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