member who voted for layoffs, said any significant cut will involve people, since payroll and benefits are the bulk of the budget.

Legal and other non-personnel costs are too small to make up the $20.5 million in costs that Atkinson wants to cut with layoffs. "I don't want people to think there's some magic bucket out back," Bowen said.

Bill Armstrong, chairman of the school council at Huntley Hills Elementary, has been watching the school board closely during the budget turmoil. He was shocked by what happened Monday.

"What are they waiting on," he said, "the 'budget fairy?'"

By the numbers.

The DeKalb County school board voted June 21 to cut $78.6 million from the fiscal year 2013 budget. The 10 largest line items are employee pay and benefits:

$14 million: increase class sizes by an average two students per class, resulting in the elimination of at least 200 teaching positions.

$10.2 million: increase special education class sizes by an average two students per class, resulting in the elimination of an undisclosed number of teaching positions.

$7 million: eliminate 200 general education paraprofessions, or teachers' aides.

$6 million: two furlough days, meaning teachers will be paid for two fewer planning days.

$5 million: lay off 70 from the central office.

$5 million: reduce overtime pay.

$4.7 million: eliminate 188 bus monitors.

$4.7 million: decrease employee health insurance subsidy.

$3.7 million: reduce the number of magnet school teachers.

$2.7 million: eliminate DeKalb's contribution to pre-kindergarten teachers' pay.

DeKalb says no

The DeKalb County School Board Monday voted against laying off more than 250 teachers needed to trim $20 million. Board members last month voted for the layoffs when they passed the district's budget.

What it means

DeKalb schools will have to find $20 million in cuts elsewhere. Some think the district can't get there without laying of teachers, meaning DeKalb might be delaying the inevitable.

What's next

DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and the board will have to balance the district's budget. By law, the school district cannot run a deficit. Therefore, it must find $20 million in cuts. DeKalb is also considering drawing $8 million from its savings.