By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Several Buckhead residents were left outraged over the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system’s decision regarding next year’s property taxes.

At its June 16 meeting, the Atlanta Board of Education — the governing body of the APS — voted to reduce the millage rate to 21.64 despite adamant citizen request for a further rollback. This new tax rate is 1 mill less than last year’s rate of 22.64.

Taxes are calculated by multiplying the assessed value of a property by the tax rate, called the millage. Although assessments are set by Fulton County, APS decides the portion of the tax rate that goes to schools.

During the community meeting held before the legislative session at which the board took its final vote on the millage, many Buckhead homeowners expressed their discontent about the rate. Residents accused the district of not being transparent in the budgeting process, as well as placing too much of a financial burden on the taxpayer during difficult economic times.

“We feel like we have hit a tipping point,” said Bruce Street, the president of the Grant Estates Civic Association. “There is a lot of stress in the economy. All the rates are going up. But we don’t hear reach-out from the board members to the taxpaying residents.”

Homeowners requested the millage rate be reduced to 20.42, noting that increasing property values are providing additional revenues to APS.

“You must consider rolling back the millage rate,” said Debra Fowler, a member of the Chastain Civic Association. “You cannot continue to go into our pockets and get the same results. We are the ones carrying the burden, but that will cease if we cannot work together.”

Another concern expressed by residents regarded the system’s administrative costs.

“We think that the cost of the Atlanta Public Schools operations could be reduced by reducing administration costs,” said Brenda Smith, a member of the Mount Paran-Northside Citizens Association. “According to research, the Atlanta Public Schools average administrative cost per student is $1,575. Let me compare that to the other five counties: Gwinnett is $478 per student; DeKalb, $390; Fulton, $357; Clayton, $348; and Cobb, $313. So the Atlanta Public Schools administrative cost per student is three to five times greater than five metro counties.”

In response to this claim, APS officials said it is difficult to make comparisons across systems, especially when comparing an urban school district with a suburban system.

“Because of the way APS reports to the state, and the state reports to places like the Public Policy Foundation, our administrative costs appear much, much higher than they really are,” said Joe Maguno, APS media relations specialist. “For example, where most districts will say counseling services goes under classroom costs … we put it under general administrative services … which front-loads our administrative costs very high. In fact, if we moved all those costs into the categories that other school systems put them in, our administrative costs would not be out of line with the other school districts.”

Maguno added that administrative costs are up only 3 percent for the new fiscal year, down from 5 percent last year and 16 percent the year before.

Homeowners also criticized the percentage of their taxes financing the school district, saying 55 percent goes to APS to serve 50,000 students while 21 percent goes to the city of Atlanta, which is delivering services to more than 400,000 people.

“That’s just gross,” said Allison Adair, the secretary of the Chastain Civic Association and mother of three children who attend Jackson Elementary School. “There is no excuse for that. I don’t understand how the city can operate with less money per person.”

Additionally, residents said public hearings regarding the millage rate were held after the budget was passed May 12.

“If there is one thing that we have experienced and learned is there does not seem … to be a true desire to proactively communicate with us and engage us as full partners in the development and management of the budget,” said Marilyn Midyette, the secretary of the Mount Paran-Northside Citizens Association.

Maguno said four hearings were held on the budget before its passage, but that the meetings were not well attended.

He added that local property taxes will pay for 77.5 percent of the $661.6 million general fund budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. Up from $620.6 million last year, the budget includes a 2.5 percent raise for all employees, as well as a 39 percent increase for textbooks, a 41 percent hike for new charter schools and a 26 percent increase for high school transformation.