By Jody Steinberg

DeKalb County School Superintendent Crawford Lewis decided to forgo the economic doom and gloom and put a positive spin on his State of the System address this month.

As the keynote speaker at the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Lewis offered his audience a business proposition: While the DeKalb County School System retools its approach to real-world preparedness by training more students in career technologies, DeKalb businesses can invest time and resources in their local schools by mentoring, sharing expertise in the classroom and offering internships to students.

“In the last two years, we’ve make a big effort to work more with businesses and to give our students what they need to be employable,” said Dist. 1 Board of Education member Jim Redovian, whose district includes part of Brookhaven, referring to a resurgence in industry-certified career training programs. “The best thing we as a school system can do for our state’s economy is to provide qualified workers.”

Funding cuts and reduced revenues continue to affect education; for six consecutive years, Georgia has shaved a few percentage points off each agency’s allocation. For DeKalb schools, those cuts totaled almost $100 million. In recent months, the system has trimmed $41 million in jobs, transportation and step pay increases. The fiscal 2009 operating budget is now $894 million, plus $280 million more in mostly capital improvement funds and employee pensions.

“We’ve tried to stay out of the classroom,” said Dist. 2 board member Don McChesney, who represents most of Brookhaven. “But if these cuts keep coming, no telling where it will go.”

Advocates for fiscal responsibility point to the school system’s top-heavy central administration and abundant facilities: With 153 schools for 100,000 students, DeKalb has more per capita than most. Facility closings are not on the agenda, but Lewis said they could be in the future.

For now, spending and fundraising dominated the school board’s working meeting Feb. 12. The board approved plans to relocate administrative offices to the Mountain Industrial Center, where more than a dozen programs will share space. Capital Improvement Plan funds for that move have long been allocated, and McChesney said the board is confident the consolidation of offices will save money.

The board also agreed to pursue plans to open a charter Marine Corps Academy for ninth-graders next year within another school and add a grade each year. The academy would be the first of its kind in Georgia and one of the first in the nation. The Marines would primarily fund the program, which would target kids in need of strict discipline — no enlistment required.

In an effort to bring more private money into DeKalb’s public schools, Board of Education members will visit Coralwood School, which serves children ages 3 to 6 years who have disabilities, learning differences or other developmental needs. Coralwood has found great fundraising success by establishing a nonprofit foundation, hiring a grant writer and getting parents involved, and the board hopes other schools can follow that example.