By Amy Wenk

Facing an $88 million budget gap next year, the DeKalb County School System plans to close at least a dozen schools over the next two years.

“DeKalb County School System is at a crossroads of sorts,” said School Superintendent Crawford Lewis, who made the announcement during his Feb. 19 “State of the System” address. “The economy compels us to look at school closures and redistricting. We can no longer afford to operate schools that are at half capacity.”

Meanwhile, the DeKalb county commission this week adopted a new budget that did not requre a tax increase, a county official said.

Four elementary schools will close this fall, Lewis said, and eight to 10 elementary, middle and high schools will close the following year.

No schools were identified, but Lewis said population is shifting away from south DeKalb. Dunwoody is the fastest growing city in the county, he said. County enrollment is about 101,000 students, up 1,500 children in the last year.

DeKalb shut the doors on five elementary schools last fall.

“These closings are necessary at this time and will save millions of dollars,” Lewis said, noting the county has 29 schools with less than 300 enrolled students. “It’s not a good use of your tax dollars to leave buildings at half capacity open.”

In addition to the closings, Lewis said the school board is also considering a tax increase. Typically, 55 percent of the school system’s budget comes from property taxes.

“We are working really, really hard not to raise anyone’s taxes,” Lewis said.

But the tax millage as not increased in seven years, he said, and “it is going to be really, really difficult to make this the eighth year.”

School officials just weeks ago estimated the budget shortfall to be $56 million. Since then, they have discovered the tax values of DeKalb properties have fallen more than they expected, reducing the amount in taxes the district can expect to collect.

“Our [tax] digest was $2 billion short of what we anticipated it to be,” Lewis said, saying DeKalb has the highest rate of foreclosures in metro Atlanta.

He said the school system is looking to save money in other way, such as reducing the size of the central office and regular staff, eliminating instructional programs, curtailing utility usage, mandating furlough days and cutting salaries.

“We must reduce our overhead by reducing staff,” Lewis said.

He said details about additional cuts will be discussed Feb. 26.

“In tough times, it is a lot harder to be a public servant because you have to decide which of several bad choices need to be made,” said Thomas Bowen, chair of the DeKalb Board of Education. “We are trying to do what’s right for the children, but we have to work with the resources that we have.”

Lewis also discussed the recent media attention over his salary. Public criticism arose when the school board in January granted him — alongside a new three-year contract — a $15,000 raise, despite the evident budget crisis.

But Lewis claims the raise came after he gave up $30,000 in salary last year.

“I don’t think $15,000 is going to have a profound impact on the $80 million deficit,” he said. “Let’s put this to bed. DeKalb County is bigger than $15,000 … I chose to focus on the stuff that matters.”