Five years ago, DeKalb County School District officials approved a $760 million operating budget to continue recovery efforts for a system decimated by The Great Recession and mismanagement that left $14 million in debt.
This morning, the district will hold several public hearings — including one about the coming year's budget and two for a proposed tax increase — as it seeks to approve a $1.1 billion budget.
District officials have attempted over the years to allay concerns for the increase — 45 percent accumulated in the last five school years — attributing moves over the years to decentralizing operations and providing better services for students at a more localized level. But enrollment has held at 102,000 and test scores in that time period only show minor improvement, though the district's graduation rate has shown double-digit growth.
"The budget has gone up $50 to $100 million every year, but the number of students has stayed the same," said DeKalb County Board of Education member Stan Jester. "What do we have to show for all the money we have spent?"
The proposed budget also includes $53 million more in salary and benefits for the district's 15,617 staffers, with most going for the 4,353 staffers who don’t work in schoolhouses. The district has added several administrative positions, including 18 roles in two new regional superintendent cabinets, as well as directors for grants, network security and the Early Learning Center. Michael Bell, the district's chief financial officer, said Friday that a mandated $23.4 million retirement contribution as well as $2 million in insurance for non-schoolhouse employees had significant impact.
“Our Board has made clear its desire that we hire and retain staff members, in a fiscally responsible manner, with the skills to help our students become college and career ready," Superintendent Steve Green said Friday through district officials. "We are proposing staffing levels ... that support the needs of our students — such as 70-percent enrollment in the free- and reduced-lunch program, speaking more than 10 primary languages, and a host of instructional concerns. This is especially true when reviewing increases in staffing costs for employees not assigned – fiscally – to a schoolhouse."
Many of the new positions, Green said, are being added to support students and schools, particularly those with struggling performance. This, he said, included a new division of accountability "to better understand student performance," adding 10 school resource officers "to keep students and staff safe," and 13 interpreters "to ensure all students receive quality instruction."
"In the end, this isn’t simply a matter of counting sides of the workforce or who fills what seats," Green said. "Doing so ignores the question of how we meet the very real needs of students."