Marshall Orson, co-president of the Emory LaVista Parent Council, said he believes a combination of factors led to the DeKalb County School District’s (DCSD) projected shortfall of nearly $40 million for construction projects paid for by the Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
DeKalb County School o fficials recently told the school board that due to accounting and over-budgeting from SPLOST II projects, as well as issues involving SPLOST III and the Chamblee High School replacement project, the school system faces a projected shortfall of nearly $40 million if corrective action is not taken.
Orson said he thinks the projected shortfall is the result of several factors including the lack of a strong staff to provide accurate information to the board of education for SPLOST II and III projects.
“There was a lack of basic accounting rules and poor oversight from the board of education,” Orson said. “I know that they’re reliant on the staff for a substantial amount of information but they also have to ask the right questions.”
The board also deferred a vote on a corrective action plan presented by school officials, which would close out several SPLOST II projects and halt 35 SPLOST III projects, to investigate whether any of those unfinished SPLOST III projects could be added to the SPLOST IV project list.
“I would be concerned if the shift of those expenditures puts projects just voted on in SPLOST IV at risk,” Orson said.
DeKalb Schools spokesman Walter Woods said the district’s finance and facilities teams are currently looking into whether the language on the SPLOST IV referendum is broad enough to allow SPLOST III projects to be added to the SPLOST IV project list, and if so, when those projects could be completed. If the district is legally unable to combine the projeccts, then the board will vote on the proposed corrective action plan.
Orson said another reason the district is facing the projected shortfall is because in 2009 the board voted to add projects to the SPLOST III list.
“I think it was a fundamental mistake, but the board approved this….That created part of the problem because they ran out of money,” Orson said.
At a March 12 board meeting, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson suggested in the future, rather than borrowing money, the board could pay for projects as they came along to reduce interest expenses.
“Perhaps the more important issue now is that the new superintendent—who has come after the SPLOST votes—realized that oversight was a big issue,” Orson said. He said having strong oversight on projects such as SPLOST, which are directly tied to taxpayers money, is one of the only ways the district could rebuild public confidence.
“One of the ways to get to that point is to have a very strong oversight system that is free of board interference and as independent as possible,” Orson said.
David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, echoed Orson and said he couldn’t understand how central office staff overlooked interest payments for the SPLOST II and III projects. He also agreed the board should not have added projects in 2009.
“They added $40 million of projects when they didn’t really have the money,” Schutten said.
Schutten said there is a need for some of the projects to be finished as soon as possible, such as HVAC installations and building new running tracks. He wants the board to take the time to be as well-informed as possible before taking any action.
“This is not a shortfall right now but a lot of those projects need to be finished,” Schutten said. “I think [Atkinson] has got the people in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again and there is a lot more accountability in the central office than there was before.”