Welcome back from Spring Break! We hope you enjoyed your time off and are refreshed, revitalized and re-dedicated to making a critically-needed difference in educating DeKalbCounty’s children.
TONIGHT: Board of Education Meeting and Work Session, Monday, April 9 at 6 PM. There’s no need to trek through traffic to The Palace. Watch the Board Meeting online or on Comcast Channel 24. You may want to skip the largely ceremonious and mostly wasted first 60–90 minutes or so of recognitions and citizen comments (that are officially ignored by the Board). Tune in between 7 PM–7:30 PM for the real business.
There were no volunteers to cover the most recent March 12 meeting for this blog. (Though the editors of DeKalb School Watch blog no longer report on the BOE meetings live, because of the other work involved with the blog and the demands of our paying jobs, we welcome any volunteers to do so!)
There are no official minutes published, yet, either. This naturally begs a very BIG Question: With a full-time BOE secretary on the DCSS payroll, why are the minutes of every meeting not published online within 24-48 hours and waiting to be approved at the next regular BOE meeting – instead of months later?
Read On. There’s a lot to say, so get a cup of coffee and get comfortable!
It is “Time to Pay the Piper.” The March 12 meeting video makes it painfully clear that the bad decisions made by this Board over the past 3-6 years are coming home to roost. In a ba-a-a-ad way.
Charter Schools and Alternative Education: Budget? What Budget? Once the Board finally gets down to business – go to the 45:00 marker on the video – Don McChesney asks about the cost overruns for charter schools. For reasons unknown, this single budget line item groups all charter schools together and is $4.8 million over budget. The answer from Walter Woods is that the line item estimate did not include full enrollment – plus these schools are over-enrolled. (BTW, what does Woods have to do with charter schools? Isn’t there a staff person responsible here?)
However, Superintendent Atkinson says some are, and some aren’t. In fact, she lists them (though, strangely, not by name). Three schools are over-enrolled: 1 by 36 students, 1 by 100 students and 1 by 4 students. Four are under-enrolled: 1 by 70 students, 1 by 90 students, 1 by 165 students and 1 by 63 students. The result is a net under-enrollment of 168 students in the charter schools.
BIG Question: With a net under-enrollment, why is there a $4.8 million budget overrun?
Could it be that there are too many options for regular education as well as alternative programs for at-risk students in DCSS? DCSS simply can’t afford the many separate programs offered with separate staffs in separate facilities: Open Campus, DeKalb Alternative School, DeKalb Alternative Night School, Early College Academy, Gateway to College Academy, DeKalb Transition Academy, DeKalb Truancy School, and Destiny Academy of Excellence. They must be consolidated.
Atkinson also explains that for accuracy and planning purposes, the budget should have been set at the amount necessary for the total enrollment caps at each school – planning for every school to be at full capacity. Where on Earth did Marcus Turk pull his budget numbers from? Are we operating from a completely made-up budget? A budget that appears to be balanced, yet requires robbing Peter to pay Paul – or, perhaps, robbing per-pupil funds from some schools to pay for cost overruns in other schools?
BIG Questions: Where are the DCSS auditors, Mr. Babst, and the State auditors, Mr. Hinton? How did this slip past them?
Destiny Academy’s charter is up for renewal, so the discussion continues. This school, while it has an admirable purpose and mission, has always been a major expense to the system. Destiny Academy, housed in a former DCSS elementary school that is now owned by New Birth Church (even though DCSS has available empty buildings), has only around 100 students. Yet Destiny’s per pupil costs are nearly $15,000 per pupil according to information obtained in 2009. Compare that to the per-pupil costs in all other DCSS schools, acquired by a DSW blogger via an Open Records Request in March 2011. (We have posted this document under “FILES” in the Facts & Resources Tab above. Also, CLICK HERE to read a post from the old DSW blog on the subject of inequity in per-pupil funding.)
Paul Womack continues on, comparing the cost of Destiny vs the cost of incarceration. Typically, Womack provides no documentable statistics; no drop-out and graduate tracking information. Clearly Womack views these students as nothing more than borderline criminals that must be “saved” by DeKalb County schools.
The students at Destiny, for example, are said to be “dropouts that DCSS has rounded up” for this program. If so, these are students who had ample opportunities to take advantage of a free public education and for one reason or another, did not. It’s time for these former students to take responsibility for their actions and their lives by connecting with the Technical College System of Georgia to obtain a GED and get post-secondary training to be employable. The HOPE Grant (part of the HOPE Scholarship program) is very helpful in this endeavor.
The State of Georgia contributes barely $5,000 per pupil to any school unless they are awarded extra money for special purposes. The rest, which at Destiny is probably somewhere around $8-9,000 more per pupil, comes from DeKalb County taxpayers. It was frustrating to watch the Board have this lengthy, emotional discussion about a critical and expensive decision, without a single hard number to look at—nor did any Board member even ASK for these numbers right then and there. The discussion should not have occurred based purely on idealism. The discussion should have included hard numbers and results. Nancy Jester did advocate for the best use of taxpayer dollars and that they define some kind of ‘number’ that is acceptable for this charter. She also requested that the data for the charters be supplied before the next meeting. What she actually said in response to Womack’s statement that he didn’t care about the taxes was, “There is some cost per pupil that we must decide is a limit because that number isn’t/can’t be infinity! How the board can actually vote on any issue without detailed knowledge of the cost is incomprehensible. But vote, they did. Purely based on ‘feelings’.
How does excessive spending on “at-risk” students affect other students? How much money is shifted away from our overcrowded “regular” classrooms? – how much money is unavailable to gifted students? – to support these “boutique” schools that cannot provide any documentation of success? Has a Board member ever asked for results? Has staff ever done a cost analysis? If anyone knows, please forward this information to this blog at email@example.com
SPLOST III: The Classic Shell Game
From the 58:00 minute marker to 2:11:42 (that’s 73 minutes, folks!), we are treated to a passionate discussion about the shortfall in SPLOST III. This is an abysmal, confusing mess. Superintendent Atkinson and her staff have discovered at least a $33,000,000 shortfall in the SPLOST III budget. She is proposing the only legal maneuver available to avoid SPLOST III bankruptcy: to move some money around within SPLOST III and amend or cancel some of the SPLOST III projects.
How did this happen? The End of Year 2009 CIP Report outlined the projects in progress and ready to begin. Much of it was smoke and mirrors and made-up, empty promises. Now, in the bright light of reality, and benefit of hindsight, we can see how things changed.
Apparently we paid our interest obligation on our SPLOST III debt, however those payments were never deducted from the budget. It’s as if you paid the interest on your mortgage every month, but never deducted it from your checkbook. Then you jumped for joy when you discovered that you had ‘extra’ money and decided to use it to buy a vacation home. Luckily, Superintendent Atkinson discovered this shortfall before the invisible money was spent.
Additionally, there is an issue with the Chamblee Charter High School facility construction budget, although we don’t understand the significance. Only $11 million is allocated to Chamblee in SPLOST III, which has always been there and has never changed. The rest of the construction budget for Chamblee comes from a QSCB bond scheduled to be paid back with SPLOST IV funds.
The Board seriously overspent on the administrative offices. Instead of spending the few million in the SPLOST III budget for renovations to the A/B buildings, the board approved over $30 million for the new Memorial Drive facility. The A/B buildings now sit nearly vacant and barely used as reported in our first post here.
Regardless, in August 2010, Marcus Turk announced that the SPLOST III budget had upwards of $40+ million extra dollars and a free-for-all began! We posted much about this subject at the time, all falling on deaf ears. (CLICK HERE to read the Open Letter from Faye Andreson to the Board on the subject.)
DCSS Board members were like kids in a candy store – and Paul Womack was the boy with the biggest sweet tooth. When the political maneuvering was done, we’re told by Donna Edler at this March 12, 2012 meeting that back in 2010 (before Donna and Nancy were elected), the Board approved an additional $47 million in expenditures under SPLOST III – without once looking at a spreadsheet of real numbers. That’s $47 million we now know – and they should have known then – that we didn’t have.
Fast forward to SPLOST IV, where this blog raised a RED flag well before the vote because the project list for SPLOST IV was too broad and too vague – literally listing nearly every school in the system in order to garner individual community support – with absolutely no list of priorities and no statement such as, “finish all unfinished SPLOST III projects” for voters to approve. So legally, without money to finish the SPLOST III projects, we can’t use SPLOST IV future money on these projects either.
At the 53:20 marker, Donna Edler read a prepared statement expressing her concern over the poor decisions made by the Board (before she was elected) and the shocking switch in distribution of the SPLOST III dollars. She rightly stated that the proposed corrective action, effectively dismissing promised projects, will undermine voter confidence in the board. She was emphatic that the board must faithfully execute the SPLOST III plan as voted by the citizens of DeKalb. She is correct and we’re glad she’s showing an interest now, but Donna is a CPA yet asked very few questions of the monthly budgets over the past year that indicated she is aware of her fiduciary responsibility to DeKalb taxpayers. That concerns us.
It’s a stinking, hot mess and it’s due to the ineptitude, greed and ingrained corruption of Board members and “sit-up-here” administrators. Most are completely incapable of managing a 5th grader’s allowance, much less a $1.2 billion school budget. Several are egomaniacal and unapologetic. Paul Womack actually stated that he is not concerned about taxpayer dollars, insinuating that he supports a school tax hike (see the 50:50 marker). School taxes account for about 70% of your property tax bill!
Out With The Old … In With The New
Elections for Districts 2 (McChesney), 4 (Womack), 6 (Bowen), and 8 (Speaks) will be this summer. Smarter, better thinkers without the taint of greed and corruption must be identified and elected. Districts 4 and 6 need to hit the pavement and find candidates – NOW! Time is running out!
Paul Womack (District 4) feigns support of schools and projects dear to his colleagues in order to garner their support for his own agendas, yet every single decision he makes is bad business for DeKalb citizens countywide. Womack’s toxic history stands in the way of real progress. Paul Womack MUST be replaced.
Don McChesney (District 2) and Pam Speaks (District 8) actually seem to be doing a decent job. Finally. Both have begun asking tougher questions rather than rubber-stamping initiatives from staff. Both are behaving a bit more responsibly toward taxpayers. The BIG Question is: What took them so long? McChesney is a former teacher and Speaks formerly ran the Title I program. With their experience, they both could have and should have done better. If one or both continue as Board members, they need to step it up.
We MUST replace those board members who do not request detailed data to review in advance of Board meetings and who could not understand it if they did. We MUST replace Board members who view their jobs as ‘fighting’ for ‘their’ schools and who do not foster the cooperation and collaboration necessary to successfully educate all the children of DeKalb County.