There was a light turnout at the Atlanta Public Schools' public bugetary hearing held at Garden Hills Elementary in Buckhead on Thursday night. The few that did show up came ready with questions, however, which were fielded by APS Chief Financial Officer Chuck Burbridge.
The hearing was held to give concerned citizens a chance to ask questions about the proposed of $564.8 million.
The district is aiming to close a $47 million shortfall by nixing 475 jobs — including teachers — closing seven schools, reorganizing departments and dropping those administrators and classroom instructors involved in the cheating scandal under the watch of former schools superintendent Beverly Hall.
The Board of Education, which gave preliminary approval on the proposed budget May 14, must give final approval at its June 4 meeting. At Thursday's meeting, though, Burbridge said he would like to see a decision made by an earlier May 30 budget commission meeting that is open to the public.
"Time is running out on this," he said. "Its not fair to the employees. Its not fair to the board. Its not fair to anybody to delay this longer than it needs to be."
Burbridge explained that a decline in property tax revenue is the main reason for the budget crisis. The median home value in the area that APS serves is lower than surrounding school districts, he said.
"Numbers one through ten on the list top ten list of why we are having a problem is property taxes. Property taxes have fallen quicker than we could cut the budget."
One citizen, realizing she is likely in the minority on this issue, said she is in favor of a millage rate increase to support the schools. Burbridge, however, said that is not a likely option.
"We are making the recommendation that we live within our means," Burbridge said. "Everybody else has had to tighten their belts and we are tightening ours with them."
Each mil increase brings in about $17 million, he said. This infusion of money would provide only temporary relief that would not last over the long term.
When pressed by another citizen for what programs and positions are being cut, Burbridge said he had no answer yet.
"I've had meetings the last few days saying you've got to come up with who you're cutting and why your cutting them and to date they've added 156 people when I've asked them to cut," he said. "It's not pretty and its not done."
Burbridge admitted that with the building of the new North Atlanta High School, many must be wondering if APS will be able to afford all the programs they desire to implement there.
"It will get more challenging every year until the ecnomy turns around," he said.
The Atanta School Board voted to close Parks and Kennedy middle schools, Capitol View, White, Cook, East Lake and Herndon elementary schools last month. Burbridge said a savings of $1 million was expected for each school, although that number is not as realistic as once hoped.
"We aren't saving a million dollars per school because we aren't really closing schools," he said. "We are keeping them in operating condition. The savings on the instruction side isn't what we had hoped either."
Burbridge noted that the decision was made for more than just financial reasons — it was also about making the best use of available resources. There had originally been discussion about closing as many as 13 schools. One citizen at Thursday's meeting wondered why only seven ended up being closed and if the board may reconsider that number.
"There is not much appetite to revisit that decision," Burbridge said. "That decision had a lot of input and there are a lot of moving parts in that. They made the decision he had to make"