By Amy Wenk

First-grader Nicolette Rima is upset she won’t get to be in band or orchestra like her fifth-grade brother Tommy, said her mother Carol Ann Rima. The three protested April 27 at Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School in Sandy Springs.

People are not happy about budget cuts proposed for Fulton County Schools next year.

Parents, students and faculty visited Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School in Sandy Springs on April 22 to protest before the school board.

The Fulton Board of Education must close a budget gap of $117.3 million and has proposed nixing band and orchestra from elementary school, firing employees and raising taxes, among other things.

“This has been a difficult budget season for everybody,” said Fulton Superintendent Cindy Loe during the April 22 work session.

The school system anticipates less revenue and more expenditures next year due to several factors, according to information from the school system.

Tax revenue will decline because residential properties have decreased 8 percent in value and commercial properties about 10 percent in value.

Revenue from the state will be about $46.6 million less next year. Local monies will account for more than 70 percent of Fulton’s school budget. This year the local system is raising about 67 percent of its budget.

Those factors coupled with 1,700 new students next year has created the wide budget gap. The school board for months has been scrambling for solutions and expects to finish the budget on June 8.

“I think we have touched everybody,” Dist. 7 School Board Member Julia Bernath, who represents some Sandy Springs schools, said of the proposed budget cuts and reductions.

That widespread effect was seen April 22 at the first public hearing on the budget.

A dozen or so children played instruments like violins and cellos at the entrance to Dunwoody Springs. Others held colorful posters or signs that demanded band and orchestra remain at elementary schools.

The school board has proposed removing music education from the school day of fourth and fifth-grade students and instead offering it an after-school program requiring a fee.

“It makes me feel angry they are getting rid of my opportunity to play music,” said fifth-grader Caroline Wittschen as she leaned on a brick column at the school’s entry. She was holding her empty violin case that held a sign that said “Why are you taking my instrument away?”

Also outside were people asking for petition signatures to recall three school board members, including Dist. 3 School Board Member Gail Dean, who represents some schools in Sandy Springs.

Inside Dunwoody Springs, Roswell resident Bob Sieling who is leading the recall effort gave his reasons to remove school board members.

“Difficult times have a way of revealing our true selves,” Sieling said. He accused the board of eliminating programs that are meaningful to students. He mocked the board’s actions and the school system’s motto, “where students come first.”

Sieling said, “It’s not administration first. It’s students first.”

Tearful moms and angry dads came to the podium to talk about band and orchestra cuts.

But Susan Dorenchamp, principal of Heards Ferry Elementary School in Sandy Springs, was one of two speakers who supported removing music education. Her comments were met with loud boos from the audience.

Another topic of contention was the recommendation to raise taxes next year. Superintendent Loe proposes the millage rate be increased by one mil, which would give the school system about $28 million in extra revenue.

A 78-year-old woman complained about the hike and asked people over 65 be excluded.

Hilda Ortiz Potash was one of two people who protested the elimination of one-quarter of the county’s school psychologists.

Potash, the county’s first bilingual school psychologist, was canned just days before in a letter from school officials. She worked part-time for 14 years at schools across the district including Dunwoody Springs and Ison Springs elementary schools in Sandy Springs.

“Atlanta is becoming more and more diverse every year,” said Potash who tests children to determine their style of learning and then decides whether they need special education. “Having the right clinicians makes a huge difference.”

Potash said kids who are not native English speakers can be wrongly diagnosed with learning difficulties when their real problem is language comprehension.

“I am sorry to leave,” said Potash who will pack up her things May 27. “I love the job. I love the children.”


Speak out on the budget

The next public hearing on Fulton County Schools’ 2011 budget is on May 11. It is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the administration center at 786 Cleveland Avenue in Atlanta. The school board will tentatively adopt the budget after the hearing. Final budget adoption is set for June 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the administration center.