DeKalb schools propose cuts in programs, teacher pay

DeKalb County pre-kindergarten classes, magnet schools and art courses will be slashed and teachers will likely see another pay cut to offset a $56 million deficit in the school system.

The only other option is to raise property taxes, DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis said Wednesday.

Either way, students, teachers and administrators will feel the pinch next year.

On Wednesday, Lewis outlined several budget proposals to help trim $56 million from next year’s budget, which starts July 1. A loss in revenue from declining property taxes and state aid caused the shortfall, he said.

The school board will spend the next few months deciding whether to raise property taxes or slash employees’ salaries through furloughs or a pay decrease.

“No one will lose their job,” Lewis told the board Wednesday. “But some employees will be offered a different position.”

Lewis said his goal is to avoid a property tax hike by trimming programs which have low attendance.

"We’re trying to be sensitive to people who are out of work, lost their homes to foreclosure and are struggling,” he said.

At 22.98 mills, DeKalb already has the third highest school tax rate in the metro area, according to Lewis.

Lewis’ proposal calls for teachers to take seven furlough days next school year or a 5 percent pay cut, an annual loss of about $3,200 for the average teacher. Administrators would take 15 furlough days under the proposal.

Bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers would not be affected. Substitute teachers would have their salary cut from $90 to $80 a day.

Those reductions would be in addition to about $11 million in cuts to school programs, including magnet and Montessori schools, classes at Fernbank Science Center, standardized testing in first and second grades, single gender schools and Lithonia Charter School and DeKalb Early College Academy. Summer school classes would be offered online only and half of the 104-pre-kindergarten classes would be cut. The state lottery funds pre-K teachers but not paraprofessionals, Lewis said.

The superintendent’s proposal also calls for 45 administrators in the central office to be transferred to schools, where they will become teachers.

The proposal also calls for cuts in the ranks of paraprofessionals, assistant principals and counselors. Once positions become vacant, they will not be filled.

Some board members said they would rather see a tax increase than cuts to teacher pay and programs.

If the board raises property taxes 1 mill, teachers would only face two furlough days or a 1.25 percent pay cut. The tax increase would cost a homeowner with a property valued at $200,000, about $68 more a year.

Board member Eugene Walker suggested the board raise taxes 2 mills, which would raise the average homeowner’s tax bill by about $135 more a year.

The county commission is also considering raising property taxes.

Teachers said they understand everyone will feel the effects of the recession and they are willing to take a cut. But they don’t understand why their furloughs are coming at the same time Lewis is getting a raise.

“Dr. Lewis just doesn’t get it with this pay issue,” said David Schutten, president of Organization of DeKalb Educators. “We’re willing to pitch in, but that continues to irk all of the employees.”

Earlier this month, the board voted to raise the superintendent’s pay from $240,000 to $255,000 and extend his contract to 2013.

On Wednesday, Lewis defended his raise and pointed out that he voluntarily took a pay cut last year.

“I don’t know any other superintendent who did that,” Lewis said. “Nothing I can say would be sufficient for anybody. If the board thought I was not a good deal, they would have gone outside and hired someone else.”

Despite the proposed cuts for next year, teachers said they are happy not to have to take any more furlough days this school year. Instead, they will not get contributions to their tax-sheltered annuity.

On Friday, Gov. Sonny Perdue asked teachers across Georgia to take three more days off to offset a decrease in state revenue.

The three furlough days equal about a $10.5 million budget cut in DeKalb, the state’s third largest school district.

Last year, the DeKalb board halted contributions to all school employees’ tax-sheltered annuity. By continuing with that cut, the board will save $9 million for the rest of the school year, Lewis said. The remaining $1.5 million will be trimmed from other spending.

The tax-sheltered annuity contributions will be re-instated July 1, Lewis said.