DeKalb County School Board member Nancy Jester is tackling her first school budget as a member of the board. Jester talked with reporter Maggie Lee about her priorities, both on spending and raising more revenue. She and other board members are considering a 2012 budget of about $1.2 billion that authorizes spending $40 million more than last year to avoid teacher furloughs.
Q. What are or were the concerns you have on the budget?
A. The overall concern is: Are we going into reserves too deeply and then not having a plan to replenish reserves? The problem is with all the budget improvements that we’re doing, are we getting ourselves then set up for the next fiscal year to maintain that, or having either to have big cuts the following fiscal year or a revenue increase via tax increase. I will not support a tax increase; I’ll say that unequivocally.
Many of us are concerned that with the budget as it is now, and drawing down the reserve as precipitously as this budget is calling for — while we can do that this year, we’re setting ourselves up for problems the following year. … We’re continuing to see updates of the tax digest [projected sum of property taxes] that continue to say there’s a decline in the digest … and cuts from the state are absolutely on the table, cuts might happen.
Q. Can DeKalb schools sustainably operate without having to have furlough days?
A. Yes. There is a way, things you can fix, things you can cut out, that’s absolutely the case. But your largest line item is going to be personnel for your schools.
The other school systems did two things we didn’t do. Last year when they got some federal dollars in, they put them away to offset some of the problems this year. I wasn’t on the board at the time, but the board at the time voted to use them in the current year that they got them [in 2010]. That doesn’t put us in a positive position relative to those districts that put those on hold for this fiscal year.
Number two, other school districts are not giving back one hundred percent of the furlough days. But it’s an improvement they’re making with the furlough days, not as many … I think teachers nationally are underpaid. I would love to elevate their compensation and prestige across the board. But where I am with my responsibility to the budget is I want to give them back some days but if we give 100 percent of them, I’m not sure that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. So we’re trying to look at that more closely right now and determine where that stands … [and] I would like to see it differentiated between the teachers and the 12-month staff because I would like to give as much furlough relief to the teachers as possible.
Q. So, going forward, what do you think should be the biggest priorities in a budget?
A. We have to be competitive or we’re not going to get the best and brightest teachers. We already have, let’s be honest, we’ve had some perception issues in the community that work against us for attracting the best and brightest to want to teach in DeKalb. We want to make sure we’re attracting and keeping them. For me, that’s always a budget priority: attract and keep the best talent.
And I’m very concerned about the revenue side from the state. It’s of interest to me. I do not believe we are maximizing our state funding. I don’t believe that we are as attuned to using the formula that the state uses.
Q. What do you mean, the QBE formula [Quality Basic Education, the formula the state uses to divvy money among counties]?
A. Yes, for instance, there are 19 designations that we receive QBE funding for. [Student designations that require specialized attention, like gifted, special needs or English as a second language.]
One of the things you hear a lot on pupil funding is that money is tethered to the kid. I want people to think long and hard about that because it’s really not. It’s tied to the resources to teach that child. For instance if a kid is gifted and doesn’t receive gifted services from a gifted-certified instructor, you don’t count it. If their gifted teacher comes Monday and Friday and snapshot day [the one day the state grabs data for budgeting] is Tuesday and their teacher is at another school, it doesn’t count. Then you have a situation where all the gifted kids at that school don’t get counted for any gifted services…if you’re a gifted kid it doesn’t mean you get the gifted money.
We make money from those teachers that have that gifted endorsement on their certification. So you would want to incentivize those teachers to get that certification. And right now, I don’t think we provide them any funding or any incentive to do that; it’s really on their time and on their dime to get that certification. But then we make money for those segments once they get that endorsement. And it’s quite a bit. And that’s the case in 19 different categories … this is a thing every county does. And it’s pretty complicated.
Q. What are some other things our readers should know about the budget?
A. Right now, on this budget, we need to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for something bad the next year. That’s just the responsible thing to do, that’s the conservative thing to do. We cannot go hat in hand to the taxpayer.