Cheryl L. H. Atkinson

DeKalb Schools Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson

Parents with children in DeKalb County Schools can rest easy. The DeKalb County Board of Education announced Monday, April 9, that it will not cut millions in school construction projects funded by sales taxes.

Instead, the board will avoid a shortfall by paying for the unfinished projects using future sales tax money.

Projects in Dunwoody and Brookhaven will now move forward, DeKalb Schools employees said. That means Dunwoody High will be able to finish projects at the school originally budgeted for $1.13 million. There will also be money to build a track at Peachtree Charter Middle School, originally budgeted at $250,000. Plans to rebuild Chamblee Charter High, which triggered the scramble to find the additional money, will still move forward.

School officials realized the potential shortfall when they discovered the Chamblee project will cost $10 million more than originally anticipated. Following an investigation, school officials proposed cutting $31 million in projects and closing some other projects so there wouldn’t be a $36.5 million shortfall. But school board members balked, and sent their attorney to research another way around the problem.

The solution involves moving money from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax, or SPLSOT, a penny sales tax approved by voters to pay for school construction. The projected shortfall was in money from SPLOST III, which voters approved in 2007. The board will now move money from SPLOST IV, which voters approved last November, to pay for unfinished SPLOST III projects.

No projects from either list will be cut, school officials said. The school system will transfer $25 million in SPLOST III projects to SPLOST IV. The school system will find the extra money by paying for the projects as it goes, avoiding $11 million in interest on debt, COO Stephen Wilkins told board members. Much of the projected shortfall was due to the school system not allocating interest payments for $300 million it borrowed in anticipation of SPLOST III money. School officials did not account for $21 million in borrowing costs.

In addition to paying for projects as the money comes in, the school system will cut $9 million from SPLOST IV, including $5 million from its program management budget, money used to pay contractors to help run the school system’s facilities. Wilkins said the school system can also save $4.8 million in design costs by using a standard design for seven proposed new elementary schools.

District 1 School Board member Nancy Jester, who represents Chamblee and Dunwoody, pressed Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson on whether the money that was promised for the SPLOST III projects will be what the schools actually receive for those projects.

Atkinson said it will not. But Dunwoody will be able to finish the projects on its list, according to school finance officials.

“We have to stop thinking in terms of dollars,” Atkinson said. “We have to think about the completion of the project.”

Atkinson said the school system in the past got itself into trouble by taking money from projects that came in under budget and spending it elsewhere at the same school. Then the school system would find itself struggling to pay for other projects that came in over-budget. The $1.13 million originally budgeted for Dunwoody projects was there because the high school renovations came in under budget. Parents wanted to spend the leftover money elsewhere, specifically making $441,000 worth of repairs to the south parking lot. Those things will still happen, but if it comes in under budget, the school won’t be able to spend it somewhere else, Atkinson said.

Jester agreed that is the best practice for school system to get out of the habit of taking project savings and adding projects to a school.

“You’re right and we should’ve been doing that all along,” Jester said.

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