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DeKalb schools talk billion dollar budget

DeKalb school officials presented the district’s first billion-dollar budget Monday, with spending increases for teacher raises during the current school year and an increased mandatory teacher retirement contribution for the 2017-2018 school year.

The proposed $1.03 billion budget goes up against projected revenues just under $1 billion. Chief Financial Officer Michael Bell said about $32 million would be needed from the fund balance to offset overages, but Superintendent Steve Green directed Bell to keep expenses under the projected revenue.

“The goal here is to live within our means with relation to the budget,” Green said.

While Green said no raises were forecast for the 2017-2018 school year, he added that could be revisited next year.

Bell mentioned that neighboring Fulton County Schools, which operates fewer schools for about 98,000 students, recently laid out plans for a $1 billion budget. Gwinnett County Schools, about one-and-a-half times the size of DeKalb’s 102,000 students, may go over $2 billion.

Bell said the district expects to end the current school year with a fund balance of about $123 million, after spending an additional $40 million more per month for the remainder of the year than the district expects to collect. Through February, the district brought in about $739 million this school year, up from $697 million in the same time period during the 2015-2016 school year.

The district expects to collect 5.5 percent more in local revenues as the tax digest continues to rebound, adding about $24 million at the current millage rate. But it will do little to offset the cost that raises in the current school year will add. Bell said the district’s conservative budgeting previously benefitted from employee furlough days as well as pay freezes between 2010 and 2014. It will cost $31 million to sustain raises during the 2016-2017 school year through next year.

The district’s retirement contribution also will increase 2.5 percentage points for the new year, costing about $14 million.

“It’s gonna be a tough slog,” Bell added.

Board member Joyce Morley said she wanted a better understanding of the district’s plan for community and family engagement spelled out in the budget.

“I need to see the line items,” she said. “What are we doing about family and community engagement? If we’re talking about parents being involved in what’s going on, we’ve got to spend the money.”

Board member Marshall Orson urged decision-makers to be mindful of what could be done to continue pushing the district’s millage rate down. The rate, now at 23.38,  was .4 lower before the economic downturn. The rate should have returned to that level by now, he said.

“I do think it’s important we continue to roll the millage rate back to where it was pre-recession,” he said. “I think we owe that to our taxpayers. As we’ve still had strong improvement in economic performance, I think we have to be mindful of continuing to at least make some adjustments back to where we were. There’s a trust we build with our taxpayers.

“If we don’t try to get back to where we were, I do think we have the potential for long-term harm.”

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