The Atlanta Public School System far outspends every other system in the state and most other school systems in the county.
A leading critic accuses Atlanta of loading up on costly administrators. APS Superintendent Erroll Davis told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher that those numbers don't tell the whole story, and a good-looking budget is not necessarily his goal.
Davis told Belcher flatly that the district is not burdened by bloated bureaucracy, but critics disagree. Even Davis acknowledges he has a difficult time tracking how the system spends hundreds of millions of dollars.
Critics told Belcher that the system's headquarters house an expensive and wasteful bureaucracy that is eating up tax money at the expense of spending in the classroom.
"Are you overloaded at the top?" Belcher asked Davis.
"Oh, absolutely not," Davis replied.
"APS is at a crisis point in my opinion," said state Rep. Ed Lindsey of Atlanta.
Lindsey is an aggressive supporter of school choice and a blunt critic of the APS spending habits.
"Only 48.5 percent of each dollar that we spend on education in Atlanta is actually spent in the classroom, which ranks us dead last in each state," said Lindsey.
Lindsey said his analysis of school budget data reveals that Atlanta spends a far smaller percentage of its budget in the classroom than other major metro districts. Davis disagrees.
"We are comparing apples and oranges," said Davis.
Davis told Belcher that Atlanta assigns costs for more people to its central office, even if they don't work there. Belcher pressed him about the 10 percent increase in the central office budget this year and the 14 new jobs downtown.
"It doesn't mean they're there in the central office and working in what you would call a traditional administrative position," Davis told Belcher.
Even Davis admitted to Belcher that his own grasp of the APS bureaucracy is not what he would like.
"When you say you're not fat at the top, how do you know?" Belcher asked Davis.
"You raise an excellent question. We have great difficulty with our present systems trying to reconcile exactly where our costs are being generated," said Davis.
Davis repeatedly stressed that he is completely uninterested in comparing budgets with other systems.
"We're not in the business of creating the best budgets or the best accounting systems. We are trying to create the best graduates," said Davis.
But Lindsay counters the current outcomes are far from best. Georgia's four-year graduation rate is poor. Atlanta’s rate is even worse.
"APS ranks below the state average. The state average is only 67 percent, which I tell people is very poor. But if you get down to 52 percent, that is now abysmal," said Lindsey.
Other negative outcomes are easy to find. The percentage of Atlanta's students failing graduation tests in English, Math and Social studies all went up from 2008 to 2010.
"This is a chronic situation that has been taking place for a number of years, and it's something that all of us in the city of Atlanta need to be sitting down and having a little soul searching to ask ourselves if we are spending the money in the right place for these kids," said Lindsey.
Davis acknowledges that Atlanta outspends other school systems by thousands of dollars per student every year. Some of that he attributes to old pension costs that are higher than usual, but he said some comes from a conscious decision to rely on smaller schools, which are not as cost effective as larger ones.