DeKalb Schools Budget Committee Recommends Closing Fernbank Science Center

Just a few hours ago, Kris sent in this letter written to the DeKalb County community, pleading that Fernbank Science Center not be closed as a result of DeKalb County Schools’ $73 million budget deficit.  “When did that happen?”, I thought.

Well, according to the AJC’s Ty Tagami, DeKalb County Schools budget committee recommended the closing of Fernbank just yesterday.  A move that would save the school system $4.7 million annually.  The article goes on to say that the Center is now looking like a luxury to school officials, who may still need to cut teachers and school days to make ends meet.

The letter to the community notes that Fernbank Science Center has operated for 45 years.  For those who have never been, the facility includes a “500-seat planetarium, observatory, classrooms, and exhibit halls”.

109 thoughts on “DeKalb Schools Budget Committee Recommends Closing Fernbank Science Center”

  1. well that sucks! Put the money up against a teachers salery I would much rather pay a teacher…but it still sucks!

    Why does it cost 4.7 million to run that joint?

    1. Fernbank Elementary = DeKalb elementary school, not closing

      Fernbank Museum, Inc. = non-profit, not closing

      Fernbank Science Center (FSC) = DeKalb School System, on chopping block; was given to DeKalb School System by Fernbank Inc. in 1960’s

      Fernbank Forest = owned by Fernbank Inc., was being leased/managed by FSC but that lease has expired so it reverts to owner.

      1. Who/what is Fernbank Inc.? Is it likely to take back the Science Center and planetarium and do something useful with them?

        1. No they will not do anything useful with it. They want it closed so that people will pay to go to the Natural History Museum. They refused to allow the Science Center access to the forest, because they see the Science Center as competition.

          There is no competition. A group of people who treasure science and nature would easily frequent both. Now instead of having a scientist take you through the forest, you get a volunteer with a program and pay much, much more. What a shame. Now this.

      2. Just a clarification:
        The agreement between Fernbank Inc. and DeKalb Schools is that the 4 acres where the physical building exist does belong to Fernbank Inc..If the actural building, which belongs to DeKalb County Schools, does not existsas an educational unit or cultural unit, both the building and the land reverts to property of Fernbank Inc. Fernbank Inc. owes the museum of natural history and Fernbank Forest. The reason they didnot renew the lease is because they want to charge everyone, including the children in DeKalb Schools and the community, a fee to enter the Forest they have enjoyed for free for close to 50 years. Follow the money!! The Fernbank Museum would not exist except for the assistance of Fernbank Science Center. For years the museum has tried to control what happens at the science center using taking back the forest as leverage. Let’s see what they do with it now! The museum is a one shot, expensive trip that is more a social gathering place than educational, like Fernbank Science Center. We can’t loss this important resource for our children.

  2. You could shut down every single school in Dekalb, and rotate all the students through Fernbak Science Center for one full day per month, and it’d probably be a net educational gain.

    1. Leaving your typo aside, Fernbank Elementary is an amazing school (which my wonderful daughter just graduated from). All the excellence of the Decatur schools without having a junior and senior elementary. The DeKalb system as a whole may be poorly led and in financial straits, but is nothing to be ashamed of. The Fernbank science center is awesome and should not be closed without a fight (i.e., support from the community). One of the best cheap date nights (er, family nights) is to go to the observatory (open for free on Friday nights) and gaze at the stars. Now, where’s my “Save Fernbank Science Center” lawn sign?

        1. I love the ’Stones. Fred and Barney, still rocking out after all these years. Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, not so much. (And I thought we were going to be friends, Nellie. 😉

    2. Don’t confuse the old science center building with the great science and math teachers at the heart of this program. They reach many kids across the school system and offer hands-on science experiences in well-equipped labs that are far better than what a harried science teacher can do in a regular classroom. They also support the science teachers across the district.

      Closing Fernbank would be a terrible blow to science instruction. It would be better to lose central office people, secretaries, and school buses, than to lose these teachers.

  3. Horrible shame and disrespectful of the history and accomplishments of this Center. And I doubt that 4.7 million will be saved. Permanent tenured staff will be shifted elsewhere. Programs will be diffused across the system where their cost, quality, and impact will be harder to detect and measure. Something this solid should not be wiped out so easily. I can see improving efficiency, merging with other efforts, evolving with the times, evaluating impact but wiping this out in one move is just another step in the dumbing down of DeKalb County Schools.

    I thought it was sad when Sci Trek had to close, now this. I know I sound like an old fogie, but is America just dumbing down in general? This doesn’t seem to bode well for our future. Crummy thinking leads to crummy decisions leads to………..?

    1. I certainly agree that America is dumbing down, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic of discussion. This Fernbank deal, though, is simply a matter of mismanagement, cronyism and malfeasance. Rather than cut overpaid and underworked middle management at DeKalb Schools HQ, the administration prefers to cut important programs that actually serve children. Ay caramba.

  4. Supposing DeKalb County Schools was foolish enough to give up this center, would maybe the Fernbank Natural History Museum be willing to adopt it? Or would this be a great site for a charter school? Paideia isn’t too far away–would it be interested?

  5. We’re facing a $70 million budget deficit for next year. The return-on-investment of every dollar must be examned. The venerable Science Center does not make the cut when examined with that in mind. It impacts so few students — my DCSS graduating senior has not been there in years, for example. Although it offers fantasic programs, such as STT, very, very few students are able to take advantage of them. On the other hand, last year’s DCSS budget provided 50 cents per student for science materials for the entire year– 50 cents!!! — to peform experiments, etc. The superintendent is proposing raising class size to 40 students per class, including per science class, to cut costs. Somehow — not sure if it’s a timing issue or a (most likely) DCSS negligence issue – DCSS lost the lease on the Fernbank Forest, which, effective this July I believe, will revert back to Fernbank, Inc.

    Given all of this, the Fernbank Science Center is a luxury the county cannot afford. The warning bells have been ringing for years; many, many citizens have proposed alternate ways to use and fund the Science Center, but no one listened. It’s now come to this.

    By the way, Judd, Fernbank Elem. is not going to close. It is going to be torn down and rebuilt with SPLOST 4 money (even though within the past four years or so the school receivied a multi-million dollar renovation/addition. Typical DCSS)

    1. Re SPLOST renovations that are outdated or reconfigured in just a few years: That happens in CSD too! But I would hope that CSD would recognize the value of a planetarium.

      1. FYI, there’s a great planetarium and observatory that hosts free open houses once a month during the schoolyear and isn’t funded by the whims and political machinations of a schoolboard:

        FREE!! Free, free, free. Costs you and your student nothing, not even tax dollars, to go see a planetarium show and look through the giant telescope!

        1. I’ve been there with a CSD class and it’s great. Unfortunately, I don’t think that 12 open houses a year would come close to servicing the needs of DCSS students. Plus I’m not sure if Agnes Scott would want DCSS bus traffic; CSD students can walk.

          1. Actually, when I worked at the Agnes Scott observatory a few years ago, we hosted groups from outside Decatur quite often, ranging from scout troops to sixty-person school field trips, during the schoolweek and over the summer. The tiny parking lot has a large bus turnaround/parking space and is specifically configured for bus dropoffs and large groups.

            They’re equipped to handle large-ish groups and happy to host them!

            The Observatory’s director, Dr. Chris Depree, can tell you more. His contact info is on the Bradley Observatory page I linked to above.

    2. The forest lease for Fernbank Science Center was not renewed because Fernbank Museum Inc. wanted control of it. Although these two institutions share a name and a history, their relationship has been deteriorating for some time. This is basically a bitter divorce and the the two parties are fighting over property and custody. The Museum hopes to eventually provide exclusive access to the forest from the Museum side as part of Museum admission. I imagine they will happily take over the FSC building if given the (affordable) opportunity to do so. However, if that occurs you can say goodbye to the $2 planetarium shows and free admission. DCSS has threatened to close the Science Center before, but this time, the loss of forest access will likely be the final nail in the coffin.

      1. That sounds like a deadly combination for DeKalb students. Fernbank Museum wants the property back and DCSS is in such dire straights that it wants to save money any way it can in the short run, even if it results in the irreparable loss of a planetarium. So sorry.

    3. In addition to the STT program, Fernbank’s scientists, most with Ph.Ds, visit hundreds of Dekalb classrooms each year teaching programs to grades 4-9. The children are thus exposed to highly qualified specialists in their subject matter . The science education they provide is very valuable and badly needed. With our students lagging behind so many other countries in science and math knowledge, the last place for cuts is in science education. How about eliminating a few expensive sports programs, like the high school football teams that involve only a few students?

    4. RE proposed alternate ways to use and fund the Science Center that no one listened to: What were some of the examples? Why didn’t anyone listen. So sorry.

  6. The Fernbank Science Center has always been one of the best kept secrets of DeKalb County. We took our children there countless times when they were young–and took them to the planetarium shows. They hardly charge anything–about 1-2 dollars if I recall. Maybe if they upped the price for admission they would see some sort of return. I think it’s foolish for them to close this. The Fernbank Natural History Center could possibly use this as a learning annex. They have already taken over the forest –another gem of the county. DeKalb County BOE has squandered their resources in millions of dollars of taxpayers money in lawsuits and nefarious superintendent dealings. If they can’t handle this, maybe Fernbank trustees can. We can only hope.

  7. I agree–the planetarium alone makes it worth saving–what a waste that would be to shut that down.

  8. I’ll be attending the public budget hearing on Wednesday, May 30th and the regularly scheduled board meeting on Monday, June 4th at 6pm (Administrative and Instructional Complex J. David Williamson Board Room, 1701 Mountain Industrial Boulevard, Stone Mountain, GA 30083). Hope to see DeKalb County residents who want Fernbank Science Center to remain open there in force!!

  9. Fernbank Science Center was a big part of my elementary school education. I can’t imagine it going away. Does Decatur City schools have any kind of relationship with Fernbank?

    1. No, no connection. I used to regret that being a CSD family, wonderful as our system is, our students were ineligible for experiences like the Fernbank Science Center or Kittredge or other magnet schools. No longer. DCSS looks like a tough place for families these days. I imagine that the local private schools will profit from DCSS’s status.

      I have heard DeKalb parents, teachers, and administrators complain for several years about problems with finances, Central Office bloat, spending on fancy sounding projects, media, and programs instead of classroom instruction and core services. I guess it’s catching up with DCSS. Eventually things do. Unfortunately it’s current students who suffer, not those staff who overspent on pet projects or were downright incompetent and are now long-gone. I hope some of them are held accountable (and I know a few are–those with criminal activities). This is why the community and news media must keep their eye on school systems. Like any large institution or government entity, there’s the potential for incompetence or even fraud to occur if they operate in a black box.

  10. Check out @SaveFernbank on Twitter and the Save Fernbank page on Facebook for more information about the proposed closure:

  11. That’s sad. I have nothing but warm and fuzzy memories of my visits to the Planetarium as an Oak Grove Elementary student. Seemed like one of the few places that could get a group of kids that size to shut the hell up and pay attention! 😉

  12. DeKalb County currently has 4,750 retired teachers receiving aggregate pension payments of $207,257,209. That”s an average of almost $44,000 each.

    Teachers are contributing only 5.53% of salary to be eligible for these generous, defined-benefit pensions. The Board of Ed is kicking in 10.28%.

    According to the Board of Ed., of the approx. $74 million budget shortfall, about 1/3 is attributable to declining real estate values. 2/3s are attributable to health care costs and “retirement benefits.”

    But it’s probably a lot worse than that, because deKalb has been skipping the huge payments required to fund this defined-benefit pension plan, and has gotten sued over it. That suit does not appear to be going too well for DeKalb.

    Keep in mind that this broke school system is, as we speak, busy spending up to $2 billion on projects like artificial turf and new lighting at high school football stadiums, in addition (as noted above by Avidfan) demolsihing a rebuilding at least one recently-renovated school.

    1. Great info, DEM!! Hope you’re planning to attend the public budget hearing on Wednesday, May 30th!

      1. Be sure you have your buckets of money correct. The construction projects (like the renovation and stadium projects) are funded by SPLOST which can’t be used for day to day operations.

        Fernbank Forest is no longer part of Fernbank Science Center, which accounts for 6000 DeKalb student field trips a year.

        Instead of sending emails and issuing petitions, why don’t some of you get together and work on a plan that is meaningful. Find a way to cut the costs and serve more students (STT should be offered at multiple high schools, by the way).

        Otherwise, please don’t add children to the classroom size or furlough teachers more to keep this open.

      2. No. DEM has confused the who, how and why regarding money for retired teachers. See Susan’s post below for an explanation of how.

  13. How much money would Dekalb save by moving the school year to something more rational for a hot climate? Having kids in school all of August means air conditioning schools and buses throughout August. Start schools closer to or actually in September, and end them later.

    I’d rather spend money on science education than air conditioning.

    1. Lol.. that’s just too sensible. City of Decatur schools can’t figure that one out either…. so don’t expect it from DeKalb.

    2. But, isn’t heating the schools in the middle of winter just as costly? Perhaps we should just limit school to more temperate months in the spring and fall.

    3. Having attended school in buildings with no air conditioning at all until 10th grade, several hundred miles farther south than here, I say…. Oh, never mind. I agree with Liz.

      1. I did not attend school in the deep South but our schools ran until the end of June so it got pretty hot and stuffy during finals. That was back when windows actually opened and air could flow in. There were a lot of standing fans blowing but I’ll bet that was still less energy than full building A/C.

    4. I’ve been wondering about that myself. It just seems crazy for schools to start in the hottest part of the year in a region where heat is the biggest extreme. As for the person who asked about heating, I don’t know what it costs in relation to A/C, but this isn’t about being open in summer vs. winter — it’s open in winter whether you start in Aug. or in Sept. so the cost for the winter is the same whereas I suspect the energy cost for Aug. is likely to be a lot higher over the full month than Sept. or June. Plus teachers tend to go back earlier so that’s even more high heat time to cool the schools.

      And I really can’t imagine how those kids showing up for sports do it! When I was a student, our football team started practice about 3 or 4 weeks before school started and continued afternoons once it started. That would mean kids suiting up in pads out there running and drilling in the height of summer. Crazy. No wonder heat exhaustion seems to be more of a concern today than in my day.

      1. Ummm, it’s going to be over 90 this weekend, that’s August temps. So pretty much June or August, whatever, the cost will be the same. What happened in your day, may not translate to the new, warmer normal.
        I also went to school many miles south, and June or August it was pretty miserable without air. Many days our teachers told us, “just read, or put your head down.”.
        But, ya know, we walked both ways, uphill, in the snow, and didn’t have air, so we were tougher and more educated than today!

        1. I used to jump up and down about this too–always thought the money spent on A/C in August was wasted and we should start in Sept. But that argument just isn’t valid anymore. Two years ago we had 90-degree weather in June and I was appalled. Last year we had 90-degree weather in May and I just couldn’t believe it. This year we had 90-degree weather in April! I don’t think the A/C argument holds any weight anymore. We’re spending the money we saved on heating this past [unusually mild] winter on A/C in March and April.

  14. As a child of the DeKalb County System in the 70’s and early 80’s the Fernbank Science Center reamins one of the most impactful experiences and fodests memories of my DeKalb County experience. It is a shame to see it on the chopping block. Count me in as one who will look to find a solution to the problem!

  15. imho, I don’t think anyone here should be commenting unless they have been to the following blog and examined the facts:

    its not tradition, its not “but we did it when my kids were young”, its basic math. how much does it cost, how much is the overhead and what is the benefit.

    1. What I don’t see factored into the analysis is the value of the investment DCSS has already made in the Science Center, especially the planetarium. You cannot just go out and replace a planetarium like Fernbank’s later when the fiscal crisis is over. I doubt that DCSS can sell it for what it would cost to replace it because there’s not that many buyers out there.

      The biggest shame is that DCSS even has to make these choices. It sounds like they could have been avoided if it had operated more competently and invested more in the students and less in Central Office.

  16. Sadly, this fits in with education funding trends. We as a country want to be No. 1 in everything, and like to think we are smarter than those in other countries, but somehow a chunk of the populace doesn’t want to pay- or rather, invest- in education. Choices made (new astroturf over science education) are funneled through funding systems that somehow are aimed at construction (ie SLOST) vs actual education. And yes, part of this is mismanagement of other resources, but I also see this as an unwillingness to invest. I’m glad to see CSD in action as a successful district, as the science center news coupled with the recent announcement of California Governor Brown that unless a tax increase is passed by the voters of CA, public schools there will likely have the option to shut down a month early every year- I am seriously depressed about public education in this country!

  17. “We as a country want to be No. 1 in everything, and like to think we are smarter than those in other countries, but somehow a chunk of the populace doesn’t want to pay- or rather, invest- in education”

    Georgia surely isn’t #1 in anything positive or thinks it’s smarter than any first-world countries (such an idea would be laughable to anyone who’s traveled extensively).

  18. Count me among the folks who are now fondly recalling trips to Fernbank as a Dekalb school student. I was never too wild about the museum (I seem to recall mostly taxidermied animals that looked a bit threadbare even in the ’70s), but I LOVED the planetarium. In fact, I was amazed to discover my hubby had never been to a planetarium despite growing up in Atlanta. I just assumed it was a perk all school kids got to take advantage of growing up here. It was a right of passage – sort of like milking Rosebud.

    I sincerely hope that it can be saved and made available to schools in a way that is affordable.

  19. The decision to close Fernbank Science Center is short-sighted, at best. Our children need science and technology education to compete in a global economy. Why sell our children short by closing this valuable educational asset?

    The return on investment comes in children who go on to Science and Technology careers. It may not be a short term return, but it will be a long term return, and isn’t that the point of education? To invest in our children for the long term?

    I have started a petition on in an attempt to ‘save’ Fernbank. Please sign/share.

    1. Can folks who live in City of Decatur, not the rest of DeKalb, sign? Our kids are in the CSD district, not DCSS.

      1. I think that is a very bad idea. The last thing the school board needs is non-voting, non-taxpayers proving that this center is a benefit for non-voting, non-taxpayers unless we are offering to offset operating costs. It’s ammunition for those who want to close it.

          1. I think that if the program has had a direct impact on your education or that of your children, it would be useful to sign, with a comment specifically explaining the role FSC played in your/your child’s education (e.g. alums of the STT program, who have gone on to careers in science, etc.).

  20. Perhaps Georgia Perimeter College can take over the Fernbank Science Center.

  21. I work at the Science Center with the most wonderful, dedicated group of teachers and staff I have ever worked with.

    It’s hard to define Fernbank Science Center because we mean so many different things to so many people. Overall, I don’t think people realize how many doors we open to students by the work we do, whether it is in the planetarium, teaching AP Physics C countywide, visiting students at Egleston or running the elementary Science Olympiad for 450 students. This year alone there have been many accomplishments by students working with Fernbank. Most recently a group coached by a Fernbank teacher won the State Envirothon and now going to the national competition.

    The idea has been promoted that we are a luxury. Science education isn’t a luxury. And we reach children in ways that no one else will do if we are gone. Fernbank has protected money for science, not taken it away. The superintendent before Crawford Lewis took almost all of the county-wide science budget away by dispersing the money out to the schools and telling principals to do with it what they wanted. Now that money has disappeared into general budgets to be used for anything. In contrast, the money that was dedicated for Fernbank still supports science education.

    You can cut programs and trim budgets with the hope of bringing back programs when the money returns. Because of the nature of the lease that DeKalb County has for the Fernbank property, if the Science Center is not used to educate children in science, it’s as if the lease never existed. Once Fernbank is gone, it is never coming back.

    If you want to do something to support Fernbank Science Center, please contact the DeKalb County School Board members.

    Dr. Eugene Walker, Chairperson, [email protected]
    Mr.Thomas Bowen, [email protected]
    Ms. Nancy Jester,[email protected]
    Mr. Donald McChesney, [email protected]
    Ms. Sarah Copelin-Wood,
    [email protected]
    Mr. H. Paul Womack, Jr., [email protected]
    Mr. Jay Cunningham, Jr., [email protected]
    Ms. Donna Edler,[email protected]
    Dr. Pamela Speaks, [email protected]

    1. I have no doubt that the Science Center has made a huge impact on those students who have been able to participate in its programs. Hopefully some philanthropist will step in and save the Center.

      However, it would be highly imprudent for DCSS continue to cover this expense, given the huge budget hole the system faces, especially given how relatively few students the Center impacts.

      If you are going to call the school board, please instead push for more Central Office personnel cuts and against additional teacher cuts. The Center is obviously an asset, and I feel for those who might lose their jobs if it goes under. However, we need to maximize every dollar, and these dollars would be better spent – and for the benefit of more students – if shifted back to the regular schools that need it most.

      1. Unfortunately this is where I stand on this issue, too. I say unfortunately because the loss of FSC greatly saddens me, but I know DCSS needs to start cutting and it needs to start now. And just cutting at the Central Office is not enough.

      2. Please do recognize that giving money back to schools might or might not provide some tangible benefit to more students. You can bet that money will not go to science teaching. Many elementary schools have no competent science teaching, and school leaders are completely focused on math and reading test scores. One of the under-appreciated things Fernbank Science Center teachers do is teach your local school’s teachers how they can make science teaching interesting and useful to students. Too many have never had any instruction in how to teach the subject and are scared of it. FSC staff also provide critical support for science teachers who are already doing, or trying to do, good science teaching. Try asking a Dekalb science teacher if she or he thinks that the small amount of extra money that could, in theory, come back to each school will be helpful to teaching science in your local school. Eliminating FSC greatly reduces the capacity to teach science teaching in Dekalb systemwide. That is one way to cut a budget of course, but I don’t think it’s a wise one.
        I could not think of any appropriate response to the philanthropist comment. I guess the point being made was that high quality science teaching, unlike reading and math, is something that should be funded through charitable giving.

  22. This is just a example of what our kids will be missing. I recorded one of our recent trips to a local nature preserve. These teachers work more than their fair share, they do it because they love what they do and it shows. Show me any school project that will get gets interested in toads/beavers/plankton as the kids (of all ages) in the video were. The planetarium is the tip of the iceberg of what the Science Center does. If more families don’t take advantage of the programs, it’s becasue they don’t want to take the time. To the chagrin of the Natural History Museum, the Science Center offers free to very affordable programs. All you have to do is show up.

  23. DEM is confusing the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia (TRS) with the DCSS Tax Sheltered Annuity (TSA — a 403(b) plan). TRS is the *state* pension plan for teachers. All teachers are covered under this plan, not just DeKalb teachers. Yes, teachers make contributions from their paychecks and the school systems also make contributions. But these contributions are set by the state, not DeKalb.

    The TSA, on the other hand, is DeKalb-specific. The lawsuit to which you refer is related to the TSA, not TRS. I am quoting from the TSA materials I received when I was hired in 2002: “This Plan is part of the Alternative Plan to Social Security….The Plan was adopted by [DCSS] in 1979, when school systems were permitted to elect not to be covered by the federal Social Security program. The program is maintained IN ADDITION TO [emphasis added] the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia….The employer makes ALL [emphasis added] contributions to the Plan. You are neither required nor permitted to make Participant contributions….Since the Alternative Plan to Social Security is intended to REPLACE [emphasis added] the Employer-provided Social Security benefit you would otherwise be entitiled to receive, the Employer intends to make contributions to the Alternative Plan to Social Security approximately equal to what the Employer would be contributing on your behalf if you were covered under the Social Security Act.”

    In other words, since DeKalb teachers do not contribute to Social Security (there is no FICA deduction on my pay stub), the county is SUPPOSED to be contributing to the TSA. However, under Crawford Lewis, the DCSS Board of Ed. decided to CEASE its contributions. They are claiming that it was legal because of the “intends” in the above information. As in, “well, we INTENDED to contribute to TSA since the federal government kinda-sorta requires it in lieu of FICA, but, well, we just can’t.” HOWEVER, the way it was voted on back in 1979, if the Board ever decided that it wasn’t able to make the contributions, there was SUPPOSED to be a vote made by the employees (the teachers). The Board didn’t do that. They just cut us off. Then, after the fact, the Board changed the policy to say that they didn’t have to let us vote. Ergo, the Organization of DeKalb Educators (ODE) is suing.

    Bottom line: TRS & TSA are not the same thing. TRS is state-mandated. TSA is in lieu of Social Security. And right now, teachers are not only receiving NO contributions to Social Security, but we’re also receiving NO contributions to the plan that replaces Social Security. So, how is that legal?

    1. I provided all the links so people could read the source material. I realize that TSA is a state run program, but it is funded by employee and employer (read: DeKalb) contributions. So it is very much a DeKalb Co. expense. That was my point. This budget crisis is being billed as a tax revenue problem when in fact it is primarily a pension and health care expense problem, by the County’s own admission.

      Also, yes, the supplemental pension is in lieu of social security. My point was that the County is on the hook for its share of those expenses and they’ve not been paying them, so the budget situation may be even worse than DeKalb is currently letting on. I’m not suggesting it is legal for the County to skip the payments — it probably is illegal. Which is just further support for the notion that the people in charge of this sinking ship are not deserving of anyone’s trust, much less more of our hard-earned money.

      It may be true that, to some extent, DeKalb can’t do a whole lot to fix the TSA system. But that means DeKalb is a canary in a coal mine that suggests the need for broader reforms. I suggest that we should value teachers, but that doesn’t mean we have to offer them a system that permits retirement (for example) at age 55 with a defined benefit of up to or exceeding $45,000 per year for life. A better solution is to offer a 401(k) with a generous employer match.

      I am also in total agreement that central office staff and other chaff should be cut. But the sad fact is that, as wasteful as all that is, it is small potatoes in terms of the overall budget. Fernbank is even smaller potatoes. Employee headcounts need to go down across the board and benefits need to be fundamentally reformed. Do that and I have no doubt that Fernbank could stay open.

      But this is all a waste of badwith, to be honest. The DeKalb “leaders” do not care — in their view, county government is a jobs program. That’s why it was just a few months ago that DCSS hired a consultant to examine staffing, and the consultant recommended cutting all 129 — 129! — assistant principals. DCSS paid about $150,000 for this work. Their reaction was, in essence: get bent. We’re not even going to consider it.

  24. As for LizW’s questioning of August start times: that would require pretty much the entire metro-area, if not the whole state, changing school calendars across the board. The GaDOE made the decision ages ago to switch Georgia’s schools from the quarter system to the semester system. We used to have a Fall quarter that ran from late August to, oh, around Thanksgiving. Then, there was a Winter Quarter that ran until March. Finally, there was Spring quarter, and school let out in early-mid June.

    When we switched from 3 quarters to 2 semesters, and we still started school in late August, final exams wound up being in early January — right after that 2-week Winter Holiday break. Parents were up in arms! Little Johnny couldn’t possibly remember all that information he learned before Christmas! So, the calendars for ALL school systems moved back to the beginning of August, with final exams occuring in Dec., right before letting out for the break. Then, you come back in January & start 2nd semester.

    Now, school systems have some lee-way to tweak their schedules a tad here & there. Some school systems have tried year-round schedules or “balanced” schedules with more breaks. But then there’s GHSA: The Georgia High School Association, AKA athletics. When you start tinkering with the calendar, you start messing around the football season. And basketball season, baseball season, gymnastics season, etc., etc. As a result, even though there are slight differences from county to county, the entire metro-Atlanta area starts school pretty much within a week or so of each other. We’ve all (usually) got the same Winter Break & Spring Break, give or take a day or two. So, Little Johnny won’t miss the Big Game because his parents took him out of state to see Grandma because Little Johnny’s Spring Break is at a different time than all the other school systems.

    So, whenever you talk about one county wanting to make a drastic change to their schedule, the reality is, you can’t make that drastic a change without it impacting all the other counties. If Georgia’s parents REALLY want school to start after Labor Day, with finals at the, let’s say, END of January, and letting out in mid-June, then Georgia’s parents need to start lobbying the state, not just individual counties. Now, obviously, other states have semesters & they make it work, So, maybe see how they do it, and start talking to your state legislators.

    But the issue is supposed to be Fernbank. Absolutely DeKalb has got to make some cuts. But Fernbank??? Come on! That’s just crazy. You know what else is crazy? The fact that the county built Arabia Mountain High School to be the STEM mecca (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) when it’s HAD a STEM mecca since the late 60s — Fernbank! Whatever. Fernbank is awesome. I’d rather they cut more central office ADMINISTRATORS than almost anything.

    1. This seems so wrong. Is there another side to this story? Is there legal action? Why don’t school systems just do the right thing in the first place instead of trying to get away with things on a technicality and then having to litigate? It happens with special needs issues too. Being a lawyer on retainer with a school system must be one of the most secure jobs around.

  25. I would like Fernbank Science Center to remain open, but I don’t see how Dekalb can fund it anymore. Perhaps disconnecting the science scenter from Dekalb woul be possible and funding from other sources could be pursued (corporate sponsors for example). It’s dissapointing that the Fernbank Forest will no longer be free.

    That said, I am a Dekalb County schools employee and know how things are financially for the system. I am honored to work with excellent educators, but they do not have the resourses that the teachers at my children’s schools in CSD have. At my elementary school there are no paras in kindergarten or for upper grades (other than special ed), , very limited PTA money to help out teachers, we are given a miniscule amount of copy paper (teachers buy their own). On top of that, there is a large group of at risk students, due to poverty, ELL (lots of refugees), etc. I don’t think much more can be cut at the school level.

  26. So they’re cutting 70 office positions, but this piece from earlier in the year suggests they could afford to cut over 300. Are they really doing everything they can, before taking aim at things that affect learning?

  27. The science and technology learning experiences at Fernbank are advantageous because of the teachers and the instructors, we engage in student learning and live science. And conversely some of the support staff is not fully aligned to student achievement – and it fact are more so artifacts that remain from a time when the center was more closely tied to the Fernbank Museum. Since those days have passed… needed staff adjustments went untouched for whatever reasons for the most part. Sadly it looks as if teaching science will be lost at the high cost of not looking for the best means to keep science and our students a priority. Save science, cut waste.

  28. I am just going to repost my comment from the may 22 morning metro:

    couldn’t dekalb schools just gut the 100000000000000s of main office staff? or would the sorority not allow it?

  29. From the AJC Vent column:
    “The Fernbank Science center has been promoting atheism for forty five years now. How many thousands of people have been turned against god by the liberals running that house of sin?”

    1. If that’s the case, then it’s reason enough to keep it up and running at any cost.

    2. Sounds about right, after all, college and learnin’ is for Godless Liberal snobs. Who needs math and science when we could be sitting around reading the Bible all day, that should do wonders for America’s fledgling Superpower status. Meanwhile, I watched a bit of the National Geographic history/geography bee the other night, and was not really surprised that there was only 1 student, who didn’t appear to be first or second or generation Indian or Asian.

      1. Why spend any time responding? No one on here said it. For all we know it’s an AJC troll.

        I’m not quite sure why Steve even posted.

        1. That post shocked me too over on the AJC which I only went to because there was a link from here. I don’t know why the post seems so stupid. Maybe because it’s not only mindless, but dated. Atheist is such a last century term, no one even uses it anymore because it has no shock value. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of belief when it comes to the meaning of life, death, and the universe. Whatever.

          1. “Atheist is such a last century term, no one even uses it anymore because it has no shock value.” — It may not be prominent on your particular radar, but the word has a lot of currency for a lot of people.


            1. Well, I guess that’s what could make some folks “conserve”ative or reactionary, being so last century-ish. I remember when the Catholic Church was all worried about atheists, communists, Mary Janes reflecting underwear, girls needing to sit on phone books instead of on their boy friends’ laps, B movies etc. I thought atheism-phobia went out with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I give my fiscally conservative family members credit–they are misguided IMHO but at least they don’t run around looking for atheists and communists under the bed. And militant atheists seem like militant nudists to me…..what’s the point? Just believe or do what you want in private but don’t bother the rest of us with it.

              1. “I give my fiscally conservative family members credit–they are misguided IMHO, but…”

                What is misguided about being fiscally conservative?

                1. That’s just my opinion, which is why I said “IMHO”. They think I’m the misguided one, ITHO.

                  1. I realize that’s your opinion; i was just asking why you believe that way. I wasn’t trying to be confrontational, just curious. No need to explain if you don’t want to.

              2. One reason there are many more atheists than most people probably realize is that most of them don’t run around bleating about it. It’s definitely a ‘live and let live’ inclination for most. Unfortunately, there are people who have no intention of letting everybody believe whatever and in fact, are bent on imposing their own beliefs on the nation. Recent activism on the part of atheist groups is primarily a reaction to that.

                Being fiscally conservative and socially conservative are two entirely distinct things. They may coincide, but not necessarily. I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I have to say that if fiscally conservative relatives represent your main exposure to conservative viewpoints, then there is a lot going on that you are not tuned in to. Example: as Daydreamer noted, Santorum is not just some fringe lunatic running around — he has a lot of deeply devoted supporters.

                1. To me, equating Fernbank with promoting atheism is in the lunatic fringe category. It reminds me of whats-his-face being afraid of water fluoridation in the movie “Dr. Strangelove”. That’s really what I meant to comment on. I know there’s many shades of conservative–fiscally, socially, and politically–just as there’s many shades of liberal, and both have their lunatic fringes, the size of which probably depends on the eye of the beholder. I usually don’t read the AJC blogs because of the lunatic fringe factor; I followed the link and that was foolish.

                2. Contrary to what might seem obvious, the rise in atheist discourse is actually reflective of how the internet has empowered communications and, as you say, a need on the part of atheists to more passionately assert their beliefs. It’s not an indicator of any significant increase in the number of people who consider themselves atheists.

                  Robert Putnam, in “American Grace,” his thoroughly researched look at faith in America, puts the number of people who self-identify as “atheists” at less than 0.3 percent. Says Putnam, “While atheism has recently gained prominence, particularly on the bestseller lists, self-identified atheists and agnostics comprise a vanishingly small proportion of the U.S. population.”

                  Which is all to say that such a statistically irrelevant constituency could be in iron-fisted control of our culture and institutions is just plain silly.

                  1. “It’s not an indicator of any significant increase in the number of people who consider themselves atheists.” — I never meant to say or imply that it is. I don’t think atheists are any thicker on the ground than ever were. I think there have always been more around than a lot of people realized and that it’s still the case. BTW, it is not just online discourse that has increased, there have been billboard campaigns in several major cities this year including Atlanta, sponsored by various organizations.

                    1. Didn’t mean to speak for you, STG. Was more specifically referring to your suggestion that there are more atheists than most people realize with the counter that, even if that were true, atheist numbers remain statistically insignificant. If anything, though, it seems more likely to me that vigorous advocacy on the part of the atheist community has convinced many that there are more atheists than actually exist. That, to me, would seem the better explanation for why we’d still have people decrying a science center as some sort of social engineering project orchestrated by godless liberals. They’re convinced that a constituency that, in reality, is politically powerless, somehow has the numbers to control such things. To me, that just shows how effective atheist advocacy has been.

                      Not saying you’re arguing the opposite, mind you. Just getting my thoughts out.

                  2. Atheists have iron-fisted control of our culture and institutions???? I don’t see this. I must live in a parallel universe. What I see is a growing respect and tolerance for all the ways that we humans are spiritual and practice religion, ethics, and responsibility.

                    What interests me on this thread is the fate of the Fernbank Science Center, its planetarium, and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) instruction that it provides and that will probably disappear if its activities are dispersed over the entire, huge school system so that each child gets their 10 second share, if that much. Atheism and religion not so much. I regret commenting on atheism, which I see as a total non-issue; I only did so because of the link to AJC comments.

                    1. “Atheists have iron-fisted control of our culture and institutions????”

                      It would seem so in the eyes of the AJC commenter, which is what I was referring to.

                    2. Oh. I’m confused about who is advocating what. No more going over to I still like the print edition but the online version doesn’t do it for me, especially the blogs.

        2. I actually didn’t read it as a troll comment. Santorum said basically the same thing, that schools were Liberal indoctrination mills, and Obama was a snob for wanting people to go to college, and no one called him a troll. A troll is someone who says things for the sake of being inflammatory, and in this case, many people share this belief, which is the reason cited as to why many religious people choose to home school their children. The whole promotion of an immoral Liberal agenda in education may seem slightly crazy to most of us, but the millions of Americans who voted for him don’t think so. And they’re not trolls, just very misguided. 😉

          “No one on here said it.”

          Fair enough. But I recall a recent thread, that said pretty much the same thing more politely with less offensive language, granted it had nothing to do with Fernbank.

          1. I wasn’t trolling, I just put it out to see the discussion. That one was from a day or so ago; there was another Vent today in the same vein.

  30. I would not mind closing the Science Center if it meant the DeKalb teacher’s salary cuts could be eliminated. As it is, teachers are being laid off, class room size is being increased, and teacher pay is being reduced by nearly 10%. In Greece they are fighting in the streets over cuts like this. Here we just roll over.

    1. They should be forced to prove that they have done everything within their means to eliminate the bloat in the central office first. They said that the 70 eliminated teacher positions cost $2.5 million. The piece I linked to above, says they could safely eliminate 330!!! That’s about $10 million right there.

      They need to justify why they are only eliminating 70, when their own research firm recommended a number much higher. On the Dekalb School Watch website, it shows that over 10 people were making over $100k, and several making $165k. Those are not public employee salaries in this day and age, those are private sector salaries, and those amounts are just absurd. We need to know what if anything has changed since Atkinson came on board with that.

      Has anyone bothered to ask why the Superintendent makes more than the Vice President, Secretary of State, and every Governor in the United States? And why she needs an ADDITIONAL $40k a year in expenses on top of that?

      Let’s not get distracted by Fernbank when they haven’t shown a legitimate interest in straightening things out on their end. Firing teachers and affecting children’s learning experiences should be the very LAST resort, not the first.

      1. Agree re need to cut Central Office before anything with direct student services. I have no idea why Superintendent salaries are so high in this state with such strapped school budgets and correspondingly low student performance. They compare themselves and their districts to one another instead of comparing them to what they should be. They are not CEOs who lose their job if their organization is not successful. In fact, they only seem to leave or be removed if there’s a suspicion of criminal behavior and threat of legal repercussions. They should be role modeling constraint and dedication in front of their teachers who have to work under austere conditions every day in ever growing classrooms.

        1. I I disagree with you premise. In the past big banks nearly destroyed the economy. They certainly failed at their job. Yet they were bailed-out. Why should not DeKalb county schools be bailed out?

          1. Bailed out by who? Citizens of Maine? Wyoming? This is a local issue. Period.

            And big banks didn’t nearly destroy the economy. They played a part, but they aren’t solely to blame. Read up on prior federal policies which demanded that banks make loans to uncreditworthy people to buy houses at inflated prices (prices inflated in large part by the Fed’s decision to reduce the cost of money to almost nothing). Research how much of an impact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had on this by securitizing these horrible loans. And, I guess the concept of personal accountability no longer exists in this country. People were buying houses they could not afford and they weren’t all victims of this.

            And where is this money going to come from on the federal level? In case you haven’t noticed, the federal government is currently racking up historic annual deficits. Maybe Obama and Congress can just print another trillion dollars. At the rate we are going, we are going to be bankrupt in a couple of decades and we aren’t going to have to pay for this later anyway.

            And I won’t even go into the difference b/t the effect on this country if the entire banking system failed vs. the effect of the citizens of one county failing to hold their school board accountable and demand major changes at the top and demand a drastic reduction of unneccesary adminstrative positions. If Dekalb Co. continues to allow the school board to treat the school system as a jobs program and allow the unfettered corruption, it is their problem and they should bear the consequences.

          2. I’ve got no problem with bailing out DeKalb County Schools, especially since banks and select other private industries have been bailed out. But if Superintendents get to keep their jobs despite bailouts, then their salaries need to be downgraded in response to the lack of risk. It’s not like they are that much more talented or credentialed or experienced compared to many of the educators below them. $100,000 to $200,000 seems more than enough to attract good candidates. If it’s not, raise it by $10,00 and then see who applies. I’d rather that salaries were based on what’s necessary to attract good candidates than based on what incumbents want to earn. Ditto for CEOs–if they have job security despite failing performance, then they don’t need the security of a gigando salary and bonuses.

      2. That would be like asking an astronomer to prove the sun revolves around the Earth.

        Here is the Phase I review of the management consultant hired by DCSS to examine staffing issues and to make recommendations.

        Note that Gwinnett employs 6.1 central office employees per 1,000 students. Cobb employs 5.8 CO employees per 1,000 students. DCAA? 15.5 per 1,000 students.

        Regarding compensation in the CO, the report notes that “secretarial positions at upper levels were substantially above market.”

      3. I need to make a correction to my post. The AJC piece says the 70 office positions eliminated saved $5 million, not $2.5.

        *70 eliminated OFFICE positions saved $5 million. The recommendations they sought out, says they could safely eliminate 334 positions. So that’s actually about $20 million.

  31. This post is repeat from another blog, but needed here…

    What is this demand “for every student” I keep hearing… not every student participates in sports, not every student requires an interpreter, and not every student has special needs – but we address the learning needs based on the needs of our students. Can we agree that students who can excel in sports need a coach? Students that participate in a demanding science program need science mentors… I can’t sing and I don’t expect to be put on the school chorus… Yes, there are places we can make cuts and better define the framework of every learning model. However, to take away the center when you have gained so much from it – is not only a lack of vision but a denial of the maverick effort that founded the center. We rationalize that because the center is not large enough for everyone to attend – that we should not have one.

    1. A news report said that, upon examination of the deed, they discovered that if they closed the place the land and therefore the facility would revert to the original donor.

      1. Wow. I’ve got to say that I’m absolutely floored that DeKalb actually hired someone competent enough to catch this.

        1. I would bet some concerned citizen did the research and pointed it out to the county.

      2. So they’ll keep throwing five mil a year at it to prevent someone else from getting it?

    2. Perhaps now the focus can go back where it belongs, the central office. I don’t know why it had to be an all or nothing, to close Fernbank in the first place. Maybe there are areas they can cut back in, but shuttering it completely seemed so drastic. I’m sure they already apply for grants from the NSF and other institutions, but maybe there are other avenues they haven’t yet perused that they should, since they’ve been put on notice that they’re expendable to some.

  32. Agree that focus should go back on Central Office to take the cuts recommended by the Budget Committee. Looks like the hits will actually be taken by the students in classrooms and the teachers. A shame. Bad karma for those responsible, long time in purgatory.

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