By Jody Steinberg

The DeKalb school board is under intense pressure to cut $115 million from an $850 million budget by May 14 – cuts that will be felt by everyone in every school.

With dozens of proposals affecting every aspect of the system, board members said that they want to retain teachers as they discussed budget cuts and school consolidation at a meeting April 16.

Salary reductions and furloughs for almost all employees, administrative layoffs, more students in each classroom, fewer paraprofessionals, reduced planning time for high school teachers, the possible elimination of art, foreign language and music programs, school closings – all are being considered.

“You can’t buy the Lexus if you can only afford the Chevrolet,” said District 2 School board member Don McChesney. “And you can’t cut $115 million and maintain services as it has been.”

For months, the board has grappled with slashing the FY2011 budget, which goes into effect July 1, 2010. They began with a target of $88 million in cuts and a commitment to stay out of the classrooms, so they issued new teacher contracts last month – with a clause allowing for pay cuts up to 6.5 percent – without waiting for the final budget.

The actual pay cut will probably be closer to 3.9 percent, to be taken in unpaid furlough days, said McChesney. However, with new state guidelines allowing for two more students in each classroom, many worry about the effect on students.

“In big schools, raising class sizes when there are many classes in a grade could mean one less teacher,” explains Lynn Deutch, vice chair of the Task Force and DCSS parent. But most DeKalb schools aren’t big. “There’s no savings to be found there unless the numbers fall just right.”

Staffing is determined by a complicated point allotment system based on student enrollment; one point equals one full-time instructor and costs about $65,000. Higher enrollments, Title I designation, special education and English Language Learners can earn schools extra points, which can be used to hire art, music and language teachers, paraprofessionals, vice principals, media staff.

Schools are already being told to expect fewer points next year. Magnet schools, which a few years ago received close to 100 points each, will each lose 20 points this year, bringing their totals to around 53.

Principals at Cross Keys High School and Woodward Elementary are hoping for the best as they plan for next year. With 863 students and a major renovation underway, Dr. LaShawn Williams expects challenges with two more students in every class and uncertainty about what electives will be offered. Engaging electives, including art, are hugely popular at Cross Keys, which has seen graduation rates increase from 47 percent in 2006 to 81 percent in 2009.

Cross Keys and Woodward draw a high percentage of ELL and transient students, making it harder to predict enrollment, said Reginald Stephens, Woodward principal.

“You can do the preparations and preplanning, but with a transient community it’s based on who walks through the door the first day,’ said Stephens. This year, the school has about 800 students.

Perhaps more controversial than point allotments are school consolidation and redistricting. DeKalb has over 150 schools and centers, many of which are small and expensive to operate. When a school system has too many vacant seats – and DeKalb has 11,000 – the state lowers its funding per student.

A few miles from Woodward, Ashford Park exemplifies the spoke and wheel philosophy that led school development in DeKalb 50 years ago: elementary schools were the spokes nestled in the neighborhoods, while high schools were built around the wheels. Today, that plan is backfiring. DeKalb plans to close smaller schools and redistrict.

Ashford Park, near capacity with 380 students, is not on the consolidation list, nor are any elementary schools in north DeKalb. The six elementary school are in the McNair and Towers clusters: Sky Haven, Kelley Lake, Knollwood and Glen Haven, Peachcrest and Gresham Park,– a list that has some calling the process unfair.

Decommissioning four elementary schools will remove 2,248 seats from the inventory; another three schools with about 2000 seats that closed last year will also be decommissioned.