Atlanta schools seek to close budget gap of up to $18 million


The Atlanta school board will face tough financial decisions this summer as members seek a way to close a budget gap that could be as high as $18 million.

The school district faces the gap because of Fulton County commissioners’ decision earlier this week to largely freeze property values this year.

The freeze could cost Atlanta schools anywhere from about $6 million to $18 million, superintendent Meria Carstarphen told board members Thursday. She told the board it needs to be ready with a plan to address the gap once it receives final financial information from the county.

“We at minimum … need to have our plan laid out for how we would be looking at cuts and prioritizing,” Carstarphen said.

Among the options: Cutting staff, raising the school district’s tax rate, rescinding promised employee raises, or dipping into the district’s savings — or some combination of those.

Atlanta school officials had counted on an increase in property values of about 6 percent this year to balance the budget without raising the district’s tax rate.

But Fulton County property assessments rose more sharply this year, in part because the county neglected to keep up with rising valuations in past years. Most homeowners saw double-digit percentage increases in assessed value. Outraged homeowners pressed county officials for relief. In response, the county froze most property values.

That leaves Atlanta Public Schools, which gets the biggest piece of local property tax payments in the city, in a difficult position.

The school board could raise the district’s tax rate, which has stayed the same since 2008. Raising the rate by one mill would bring in about $22 million and mean an increase in the tax bill of about $50 a year for a home valued at $200,000.

The board could cut spending, but cutting too deep could leave programs officials believe are critical to children’s success in jeopardy.

Homeowners will receive new property assessments in the mail, but probably not until August. Delays by the county in sending out tax bills could mean the district would receive money later than expected, forcing it to take out loans to cover the gap or fail to meet state requirements for repaying short-term loans.

The Fulton County school district will face similar decisions. The Fulton board was expected to discuss the impact of the assessment freeze on Thursday evening as it considers approval of its budget for the upcoming school year.

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