Local boards of education will be cutting costs and making do during the next budget year in an effort to deal with stagnant property values and increased expenses.

All three systems in the Reporter Newspapers area – Atlanta Public Schools, DeKalb County Public Schools and Fulton County Schools – will begin the Fiscal Year 2013 on July 1. Only one, Fulton County Schools, doesn’t plan significant cuts and can balance its $810 million budget with $20 million from its reserves with no tax increases.

Officials with each school system said lower property tax collections and increased health care costs for employees are making it hard for local school boards to balance budgets.

“It’s the economy for the most part,” Atlanta schools spokesman Keith Bromery said. “The economy has not recovered to the point where the state can fully fund education … you find school districts have to cut back in relation to what they’re getting in terms of funding from the state.”

DeKalb County Schools is considering a $760 million budget but faces a $73 million budget shortfall. The school system has nothing in its reserves and the board is being asked to consider a 2-mill increase in property taxes, meaning a $200,000 home would see taxes increase by $160 a year.

Atlanta plans a $605.2 million budget but will need to fix a $47 million budget gap. The school board is considering cutting between 285 and 475 jobs across all departments.

So how did Fulton County start the year in a better position than its neighbors? Several reasons, Fulton School officials say. District 3 Board of Education member Gail Dean said in 2010 the school board voted to cut 1,000 jobs. Also, the board recently opted not to renew the charter of Fulton Science Academy after school board members and school officials could not reach an agreement. That saved the school system $3.8 million, Dean said.

Marvin Dereef, executive director of budget services for Fulton County Schools, said the school board’s earlier actions made this year’s budget process less painful. The school plans to keep 18 percent of its operating expenses in reserves, he said.

“We made the big choices early,” Dereef said. “We saw the writing on the wall and took action significantly enough where we could weather the storm for awhile.”

DeKalb County Schools BOE members are looking for alternatives to the proposal to raise taxes, spokesman Walter Woods said. DeKalb County schools during the last few months leaped from one crisis to another. Prior to the $73 million shortfall, it faced an unanticipated $36.5 shortfall in its sales-tax funded school construction account.

The BOE found a way to move sales tax money around to cover it.

Woods said the BOE is weighing its options to deal with the latest dilemma, saying “everything is on the table.”

Woods said it’s too early to discuss whether the system will be able to replenish its reserve account.

“We have to balance the budget first and then we’ll talk about a reserve,” Woods said.

Like DeKalb, Atlanta Public Schools faced daunting challenges within the last year. The system continues to deal with the fallout from a cheating scandal that found some teachers manipulated test results to boost scores system-wide. Recently, the BOE angered many in the community with plans to close and rezone schools.

The school system in April voted to close seven schools. Bromery said “there may be some savings” as a result, but said it will mostly be a non-factor.

“It wasn’t to save money,” Bromery said of the school closures. “It was to focus more of our enrollment into a fewer number of schools. To a degree, this will be offset by the additional resources that will be placed in these schools that will see increases in enrollment.”

Bromery said there is also a planned 10 percent cut across all departments in the Atlanta Schools system, except for curriculum and instruction, which will see a 7 percent cut.

“The revenues have not kept up with spending we need to reduce that or eliminate it,” Bromery said.

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com