Metro districts still in a bind

Four facing combined $260 million deficit

Somewhere out there, an economic recovery is supposed to be taking place, but metro Atlanta school district officials wouldn’t know it by looking at their budgets. Most of them are grappling with deficits that are forcing them to contemplate actions that were more common during the depths of the Great Recession — furloughs, staff reductions, spending down reserves, increases in class size and project delays.

Measured strictly by GDP the recession is technically over, but districts haven’t felt much relief.

Funding for k-12 education in Georgia will tick upward next year if Gov. Nathan Deal signs the budget hammered out by legislators this past week.

Funding will rise to an estimated $6.88 billion in fiscal year 2013, slightly more than the $6.69 billion the state spent on K-12 education this year, according to figures provided by the Georgia Department of Education. That’s an increase of 2.8 percent.

District officials aren’t exactly throwing a party in celebration.

Atlanta Public Schools and the school districts in Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties have a combined budget deficit of about $260 million for the upcoming fiscal year. A spokesman for DeKalb County Schools said the district is still working on its budget projections.

Help for districts is not on the way. Federal stimulus money is long gone. And the state’s education funding formula — reworked in 2003 to reduce the amount of money districts receive — was not reworked again during this legislative session.

Cuts are still blowing holes in district budgets in metro Atlanta and across the state.

“We are thankful for everything we get, but, overall, people need to realize what we’ve lost,” said Linda Schultz, president of the Fulton County School Board.

State law requires that school districts balance their budgets, a job that’s gotten tougher since 2003. Funding amounts from state, local government and the federal government varies based on a district’s tax base and its student profile — which includes socio-economic background and disabilities.

In the fiscal year that ends June 30, Fulton County absorbed state cuts of more than $48 million — reducing the amount the state sent Fulton to $267 million. DeKalb County’s cuts totaled $64 million in fiscal year 2012. Gwinnett County took a $113 million hit. APS lost $22.5 million, and Cobb County had $72.3 million in cuts.

Statewide, cuts totaled $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2012. State Department of Education officials are still calculating how much in cuts districts will absorb in fiscal year 2013. They are also still finalizing the total amount of funding each district will receive.

District officials, however, have enough information to know one overarching fact: 2013 is going to be a difficult year.

“Like individuals, families and businesses, districts have had to do more with less for the past few years while enduring significant economic challenges,” said Scott Sweeney, chairman of the Cobb County School Board. “Economic recovery will not happen overnight and when it does take root, I sense growth will occur slowly.”

One painful residual of the Great Recession — the collapse of the housing market — continues to plague school districts, which get significant portions of their funding from tax collections based on home values.

Homes that are worth less generate less money for school districts.

Employment might be creeping up, but the housing market remains murky.

“The tax assessor told us he didn’t see us bottoming out until 2014,” said Linda Schultz, president of the Fulton County School Board. “You don’t see new construction.”

For school districts, however, there is a familiar set of issues to contend with: cuts, stagnant home values, rising fuel prices and rising health care costs.

The budget cuts transportation funding by 2 percent, giving districts less at a time when gas prices are soaring.

School districts are planning to cope with difficult financial circumstances in a variety of ways.

District officials in Cobb County are considering a plan that would use $20 million in reserves to balance the budget.

“It is a concern any time reserves must be used,” Sweeney said.

State law requires that districts maintain reserve funding, which can be used but can’t be depleted. A district would have to pledge to the state to restore a depleted reserve and submit a plan to do so.

Cobb, like some other districts in the state, is also contemplating teacher furloughs and larger class sizes. APS, facing an economic crunch as well as a drop in enrollment, is looking at closing some of its schools. And district officials in Fulton County are putting together a plan that includes no raises for teachers.

“There are things we’d like to do that we can’t do,” Schultz said.

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, said the financial strain on teachers has been enormous.

“You are stressing them out,” Turner said. “They are seething. Many of them are moonlighting. They are working on weekends. We are getting blood out of a turnip.”

Turner said teacher furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts districts approved in recent years have already done great damage.

“They are stressed to the maximum,” Turner said of teachers. “Many of them are losing their homes. Many of them can’t even put their own kids into college.”

Parents said they understand that districts are in a tough spot and must cut somewhere. But they want district officials to do all they can to make sure class sizes don’t rise.

“I don’t want to see that happen,” said Lori Stevens, the mother of an eighth-grader in DeKalb County. “I would like to make sure the money is going to the classroom and not into administration.”

Jim McMahan, the parent of a pair of DeKalb County students, said he wants the district to confront its difficult financial challenges in the open.

“Two words,” McMahan said. “Transparency and accountability. I’d like to see them be transparent. Just open the books and show us where you’re at. They’re working on that.”


As they put together their budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1, several metro Atlanta school districts have projected budget deficits of various sizes.

• Atlanta Public Schools: $66.5 million

• Cobb County School District: $62.4 million

• DeKalb County Schools: Still working on projections

• Fulton County Schools: $41.9 million

• Gwinnett County Public Schools: $89 million

-- Source: Local school districts