By Joe Earle
and Amy Wenk

Fulton County school officials say they face a budget gap totaling more than $100 million, requiring severe cuts in the money spent on schools, a property tax increase or a combination of the two.

“This is unprecedented. This has never happened in the history of the school system,” said Dist. 3 School Board Member Gail Dean. “It’s a disaster.”

The district faces the huge gap between revenues and expenses in its next budget because of reductions in state money for education coupled with expected declines in tax revenues caused by falling property values, school district officials said.

Dean said she expects the board to face recommendations that school taxes be raised to cover at least a portion of the gap. “I don’t think there’s any way you can do it without looking at the revenue side,” she said.

In recent years, the district has made up gaps between revenues and expenses by spending federal stimulus money and cash from the district’s reserve funds, Superintendent Cindy Loe told a group of school officials and parents during a meeting Feb. 16 at Woodland Elementary Charter School. But those options can’t be counted on next year, school officials said. The reserve fund, Loe said, has been reduced to about a month’s expenses, meaning district officials should leave the fund alone.

“All the cuts we’re reviewing now are pretty significant,” Loe said. “We really have to impact our bottom-line budget.”

Dean and Dist. 7 School Board Member Julia Bernath said board members expect to face an overall revenue shortfall of more than $140 million in the district’s $850 million budget, but already have identified about $35 million in cuts

“We are really looking at everything that has a local dollar attached,” Bernath told parents and principals Feb. 16 at Ison Springs Elementary School. “It’s not fun to make these decisions. We are really trying to be thoughtful and deliberate.”

The initial round of cuts includes eliminating expenditures Fulton has used in the past to keep classes smaller than state-mandated levels, Dean, Loe and Bernath said. Eliminating the local supplement would save about $31 million, they said, by reducing the number of teachers and classes needed. But that will mean more students per class.

The changes mean kindergarten classes will increase in size to 22 students from 20 students, first through third grade classes will increase to 23 students from 21 students, fourth through eighth grade classes will increase to 30 from 28 students and high school classes will increase to 32 students from 29 students.

“It’s a difficult time to raise taxes,” Loe said. “But it’s also a difficult time to cut people and programs. It’s a difficult time all the way around.”

Loe said that as the board begins preparing its new budget, residents should tell school officials which areas they feel can be cut and which areas “we need to hold sacred.”

“We keep hoping that next month the estimates will be better,” Loe said, “but we’re getting to the point where we have to put pencil to paper.”

Several of the more than two dozen residents attending the Woodland meeting seemed ready to support a tax increase.

“They can talk about it all day long, but it’s going to happen if they’re going to fix this problem,” Bruce Piefke said.

Earlier, he told Loe and Dean that if the district raised taxes, officials should make sure they raised them enough to address the problem.

“You’ve got to look at the revenue side of things,” he said. “Don’t nickel and dime it. We’ve got to fix this problem …. [Don’t get bogged down in debating] a $200 (tax) increase versus a $300 increase, if I’m going to be angry about it, make me angry. Do it, fix it and move on.”

Budget meetings in Sandy Springs

Final millage rate adoption – June 17, 6:30 p.m.

(All meetings are held at Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School, 8100 Roberts Drive)

Board work session – April 22, 3 to 5 p.m.

Public budget hearing – April 22, 6:30 to 7 p.m.