To the Editor:

A recent Washington Post feature by a Spelman College professor called the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) “one of the country’s least efficient school systems.”

The APS board and superintendent need to hear that message from all corners of Atlanta. Professor William Jelani Cobb is right. Atlanta’s school district is a profligate spender. That should bother everyone, especially when the city government is cutting public safety to balance its own mismanaged budget. We cannot afford the property and sales taxes that cover APS overspending.

Just how profligate is APS? Benchmarking with a group of similar systems is simple on a U.S. Department of Education Web site. The peers are picked objectively based on size, urban location and poverty level.

Atlanta spent 25 percent more than the median of our 10 closest peers in the latest available year, 2004-05: $11,324 per student vs. $8,360.

Only two of the 10 peers outspent Atlanta. Since one, Newark, N.J., gets its money from the state, rather than from local citizens as Atlanta does, its wild spending is not surprising. What is the excuse of APS?

If El Paso, San Antonio, Oakland, Orleans Parish and Oklahoma City can educate their kids for $7,000 or $8,000 per head, what is stopping Atlanta?

APS spent twice as much as those other systems on administration. Cut overhead in half, and we would save $36 million. Who would not prefer putting extra police officers on patrol rather than having APS offices filled with excess staff?

APS also overspends on support, operations and food service. Half the overspending is outside the classroom.

APS spin defends its budget on the grounds of student poverty. Yet the poverty rates of San Antonio, New Orleans and Kansas City are within a point or two of Atlanta’s, and none of the peer districts is on Easy Street. In any case, how could the poverty rate justify spending twice what others do on administration?

APS is spending $126 million more this fiscal year (2008) than it did three years ago. Spending has increased since 2005 at a rate of 7.8 percent per year, far faster than inflation and taxpayers’ incomes. In 2009 the Atlanta schools will spend $14,660 per student.

Employee benefit growth accounts for one-third of the APS spending jump since 2005. This $142 million expense needs reining in. The unfunded pension expense alone is $52 million.

APS is not unique in this: Many other local governments are up to their necks in the consequences of irresponsible pension promises. But APS needs to take professional advice and negotiate its way out of it. Likewise, APS should tackle spiraling health costs, starting with strong incentives for employees to join a cost-effective health maintenance organization.

Board members need to feel pressure from constituents, or nothing will change.

Julian Bene