The DeKalb County Board of Education this month cut $104 million from next year’s budget while sparing residents a tax increase that had been pushed by several members.
At the end of a contentious debate peppered with racial and partisan politics, the board voted 5-4 to approve the $1.037 billion budget. It ended more than an hour of discussion over whether the board needed a tax hike to ease the pain of districtwide cuts. Board members Zepora Roberts, Gene Walker, Jay Cunningham and Sarah Copelin-Wood voted against the plan while advocating a tax increase.
“Pretty soon we’re just going to be a scale of a school system” that will collect tax money and won’t serve students, Roberts said.
The board eventually saved 138 jobs, choosing to cut 150 central office workers, 100 paraprofessionals (instead of 200), nine technical specialists (instead of 18) and 30 media clerks (instead of 59).
Teachers were spared cuts, but class sizes were increased and teachers will have to suffer seven furlough days. Administrators will take 15 furlough days. The board also cut the district’s tax-sheltered annuity by $26 million. The annuity is essentially a teacher retirement fund that serves as a replacement for Social Security.
Roberts and other southern DeKalb County board members fought to raise taxes by at least half a mill, a measure that failed, sparking Roberts and Copelin-Wood to lash out at board members they said were voting politically.
“It’s certainly on partisan lines,” Copelin-Wood said. The board did not want to cut anything that would affect students but found itself with few options as it struggled with such a large deficit, board member Jim Redovian said.
“I just can’t vote for something where we don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
One of the most controversial proposed cuts, however, was to magnet school transportation. Currently parents of students who attend magnet schools are able to bring their children to 18 satellite locations from which their children are bused to schools, sometimes over significant distances.
The board was going to cut all magnet transportation but instead voted to only cut nine satellite locations.
“It’s a disservice to our children,” Roberts said.
The board gave preliminary approval to a budget last month that would have cut $115 million from the budget. The district had projected an $88 million budget shortfall, but interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said the board needed to cut more because the district expected the budgetary situation to worsen over the next year. Tyson said she feared the board would have to come back to the chopping block and interrupt services mid-year.
The budget was also supposed to include a plan to close four schools that would have saved the district more than $2 million yearly, but the board scuttled that plan last week in favor of a more comprehensive plan to ax 10-12 schools and redraw attendance zones. That plan is expected by September.