The DeKalb County School System is headed for serious budget trauma, Superintendent Crawford Lewis said this month.
Over the last four years, the school district has slashed the budget by more than $10 million each year, and this year is no different. In fact, it’s likely worse, he said. In a Jan. 8 meeting with local media, Lewis said he predicts the district will face a $56 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010-11.
“There are going to be some really significant reductions,” he said. “Everything is on the table, and nothing is off the table. ... There’s no way to sugar coat this.”
Lewis declined to go into specifics about what could be cut, and said he plans to release his budget to the school board on Jan. 20. He said central office staff positions will likely be cut, and some employees will likely be placed in positions with a lower salary. He said he plans to avoid layoffs and cut positions through attrition and re-assignment.
He also said a significant number of district programs will likely be cut. Again, he provided no specifics but said the district plans to adopt “best practices” rather than relying on pre-designed programs to institute in DeKalb County classrooms.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do our work without any increase in the millage rate,” he said.
Lewis attributed the shortfall to dramatically declining property tax revenue and diminished state support. This year’s budget is about $851 million, according to district data. If the board votes to approve Lewis’ $56 million cut, the board will have cut the budget by $135.3 million over the last five years, according to district data.
Lewis also took time to address the issue of bus drivers’ compensation. Over the last two months, district bus drivers have protested cutbacks this year at board meetings, sometimes clogging the school board’s public comment sessions for an hour or more. Several drivers have said their salaries have been cut up to 30 percent, and that their opportunity to earn extra money by taking students on field trips and to sporting events has been greatly diminished.
Lewis disagreed, though he said the district has made an effort to distribute extra trips more equitably among drivers.
“We learned that this opportunity obviously benefited a small group of drivers while placing other drivers at an unfair disadvantage,” Lewis said in a statement. “Example: the veteran driver would get 15-20 extra field trips a month and other drivers got 1-2 trips or no opportunity at all. … It is our goal to afford every bus driver an equal and fair opportunity to earn extra pay.”
Discussions between the drivers and the school district also became more tense last week after bus drivers and their representative with the Organization of DeKalb Educators asked to meet with Lewis and several board members. When Lewis discovered a member of the organization was attending the meeting who didn’t happen to be a district employee, he asked the representative to leave.
The drivers said they didn’t want to meet with Lewis without him, so they left the meeting.
When asked why he didn’t want drivers to bring a representative, he said he wanted the discussion to occur between district employees only. Otherwise, he said, they could become involved in other district discussions regarding teachers and other employees.
“I believe the bus drivers are being ill-advised by their professional organization reps, and I think they’re being taken advantage of,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ meeting to release the budget to the board on Jan. 20 begins at 10:30 a.m. in the district’s central office.