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DeKalb School Board approves $1.9 billion budget, lowers millage rate

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DeKalb School Board approves $1.9 billion budget, lowers millage rate

DeKalb County School District Administration and Industrial Complex on Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County School Board passed a $1.9 billion budget and set a millage rate of 22.98 mills during a special meeting on June 20.

The proposed millage rate was 23.08, but following pushback from the public and self-reflection about whether it’s right for the board to charge more than is allowed under the state constitution, the board reduced the millage by one-tenth, equating to about $3.7 million in revenue.

The discussion about the district’s millage rate is not new. As former school board member Stan Jester noted on his blog back in 2014, the district was allowed to increase its millage rate because it operated DeKalb College, which eventually was taken over by the state and became Georgia Perimeter College.

But the district has continued to tax at a higher rate. School Board member Whitney McGinnis said she’d like to see the district move back toward constitutional tax limits.

“Even if legally we are able to charge more, there’s the question of ethically should we, if we’re not operating the school that was the original purpose for allowing us to tax beyond 20 mills?” McGinnis asked, adding she was not recommending the district drop the millage to 20 mills this year. 

But, she added, “I think we as the board should have a serious discussion bout getting there.” 

Other board members were not opposed to moving in that direction.

“It will take time for us to get there,” School Board member Deirdre Pierce said. “We have to be very methodical as to how we do that.”

The board’s attorney weighed in and noted that the ability to tax above 20 mills was approved via referendum in 1983, but that the language of that referendum didn’t specifically tie it to only running the college.

“It may have been done with the college in mind, in terms of what [the referendum] stated it wasn’t keyed to only the college,” the attorney said.

The millage rate the board approved on June 20 is still higher than the school district’s rollback rate of 20.35 mills.

School board members had questions about the budget as well, including how the district plans to spend Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided to the district for COVID-19 relief. According to the district’s website, DeKalb Schools was allocated $486.5 million in ESSER funds in three different relief bills. There are approved budgets for each bill, but it’s not clear how much of that money the district has left. Decaturish asked CFO Byron Schueneman this question, and he asked Decaturish to submit the question as a records request.

Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley said all ESSER money needs to be spent by September 2024.

School Board member Allyson Gevertz said she was concerned the district would not be able to spend all ESSER funds by that date.

The school district has a track record of being slow to spend money on projects. DeKalb County Schools has about $710 million in its reserves according to the budget documents. A significant chunk of that, about $370 million, is in the district’s capital projects fund. According to a budget presentation, DeKalb only plans to spend about $205 million on capital projects this year.

Other records provided by the county show that as of May 31, the district has not spent much of the money it brought in from ESPLOST V, a sales tax levied to fund school construction. DeKalb Schools has collected $772.9 million from ESPLOST V but has only spent $288.4 million.

Under the previous superintendent, Cheryl Watson-Harris, DeKalb County Schools made the news for the poor condition of its school facilities, with Druid Hills High School receiving the most attention from the media. However, the pattern of slowly spending ESPLOST V money predates her arrival in 2020.

In November 2021, county voters overwhelmingly approved ESPLOST VI, which is expected to generate $700 million in revenue over the next five years. The school board approved a project list for ESPLOST VI funds in February of this year.

Other budget highlights for this year:

— A 10% reduction in discretionary spending

— Spending another $10 million on Horizon Schools, which are the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools

— Hiring an additional 16 school psychologists, 16 social workers, 20 school nurses, 26 gifted teachers, 105 early intervention staffers, 18 art, music, PE/Health teachers, 15 lead teachers for special education, 66 library media assistants, and four English Speakers of Other Languages specialists.

— $51 million in increased spending on health insurance

— $10.3 million to cover step salary increases

— $53 million to provide a 6% pay raise for bus drivers, custodians, SFN assistants, teachers and paraprofessionals

To see the budget presentation, click here.

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