DeKalb's School Budget Deficit: What Would You Do?
The DeKalb County School System is facing an $85-million deficit that's forced the school board to make some tough decisions.
The DeKalb School board is set to vote on a budget Wednesday, and that budget is going to cut deeply into district programs.
The district is considering an array of cuts, like eliminating transportation to magnet programs, cutting a district supplement to pre-kindergarten programs, gutting funding for the popular Fernbank Science Center and eliminating extra teachers in magnet programs.
Here are the big issues:
- The district is facing an $85-million deficit, which grew to that that number last week on the news that DeKalb County's tax digest was lower than expected. That will cost the district an estimated extra $12 million.
- The district hasn't made public its proposal to cut the extra millions from the budget – which already features increasing class sizes by two students district-wide, which means fewer teachers.
- The board will likely balance the budget with a mix of deep cuts and an increase of taxes. The board has come to a tentative agreement to increase taxes by one mill, which is projected to raise $14.8 million next year.
Below is an explanation of some of the high-profile cuts the district is proposing. They aren't the biggest cuts, but they've received quite a bit of attention from county residents. Be sure and vote in our poll about how you would go about balancing the budget. And leave us some comments.
The district could save $2.7 million by scaling back its kindergarten program.
- Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson didn't recommend cutting funding to the pre-kindergarten program, but it's one of the board's options to cover the wide deficit.
- Eliminating the district's allocation to the pre-kindergarten program would mean the school system would offer only what the state pays for.
Timing is an issue with pre-kindergarten as well. Many parents have already received news that their children are eligible for the program through the district's lottery. Cutting the program entirely would put those parents in a tough spot considering many have already passed on other options such as private daycare.
"To me, that's a commitment you've made to people," said Nancy Jester, District 1 school board representative. "That's a spot in private daycare they relinquished."
The upshot to cutting the pre-kindergarten program? If the district eliminates its portion of the pre-kindergarten funding teachers would not have to be fully certified teachers, which could affect staffing. Also, the state mandates fewer days of pre-kindergarten than the district's calendar.
If adopted, DeKalb's pre-kindergarten program would be similar to Fulton County, which works without a local supplement.
Larger class sizes
Larger class sizes means fewer teachers. Atkinson has recommended increasing class sizes by two students for a savings of $14 million. A more austere budget that would include no tax increase would enlarge class sizes by three students for a savings of $21 million.
Walter Woods, school system spokesman, said DeKalb could take on fewer teachers this year, especially as teachers in programs that could shrink – like Montessori and at the Fernbank Science Center – could be moving into spots the district needs to fill.
The district is also saying retirees and attrition could help stave off layoffs.
"We expect to hire fewer teachers," he said. "I don't have a hard number."
The reduction of "magnet allotments" would trim $3.6 million in the Superintendent's proposed budget.
- The allotment allowed the magnet schools to have lower teacher-to-student ratios because of the extra funding.
That will likely go away regardless of what version of the cuts cuts are adopted.
Magnet schools would then be calculated based on the needs of the students at the magnet schools, like at other schools in the system, Jester said.
"It seems like people seem to understand you earn your teacher allotment," Jester said. "There shouldn't be extra teachers based on the fact that you have a magnet program."
Fernbank Science Center
The school board has also rubbed up against the very vocal Fernbank community (once again) with a proposal to cut $3.2 million from the Fernbank Science Center, a popular field trip destination and learning center for many students in the county. The well-organized Fernbank community has risen up against the proposal – successfully, at first, as the proposed reduction was eliminated from consideration. Until last week.
The morning before the school board’s meeting last week, Atkinson slipped the majority of the center’s $4.7 million budget back on the chopping block. But the board tabled its budget vote until Wednesday. The Fernbank reduction would excise many of the center's programs and 56 staff members. But school system officials say the center would remain open and "fully functional" for the roughly 160,000 students who visit it each year.
A PDF of all the cuts the school board is considering is attached at right. What do you think of the options? How would you plug the school board's budgetary hole? Tell us in the comments section below.