I read with great disgust last week how DeKalb County Schools is facing a $73 million dollar deficit for next year’s budget. My blood pressure continued to rise, when it was revealed that Georgia’s third largest public school system has a zero balance reserve fund. As an investigative reporter, I helped concerned DeKalb County citizens and school employees blow the whistle on the system’s profligate financial practices more than a decade ago.
In 2004, I fought an epic battle to expose the fact DeKalb had paid $341,000 to Ernst & Young for a salary audit that showed the system was paying non-classroom workers a whopping $14.8 million too much per year — every year. When the school board received the report — the board simply ignored it; and former Superintendent Crawford Lewis worked diligently with the system’s highly-paid non-staff attorneys to prevent the study from every seeing the light of day. To add insult to injury, four months ago, DeKalb Schools paid a Virginia company another $175,000 to reach the same conclusion; DeKalb had at least 300 employees on the central office payroll.
Let’s do the math: If DeKalb Schools would have respected its citizens and followed the recommendations of the first report, tax-payers would have saved $135 million dollars since 2004, or the school system would today have a $62 million surplus. How is the system addressing the $73 million deficit? Nothing is final, but the latest idea is to eliminate 200 teachers’ aides, (as in classroom personnel) increase class sizes and — you guessed it, raise homeowner taxes. Mix in the fact DeKalb Schools has been in a five year ego-fueled battle with its former construction manager - and has stuck taxpayers with additional $37 million in legal bills, DeKalb citizens are suddenly furious and demanding answers.
How did matters get to this point? Absent the occasional coverage of a boondoggle on local TV, there is no committed media watchdog serving and protecting the interests of DeKalb County citizens.
Don’t think for a minute the DeKalb School System is the only place where pride and hubris cost taxpayers a fortune.
Let’s spend a minute on the seemingly endless two-decade old battle between Georgia, Alabama and Florida for the rights to the water flowing from Lake Lanier. In simple terms, Georgia officials want the courts to recognize Lanier as Georgia’s present and future unlimited drinking water source. Alabama wants Lanier’s water to power its steam plants, and Florida wants Lanier’s water to protect endangered species that live in Apalachicola River. Here’s the real tragedy: Court records show you’ve paid the State’s hired guns (outside non-staff attorneys) nearly $19 million and counting to fight this war.
Here’s a little more perspective… several years ago, the (now former) Governors of each state pledged to get together and end this dispute. It didn’t happen. Today, three governors – who belong to the same political party that espouses fiscal responsibility – won’t get together and find a way to stop this fiscal blood-letting.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that “the only candidates who will wind up on your ballot are the candidates who have agreed to accept money from the interest groups who are passionate about individual (and often irrelevant) crusades. There is no powerful interest group to promote (and more importantly) leverage that power to demand (fiscal responsibility).
I stand corrected. I’m encouraged by the fiscal stands taken by Georgia’s Tea Party activists. I just hope they form a chapter in DeKalb before taxes go up again.
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