DeKalb School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson urged board members to approve a plan that would put 35 construction projects on hold after school officials recently discovered a $41 million SPLOST budget shortfall.
Atkinson presented her plan at a special board of education meeting on Feb. 29. The plan called for balancing the budget shortfalls for the Special Option Local Sales Tax (SPLOST) II and III projects by reallocating funds and “adjusting” 113 of 210 SPLOST III projects.
Among the adjustments presented was the halting of 35 SPLOST III projects, including the installation of new HVAC units, running tracks and other improvement projects for schools throughout the county.
DeKalb County School spokesman Walter Woods said the shortfall was discovered when officials realized construction on the new Chamblee High School was approximately $10 million over budget.
As officials were checking into that oversight, Woods said, they also found deficits based on “finance issues, anticipated revenue from the state that will not come in on time, and SPLOST II closeout issues.”
The total shortfall is $41.35 million—$510,000 attributed to accounting and over-budgeting from SPLOST II projects. The rest of the shortfall comes from issues involving SPLOST III and the Chamblee High School replacement project.
Officials said there was a shortfall of $26.15 million from SPLOST III because finances weren’t allocated to cover interest payments or bond premiums for the $300 million borrowed to jumpstart projects in 2007.
Also, due to a timing issue the system will not collect an anticipated $4.73 million in reimbursements from the Georgia Department of Education. Officials said that revenue will be collected over the next two years but it doesn’t meet the timetable to be allocated to SPLOST III.
“If we do not move forward with the corrective action plan, the school district may face additional costs incurred across all current SPLOST III projects and further delay of the Chamblee High School replacement project,” Atkinson said. She also called for an immediate external audit of the finances of the school system.
Some board members were reluctant to support Atkinson’s plan without first discussing it and proposing changes. Board member Nancy Jester said she couldn’t support the plan because she was “hard-pressed” to vote for a resolution that included continuing with the William Bradley Bryant Center while “we don’t fix our dangerous tracks that we just recently promised the community.”
“I am livid. I am furious beyond belief because this hurts both kids and taxpayers. I am mad and I do believe there’s been sand thrown in the umpire’s eyes, and we’re the umpire,” Jester said.
Both Jester and Board Vice Chairman Tom Bowen said the board votes on the facts presented to it, and in this case the board clearly wasn’t presented with solid facts according to Jester and Bowen.
“The board approves the things that come before it based on the validity of the data and by law cannot be involved in the day-to-day activities of the district. Therefore there is no mechanism for a board member to find out the kind of details that are being brought to us now to cast an accurate vote,” Bowen said.
Some members also expressed dismay and said the issues that have been brought to light had most likely derailed all the work the board had done in the past to build public confidence in the SPLOST program.
“If we have gone anywhere in building any good will in the way SPLOST is managed I think we—as Mr. Bowen said—may have certainly undone that. It’s very, very bothersome to me,” board member Don McChesney said.
Board Chairman Eugene Walker told board members it was important to keep in mind “no money had been misplaced and nothing egregious occurred.”
“They didn’t have in place a funding mechanism for the projects so they borrowed money. Now, the bill is coming due and we need to figure out a way to pay for it. So, let’s not mix apples and oranges here,” Walker said.
The board scheduled a meeting to discuss Atkinson’s corrective action plan and officials said a special meeting will be scheduled to vote on the plan.