Two months ago, the DeKalb County School System feared it would need to balance a budget deficit next year of more than $50 million. Then things got worse. Much worse.
That deficit shot to $88 million last month after district officials learned projected property tax revenues were overstated. As the district scrambled to make up the difference, former Superintendent Crawford Lewis resigned and his replacement, interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson, released a series of reduction plans that reached as high as $120 million. She said she feared it could get that bad.
Well, it’s essentially that bad.
The school board’s budget committee learned this month the district’s deficit has officially risen to $115 million, necessitating cuts to staff that district officials and the committee had only been discussing before the announcement.
Now, the board will likely approve a reduction of at least 427 jobs, including about 150 central office workers, 200 paraprofessionals, 59 library clerks and nearly 20 technology specialists, committee chair and school board member H. Paul Womack said. The committee approved the cuts in a March 18 meeting, but the full board still must vote on the measure. Those cuts would save the district more than $20 million.
“We’re sort of flying by the seat of our pants if you want to know the damn truth,” Womack said after the meeting. “We need to get ahead of the curve so we don’t have to come back and do another midyear (budget cut). If things continue to get worse, we don’t want to have to go and lay off teachers.”
How the board avoids that could come in the form of cuts, tax increases or both. Several board members, including Womack and Don McChesney, have vocally opposed a tax increase and others, including Eugene Walker, have advocated for it. The board has not raised school taxes in several years. Walker said he believes the school system should not bear the full burden of cuts. Other board members and district officials, including Lewis, have admitted that the central office has grown too fast compared to enrollment growth and is ripe for reductions.
Womack said he believes next year is going to be more financially difficult than this year and prefers to save the tax increase for next year, if necessary. After all, the district doesn’t have much room to raises taxes. State law caps school district taxes at 25 mills. The district is already at 22.98 mills.
“If we use that this year, we’ll have nowhere to go next year. We’ll be capped out,” Womack said. “And then we’d have to get brutal. … You’re going to begin to get into the muscle. I’d much rather take the way we seem to be headed in partial now – to see if we can get through this thing without a millage increase.”
Tyson’s plans could also require teachers and other employees to suffer an across-the-board 6.5 percent pay cut next year. Tyson did make the decision, however, to cut the number of employees working in several district programs, including Montessori and pre-kindergarten rather than cut the programs entirely.
The board is expected to vote on the budget May 10.