DeKalb under the gun: Raise taxes or make dire cuts, including closing beloved Fernbank

Fernbank costs DeKalb $4.7 million to operate, a luxury the system can't afford any longer. (AJC)

Fernbank costs DeKalb $4.7 million to operate, a luxury the system can't afford any longer. (AJC)

Many of you have suggested that the cash-strapped DeKalb Schools close the Fernbank Science Center.

Someone was listening.

As a longtime metro Atlanta resident, I have been to Fernbank dozens of times with all four of my children. My kids love the nature exhibits and the Apollo 6 Command Module. I would hate to see this facility close, but I realize the financial crisis facing DeKalb and understand that there will be cuts of consequence and conscience. Some good stuff will end.

According to the AJC:

Each year, about 160,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, learn about frogs, snakes, bugs and other animals and plants during visits to Fernbank Science Center.

The decades-old institution, owned and operated by the DeKalb County public school district, has offered a hands-on education to students and other visitors from across metro Atlanta and elsewhere. However, it might close, under a recommendation Thursday by the school board’s budget committee. Fernbank Science Center, which includes a planetarium, is near the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, which is operated by a separate nonprofit.

At an annual cost of $4.7 million, the building and its 56 full-time employees now are looking like a luxury to school officials. They are struggling with a $73 million deficit, and may have to cut teachers and school days to balance the budget.

School board Chairman Eugene Walker, who opposes closing the science center, said students go there to work on projects and learn about nature. “It’s a great educational opportunity for students that are interested in science,” he said.

This week, the school board adopted a tentative $759.7 million budget that closed the gap, but only with an unlikely $30 million tax increase. Several who backed the spending plan — a formality mandated by the state so the public would have something to comment on — said they had no desire to actually raise taxes. They’ll have to vote on a final budget before fiscal 2013 starts on July 1.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution polled eight of the nine board members (only Sarah Copelin-Wood could not be reached), and five said, to varying degrees, they opposed a tax increase.

“I will only consider a tax increase after we have made all the reductions we can,” said Tom Bowen, the board vice chairman. “Using reserves last year allowed us to escape some hard decisions.”

Bowen was referring to DeKalb’s savings account. Money piled up in flush times, but there are no reserves now. Indeed, this year, DeKalb may wind up $6 million in debt. If that happens, officials say they will hold off on paying bills until July or after, meaning the deficit actually could be closer to $79 million.

No other major metro Atlanta school system is in the same dire financial straits. Last year, the most recent for which figures are available, only a half-dozen public school systems in Georgia ended the year owing money.

The causes, though, are not unique: rising costs for items such as health insurance, and plummeting tax receipts. Property values, the foundation of the DeKalb tax base, will have seen a 25 percent decline from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2013, according to school system financial officials.

Proponents of a tax increase, including Walker, note that DeKalb hasn’t raised its tax rate in nearly a decade. “The idea of just cutting to solve this problem is irresponsible,” he said.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

247 comments Add your comment

teacher&mom

May 25th, 2012
8:15 am

Fernbank holds fond memories for my family. We would travel over 2 hours to spend a day at the science center.

What a shame future generations may not enjoy this treasure.

Dunwoody Mom

May 25th, 2012
8:17 am

Perhaps a private enterprise could take over the Science Center. I, too, grew up with yearly visits to Fernbank, but it’s a luxury this district cannot afford.

alm

May 25th, 2012
8:20 am

I loved going as a kid and my kids love it too but individual schools must come first.

Daculan

May 25th, 2012
8:30 am

I think its a shame……and yet, it had to be self supportive. 56 Employees??? Last time I went there we got a big load of attitude from a worker about walking into the garden. It was 30 minutes before closing time and she would not let us enter. I said – well, we can walk ten minutes in and ten minutes out, NO? City Worker entitled attitude. Maybe I wasn’t the only one.
Private Entity could take it over and do better. Where is Tyler Perry?

DeKalb

May 25th, 2012
8:35 am

The kids dread going there. Field trips trigger thoughts of happiness, until the kids hear it’s to Fernbank. A waste of time anf fuel for these field trips. The kids learn little that day and maintain none of it.

Maureen Downey

May 25th, 2012
8:38 am

@DeKalb, Do you mean your own kids or your students?
Maureen

yes i am worried

May 25th, 2012
8:38 am

Not a city worker — a school system worker.

This is the third time that FSC has been on the chopping block in about 5 years. Soon this blog will be full of outrage over the possible closure of the center, but not one of those people has stepped forward with any solution to the money drain that the center is to lead an effort to fix the problems.

No other system in GA has the burden of funding a FSC. Next year, my child faces the prospect of nearly 40 students in a class. How can we justify FSC?

Close

May 25th, 2012
8:39 am

Close it, we are taxed enough! Fernbank is a great place for both kids and adults, but like so many other places in Atlanta, there is no financial accountability. If Fernbank cannot support itself, then something is wrong….we would not raise taxes to support a grocery chain if they could not make money….people cannot afford housing now, they do not need to be taxed even more…sad, but close it.

Elizabeth

May 25th, 2012
8:42 am

By all means — cut something that supports academics and keep middle school sports. Then complain and sanction schools with low test scores. By all means– cut a center dedicated to getting kids excited and informed about science. Then remind everyone how schools are “failing” in science education and how far the U. S. is behind in getting people to become scientists. By all means… support something nonacademic and then complain about “failing schools”. Just another example of what the public’s and politicians’ REAL education priorities are.

Formerteacher

May 25th, 2012
8:44 am

I hate to hear about this. Shameful as it is to admit this, I went to Fernbank for the first time last year when my daughter’s class went for a field trip- and I’ve lived here almost 30 years. But, my daughter loved and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted more time, since we were on a “schedule” of things to see. The presentation by the staff about the geographical areas of GA was great and the kids (well, most of them) loved touching the indigo snake. Having said all that, tough choices will have to be made,and I think Fernbank should be among them. I hope a private entity will come forward and take it on, as it is a great asset to the city.

Dunwoody Mom

May 25th, 2012
8:49 am

@Elizabeth, middle school sports cost the district $200,000. Fernbank costs well over $7 million dollars. There is also no data that suggests Fernbank contributes in a positive manner to the Science test scores within DCSD.

Aquagirl

May 25th, 2012
8:49 am

Just another example of what the public’s and politicians’ REAL education priorities are.

You can darn well bet the Chinese aren’t prioritizing a sport that might cause brain damage over science education. We are one screwed up country.

redweather

May 25th, 2012
8:49 am

56 full-time employees? I have visited the museum many times and am astounded it has that many full-timers on the payroll. What the heck?

yes i am worried

May 25th, 2012
8:50 am

Elizabeth,

I imagine middle school sports won’t survive, but you are talking about nearly 5 million vs 300,000 dollars. A huge difference.

In this era of emphasis on STEM, Fernbank has had years to develop support from corporations and foundations. However, this hasn’t happened. In fact, the SEMAA program ends this year because NASA is no longer funding it.

homeschooler

May 25th, 2012
8:55 am

The last time I went to Fernbank was about 8 yrs ago and I was pretty disappointed. I went on a class trip with my neice because her mom couldn’t make it. Maybe it was because I was in a large group of 3rd graders (who seemed generally clueless and couild not have cared less about being there) but I just didn’t like it. Tellus (in Cartersville) blows it away. Let a private company take it over. They will update it a bit and have it making money in no time. Then it will be a benefit to the community and not a drain on it.

Rick Day

May 25th, 2012
8:59 am

This is the educational equivalent of “eating your seed stock”. Without science, our children have no future.

I would rather pot head zombies roam the streets than to have education funding cut so a cop can get a frikkin’ raise.

DeKalb

May 25th, 2012
9:01 am

Maureen,

Both. Ive taken my kids and classes there. Neither groups wanted to return. The classes enjoyed the bus ride and picnic afterwards more than the actual Fernbank visit.

yes i am worried

May 25th, 2012
9:01 am

I want to make sure that people understand that there are two Fernbank museums. One is the big Fernbank Museum of Natural History, a large institution that is a non-profit.

The other looks a bit like an old school on the outside and that is Fernbank Science Center. This is owned by the school system. There is the Fernbank Forest also, that has been run by the FSC, but the Forest reverts back to Fernbank Inc this summer. A large amount of field trips to Fernbank are associated with the forest and that is now gone.

Progressive Humanist

May 25th, 2012
9:03 am

I’m not going to suggest that DeKalb lay off the hundreds of excess administrators that it has because I never want people to lose their jobs and it’s not good for the economy to have more people out of work. But what I will advise is that the county takes every administrator with on online or diploma mill doctorate (one that’s not from a research university), put them back in the classroom, and pay them $50-60k a year, just like the other experienced teachers with extra degrees. This would benefit students because there would be smaller class sizes, and it would save money because it would eliminate unnecessary salaries for unqualified individuals. I don’t know how far that money would go in saving Fern Bank, but it’s a start.

SalGRichardCRonnieHShuliERileyMBenjyB

May 25th, 2012
9:14 am

As a former DeKalb resident, I’d much rather my county cut luxuries than raise taxes. People are hurting & we can’t afford to pay for such luxuries. Good to see DeKalb County behaving responsibly. God willing, in the years to come, we will dig ourselves out of this mess & be able to afford facilities like Fernbank. Sad to see it go but cuts have to be made to pay for salaries, basic infrastructure, etc. I wish DeKalb had tightened their belts years ago but hey, it’s a beginning…….

Matt

May 25th, 2012
9:14 am

Fernbank Science Center is a great resource, used by kids all over the state. Why can’t it be supported by more than one county? We’re constantly hearing about how we need to get kids excited about science. This is a whole facility dedicated to doing just that! If the Science Center is cut, the whole state loses.

Also, I wish the article would point out that raising the millage rate isn’t the same thing as raising the amount taxed – falling property values have meant that people have been getting a lower tax bill, and are sending less dollars to support schools. Raising the millage rate would for most people bring their tax rate back in line to where it was just recently.

When did we decide as a community that our children’s future just wasn’t that important anymore? In DC politicians are carping all the time about the fake deficit crisis, saying think of the children. Well, think of the children, right here, right now. Will we give them the best education we can, or will we shrug our shoulders and say we’d like to give you the same opportunities the kids before you had, but we’re just too cheap.

Cigi

May 25th, 2012
9:16 am

Find a private group to take over Fernbank. Those great science teachers there could teach students in schools. I am sure that there is no data that supports the benefit that students or staff get from the program. How can we justify it at a time that teachers may be required to teach 40 students in a class? Do we get any state funds that assist us in keeping it open? If not, we cannot avoid the drain. My sister and her family live in Henry. They do not have Pre K in the schools. Each of two young students have gone to Pre K Programs run by individuals. Both of her children have been in excellent programs and have done well in school. Pre K is important but both Cobb and Henry do not offer it in the schools. DeKalb may need to follow that model.

Just a mom

May 25th, 2012
9:16 am

this headline is misleading – it is BOTH raise taxes and make dire cuts. The 2 mil increase equates to about $30 million. They still have to find about $50 million in cuts to make this budget balance. I have taken many classes to Fernbank and the kids are always so scheduled in terms of transportation that there is not much time to look at the exhibits.

Mark

May 25th, 2012
9:17 am

Dekalb- What you are saying is very one-sided. No one is taking into account the vast amount of outreach that Fernbank does with schools and communities, as well as specialty programs such as STT, Advanced Studies (enrichment for HS students), and summer and weekend enrichment camps…and oh yeah, they do offer many adult programs as well.
It’s not all about a bunch or 3rd graders going to see a planetarium show that they saw the year before. There is much more than that. Few people understand everything that FSC has to offer and what a jewel it is, and unfortunately, folks like yourself that bad-mouth it suddenly become a silent majority.

GFY

May 25th, 2012
9:18 am

If you want to look at opportunities to save money take a look at the GA Dept of Audits salary report and look at the many non teaching “administrator” positions. As a former auditor of this local BOE I am abundantly aware of many postions that are paid just to keep people on staff.

cxx

May 25th, 2012
9:22 am

Get back to basics in education, English, Math, Science, Social Studies. Study, not entertainment.

David

May 25th, 2012
9:24 am

I had good memories of going to Fernbank when I was in school. I especially loved going to the planetarium. I’d be sad to see it close.

William Casey

May 25th, 2012
9:24 am

@Progressive Humanist: your suggestion makes perfect sense unless you consider the fact that the REAL purpose of the DCSS is to provide JOBS for people with semi-bogus degrees. In this, the system has succeeded magnificently.

GFY

May 25th, 2012
9:25 am

Matt:

I decided my kids future was important enough for my family to make sacrifices in other areas (no vacations for the past 5 years, 18 year old truck and 12 year old car being driven) to send my kids to private schools. Raise the millage rate and you will see home prices decrease further as it will amount to a zero sum game.

GFY

May 25th, 2012
9:25 am

William Casey hit the nail on the head…………

outrider.jns

May 25th, 2012
9:26 am

we would not have a deficite if the leaders of this country would stop giving our tax dollars to foreign countries that hate us and want to kill us all. If our government stopped giving the money away and instead split ti between the states we could rebuild America to it’s former greatness in 3 years and the rest of the world would again stand in awe of the red, whie and blue…

stephanie m

May 25th, 2012
9:28 am

surely they can can rid of the top useless wasteful salaries at the dekalb county school system. not the teachers, they work, the people at desks doing nothing. we all know they are there.

skipper

May 25th, 2012
9:31 am

There is enough dead-weight and new “politically-correct” positions in the school system that if THEY were eliminated, the system might even be close to becoming solvent……too many NOT NEEDED administrative jobs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Howard Finkelstein

May 25th, 2012
9:33 am

You see this is what public sector Grand Poobahs do. Money falls short, because of their own colossal waste/stupidity, they penalize the public citizens instead of making the tough decision and culling their own.

DCSS, APS, Clayton County, all of them thieves, thugs and flunkys.

Mike

May 25th, 2012
9:33 am

When will the county begin to consolidate operations between the school system operations and the county’s overall operations? By this I mean, there is a transportation and maintenance capability at both the county and the school system. Should an overall county worker see a maintenance problem at a school, it has to be passed on to the school system’s maintenance department. That just seems dumb. Consolidate Now!

Lynn Hamilton

May 25th, 2012
9:36 am

Does anybody know if the attached IMAX is on the chopping block as well? Aren’t they tied to each other financially? If so, the obvious solution would be to start showing feature films at the IMAX. People will pay upwards of $20 a ticket to see Harry Potter in 3d IMAX. That could be a huge cash cow for the complex and save science education for the future.

By the way, I was inspired by many of your comments to write a petition asking the school board to aggressively seek a private company to run the center:

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/824/441/392/save-fernbank-science-center/

If you agree, would you please sign it and let others know? Thank you.

bu2

May 25th, 2012
9:38 am

If they do close it, DCSS loses ownership of it by terms of the lease. They really should figure out other options to cut costs to give them some time to find some outside funding for the center. If there really is a 1 year deadline, something might happen.

Some people are saying the money could better be spent in direct science education, but the reality is that closing it reduces funds for science education as the programs outside the center will be cut back or lost and those funds are simply reducing the deficit, not being spent elsewhere.

rediculous

May 25th, 2012
9:38 am

no excuse for corrupt dekalb county schools to fall to this low.

Dunwoody Mom

May 25th, 2012
9:41 am

STT benefits around 200 students per semester – a very small, small percentage of DCSD students.
The enrichment programs for students should be in the schools, not in a separate facility. Why should a school district be in the business of providing summer camps and enrichment programs for adults? Do they pay for these?

Ron F.

May 25th, 2012
9:47 am

I’d think they would be able to find grant money for a science center…if anyone actually knows how to do that in DCSS. Seems they have enough administrative staff at the district office that at least ONE of them could take on the process. I’m disappointed that they weren’t already considering that with budgets as tight as they’ve been. But sadly they haven’t. I’ve taken my sons and my parents took me. There is value in having the center, and kids who say they don’t like it will remember a good bit of what they see and hear. I hate to think of it closing up.

Dunwoody Mom

May 25th, 2012
9:50 am

@Ron F – the process of finding grant money or selling the center to a private entity should have occurred several years ago when the economy was beginning to falter, but then again, certain individuals within DCSS led everyone to believe there was plenty of money in the bank. We know now that wasn’t the case.

Former Science Center Student

May 25th, 2012
9:52 am

I hold many fond memories of the science center, having run camps for elementary school kids there while I was in High School, as well as taking classes there in high school. I hope they figure out a better solution, even if its goes private. That place is magical, and I’ve seen so many little kids go through there with a real appreciation for science. @Dekalb, if your kids learn nothing and it’s a waste of time for them, it’s your fault for raising kids with no appreciation for learning, like many parents nowadays. I bet your kids were talking teh whole time, not paying any attention or respect to the material.

upset parent

May 25th, 2012
9:53 am

If Dekalb is in such a dire situation why do they have all those adminstrative jobs posted on their website—chief of staff—salary of $165k? Those seem like fluff in a system that is 70 million in the hole and laying off bus drivers, adding students to already overburdened classrooms and making teachers take yet another pay cut. They have also posted a director of leadership development position–maybe they need that position—it’s certainly clear that leadership is in short supply in Dekalb county!

CTPAT

May 25th, 2012
9:54 am

This seems like no-brainer. I feel fairly confident that a private entity would either take over some of the exhibits or be willing to run Fernbank. Move the seasoned science teachers into our schools. Without the forest, FSC isn’t going to be the same place to visit anyway. Fieldtrips are still available toother science resources in the area.

Justwondering

May 25th, 2012
9:55 am

Lynn Hamilton

The IMAX is not part of fernbank science center. The fernbank museum of natural history is a different facility altogether. Before you start a petition, please get your facts straight

Mrs. Murray

May 25th, 2012
9:55 am

I completely agree with Mark. There should always be outside institutions that cater to the community as a whole. That is exactly what Fernbank does. As a whole. DCSS would not be in this situation if it did decent background checks on individuals charged with finacial responsibilities. Maybe we wouldn’t have that large lawsuit that is eating away our children’s education funds.

Veronica

May 25th, 2012
9:56 am

I grew up in Dekalb Co Schools and by continuation, I grew up at Fernbank Science Center. It would be such a shame to close it. I learned a great many things there and have taken my own child many times since Gwinnett Co does not visit the Science Center. He enjoyed it/learned more than the Fernbank Museum which has all the funding and honestly, I don’t get the big museum other than a trendy place have to have Martinis and Imax.

Dekalb taxpayer

May 25th, 2012
9:59 am

Please put this decision in the proper context. If Fernbank is no longer to be funded by DCSS (and it shouldn’t be), it will not be because of the national recession and housing crisis. It will be because uneducated Dekalb voters elected self-serving, corrupt school board members who in turn hired a self-serving, corrupt superintendent who created jobs for numerous incompetent, self-serving administrators. It isn’t the economy that is causing the collapse of the school system; it is ignorance and greed—a scary combination.

Csoby

May 25th, 2012
10:06 am

We need a full accountqbility form all government on how the moeny was spent and where prior to rasing any taxes and if any improper spedning was done, then those that were in charge should be charged, fired with no benefits…not just put on leave of absence

Please don't go

May 25th, 2012
10:07 am

Money. Money. Money.
I know the place is old, dark, and musty, but I still love it! I remember as a 3rd grader going there for the first time and from that point on all I could think about was becoming an astronaut. Albeit I’m not an astronaut, I am still mesmerized by the night sky and the wonders and mysteries it holds. Field trips won’t be the same with out the Fernbank Science Center. I’ve been to the museum, but it’s just a nice marbly, shiny building – suitable for Christmas parties. I’ve eaten under the large dinosaur and it was nice, but I learned far more from the actual science center itself.