DeKalb schools, facing $70 million deficit, searches for cuts

That would just be the start of efforts to close a deficit of more than $70 million.

The public will get a chance to weigh in at 6 p.m. today at the first public hearing on the 2012-13 budget, which is due before the next fiscal year starts on July 1.

"We're putting everything on the table," said Jesse "Jay" Cunningham, a school board member who serves on the board's budget committee. The committee got a long list of possible cuts at a meeting Monday, along with a picture of the potential for new revenue -- $29 million -- if the board raises the property tax rate by two mills.

Last week, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson revealed that the school district faces a $73 million deficit. Chief Financial Officer Michael Perrone said about $24 million of it was due to collapsing real estate values, which reduce the amount that property owners pay in taxes. The rest is due to increasing costs, such as healthcare and retirement benefits.

Perrone also revealed this: while most school systems strive to keep at least a month's worth of operating expenses in the bank, DeKalb has nothing in reserves. Indeed, the district is on a path to finish this fiscal year with a $6 million deficit. Those bills would have to be pushed into the next fiscal year, pushing the budget gap to as much as $79 million, Perrone told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday.

School officials around metro Atlanta have bemoaned their financial state, but many had some kind of cushion in reserves. DeKalb's lack of a bankroll places it in a rare, and undesirable, class.

"While it is not common for school systems to incur deficit fund balances, it does occasionally happen," said Christy Willis, president of the Georgia Association of School Business Officials.

Atkinson has already cut $5 million from next year's budget, eliminating 73 positions from the central office. System spokesman Walter Woods said the cuts came from categories such as human resources, legal services, the superintendent's office and communications. She says she is cutting another $10 million in undisclosed costs, plus $5 million in overtime pay.

Several board members told the AJC that they would oppose a tax increase, which means officials might have to find another $29 million in cuts.

Board members discussed items that were not on the list the superintendent gave them Monday. They even suggested cutting all sports from middle schools.

"It is very apparent to me that this is a keep the doors open budget, and we're all going to have to come to grips with that," said board member Don McChesney, who is not on the budget committee but visited for the presentation. He said taxpayers want to know officials are using their money "wisely" before they will support a tax increase.

The public hearing is at 1701 Mountain Industrial Boulevard, Stone Mountain. Another is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 30 at the same location.

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