It is time to look at the new DeKalb budget. The district has put the
timeline for FY2014′s budget on the website. There’s a public
budget hearing today at district office at 6pm. The second hearing will be
next Wednesday May 8th at 6pm. The final hearing will be on May 15th at
All the metro school districts are in the middle of their budgeting season.
Gwinnett has published their FY2014 budget documents. They haven’t yet
indicated their millage rate yet. Cobb county is projecting shortfalls
similar to those of DeKalb’s over the past few years. Cobb is at a
crossroads in decision making. The board has already looked at a “cut list”
like DeKalb did in FY2013. Board members having line-item veto power in the
formulation of a budget isn’t healthy or looked upon kindly by SACS. If I
had their ear, I would tell them to look at the entire budget and find
essentials in the classroom and establish the untouchables before you
arbitrarily look at a “cut list”.
Last year the DeKalb budget was cut about $90 million. Cobb is looking at
similar numbers this year. It is an undeniable fact that you cannot
maintain the same level of services and cut that amount of money from the
budget. Sure, there is waste and redundancy to eliminate but that won’t get
you to $90 million. A typical school system has 90% of its budget tied up
in salaries and benefits. Most of these benefits come with price tags that
are set at the state level. Local systems do not control what they pay for
employee health and retirement benefits. With such a large percentage of
the budget spent on salaries, it is impossible to have cuts in the magnitude
of $90 million that do not affect staffing.
There are choices to make. Last year DeKalb could have saved almost $3
million by cutting magnet transportation. This is money being paid to move
students to their schools of choice. The district isn’t obligated to provide
transportation to schools of choice. Other districts have long ago
abandoned choice transportation or never provided it in the first place.
School systems no longer have the luxury of providing almost unlimited
transportation. From what I’ve read, Cobb has decided not to eliminate this
special transportation service because of the volume of complaints. That’s
what DeKalb did last year despite those of us who tried to reel in this
spending. Learn from our history. While we’re at it, ask yourself why we
employ SROs (our school police officers) for 12 months a year. Why don’t
we reduce their contract period to 10 months? That saves you about $1
Millage rates – Last year DeKalb increased its millage rate from 22.98 to
23.98 over the objections of four board members. That puts the county 1.02
mills from its limit. Our rate is one of the highest in the state. I
predict that this year the BOE will increase the millage rate to the max.
That would probably bring in about $13 million. DeKalb will likely have a
deficit in the next fiscal year. It might be smaller if the economy slowly
improves and property values increase. Between the tax increases of the
DeKalb Commission and School Board combined with significantly higher water
rates, the DeKalb taxpayer has been hit enough. I still wonder why a
sanitation truck goes up and down my street four times a week. Folks, it
appears that we are paying for a jobs program.
So, what do you get for this? Did the teachers get a raise? Were there
fewer children in the classroom? With apologies to the “OneDeKalb”
propaganda – North DeKalb tends to pump in about 2/3rds of the tax revenue.
I don’t see any improvement in the next year. Barring manna from heaven,
the classes will not get smaller nor will there be any teacher raises.
Vacant Properties – I get quite a few questions about selling DCSS’s vacant
property. While I was on the board, there was little or no market for our
properties. The two most valuable properties DeKalb owns are Cross Keys and
the old Briarcliff High School. (Note: There was never any discussion about
selling Cross Keys. I’m simply talking about it because it is a valuable
piece of land.) Together they should be worth almost $100 million. You
probably could not get half that for both of them. If we sell those
properties at bargain basement prices, that would not show responsible
stewardship. Those two pieces of property could play a huge role in
DeKalb’s future. Some in the administration thought our most sellable
property was the old central offices off N. Decatur Rd. It was completely
wired for almost any kind of electronic needs a business could want.
Unfortunately if you drive there now you will see a blighted area that
businesses shy away from.
Reserve funds – Cobb is looking to use their surplus funds to make up the
shortfall. DeKalb did that. It is a mistake. It takes about $3 million a
day to run the DeKalb system. At a minimum, DeKalb should have $60 million
in reserves. Build and guard your surplus. It is really an emergency fund.
If you hit it for $20 million a year, as DeKalb was doing, it will soon be
gone. It takes a long time to build up reserves in today’s market. In DeKalb
we were using surplus funds to pay cost overruns for years. This was
skillfully hidden by our accounting system (cash) instead of a more accurate
system (accrual). Thank goodness DCSS is now using a modified accrual
Class size increases – It is important to note that no one on the BOE, while
I was there , wanted to increase class sizes. Class size increases and
furlough days are the two variables that will balance your budget when you
have a large shortfall. The state DOE and legislature know this. That’s
why they approve class size waivers rather than hold districts to the state
class size “mandates”.
Pre-k – The popular lottery-funded pre-k program is not fully funded by the
state lottery. Most systems have gone away from offering pre-k within
their regular schools because their funding from the lottery didn’t cover
their costs. In addition, the number of students in pre-k can result in
fewer state dollars for the k-5 students in the building and decrease state
building funds too. This is because of the complicated QBE funding formula
and building utilization rules in order to qualify for state building money.
School systems are not required to maintain pre-K. Parents can access
lottery-funded pre-k through private providers that work with the state
agency Bright from the Start.
I’ve learned a few things over the years of watching and participating in
DCSS’s budgeting process: The budget situation isn’t going to get better
soon. Accept that tight budgets are the rule of the day. Find the waste.
Cut services that are not essential or mandated. Do not accept a tax
increase if the waste is not eliminated first. Short term decisions result
in long term failure.