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Future of $2 million DeKalb County Schools master plan in doubt following Druid Hills High dustup

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Future of $2 million DeKalb County Schools master plan in doubt following Druid Hills High dustup

Charlie McAdoo, sophomore vice president of Druid Hills High School Student Government Association holds signs outside of the Robert R. Freeman Administrative Center in Stone Mountain during the DeKalb County Board of Education regular meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

By Sara Amis, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — In 2020 the DeKalb Board of Education paid architecture firm Perkins & Will $2 million to prepare a plan to address long-standing and widespread problems with the district’s school buildings.

After the school board decided on April 18 to remove the modernization of Druid Hills High School from a list of high-priority projects in favor of a broad mandate to make repairs throughout the district, the future of that $2 million plan is now uncertain.

While the board members who voted for the measure say they believe that the plan can still be followed, it’s not clear how that is possible given constraints on the district’s budget. While the DeKalb County School District has a yearly budget of about $2 billion, years of neglect and financial confusion mean that the district’s facilities need about $1.2 billion in replacements and repairs, much of it urgently.

Tensions created by competing legitimate needs put Druid Hills High School in the board’s crosshairs. Perception of the school doesn’t match reality, however. While the school community is described as “affluent,” notably by board chair Vickie Turner, it’s a Title I school, meaning it has a high percentage of low-income students. The school is also ethnically diverse. Roughly 30 percent of its students are white; 40 percent are Black; 14 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are Asian.

DHHS was one of three high schools on a list of schools to be rebuilt or modernized in the next three years as part of the district’s new Comprehensive Master Plan, developed over months of evaluation and public meetings. The CMP was presented at the school board’s regular meeting in February as part of a resolution to notify the Georgia Department of Education so that the projects would be eligible for reimbursement under the DOE’s Capital Outlay program. Modernization of DHHS was the only project removed from the project list.

After the board voted to remove their school from the list, students at DHHS created a video documenting the dilapidated and unsafe conditions there. The video attracted both local and national media attention.

As students and parents chanted outside the school board meeting on April 18, board members passed a hastily considered substitution proposed by board member Anna Hill that would require the district to address all priority 1, 2, and 3 repairs district wide. The estimated cost of those repairs will be $444 million.

While no one disputes that repairs need to be made throughout the district, critics both on the board and in the community say that some repairs on the list would be rendered unnecessary by planned closings or full-scale renovations recommended in the CMP. In addition, the nearly half a billion price tag is based on “walk through” estimates that are likely to be much lower than the real cost. It’s also unclear where the money will come from. ESPLOST V money is already accounted for and ESPLOST VI spending has yet to be approved.

According to board member Allyson Gevertz, “It is unclear what will happen to the new construction projects recommended for ESPLOST VI. If repair projects are completed first, then I would expect that the other projects would be delayed.”

Some urgently needed but “invisible” repairs, such as the 95-year-old terracotta pipe sewage system at DHHS, responsible for raw sewage occasionally flooding rooms and bubbling up in a school courtyard, are either not included or only partially included in the list of priority 1, 2 and 3 repairs.

The $186,018 allocated for repair of the sewage system in the oldest building on campus, built in 1927, is probably short of the actual need, according to both DHHS parent group member Steve Langdon and school board member Marshall Orson. The connected and equally inadequate sewage system on the rest of the DHHS campus is not included.

According to Orson, the Facility Condition Assessments used to generate the list of repairs and estimated costs are diagnostic tools used during the CMP process to determine whether it’s likely to be more cost-effective to repair or rebuild a given school. They are not project estimates and do not necessarily reflect the true cost of the work.

Repair of that sewage system is also partially responsible for the recommendation to rebuild DHHS. Gevertz explained that the CMP team said that it would be more cost-effective to overhaul the school and fix all the problems, rather than take a piecemeal approach.

“Public perception is that the price tag jumped from a few million [on ESPLOST V] to $60 million, which is difficult to digest. This is why I recommended that we get a second opinion,” added Gevertz.

However, the district would not have to bear the entire cost if it had submitted the Druid Hills High project to the state. The Georgia Board of Education’s Capital Outlay Program will reimburse up to 75% of the cost to modernize a school facility that is over 40 years old. The state does not reimburse school districts for the cost of repairs. Decaturish was unable to determine whether any board member who voted to abandon the modernization project took that into account when considering costs.

At the April 18 meeting, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris pointed out to the school board that the district-wide repairs would use up funds for other projects that the board had named as priorities, including the early learning facilities mentioned by Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta when the board voted to remove DHHS from the list of projects being sent to the state.

Both Gevertz and Orson have urged the board to take on debt to complete all the district’s urgently needed projects in a timely manner.

“We’re a big district, we have great cash flow, and it’s possible that it may cost less in the long run to get the work done sooner because of inflationary pressures,” said Orson at the school board’s January meeting.

But the other members seem to lack a clear plan to do the work that all board members agree needs doing. As the April 18 meeting adjourned, after speaking vigorously in favor of the board’s decision to mandate $444 million in repairs as well as voting for it, Turner said, “It’ll be a miracle if we get it all done.”

Decaturish contacted board Chair Turner, Vice Chair DaCosta, and board members Hill, Dr. Joyce Morley, and Dierdre Pierce, as well as Superintendent Watson-Harris and Director of Planning and SPLOST Programming Hans Williams. They didn’t respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

Meanwhile, the maintenance problems at Druid Hills High have continued. On an Instagram account, students on April 21 reported that toilets were “shooting up like a geyser” when flushed.

District spokesperson Donald Porter said, “There was a minor maintenance issue in a girl’s bathroom in the old elementary school building where tap water was backing up from the P-trap. The water has been turned off and maintenance crews are on-site to assess and repair the situation.”

The school reported a sewage backup in March as well.

Students are planning to walk out on Friday to protest conditions at the school. There was a similar walkout on April 20. Decaturish received an email sent by the school’s principal to school faculty that said, “At this time and moving forward, students who leave class to ‘walk-out’ need to be referred to discipline for skipping.”

When asked for comment, Porter did not deny that students could face disciplinary action if they walk out on Friday to protest conditions at the school.

“I trust you’ll agree that it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcomes of hypothetical events,” Porter said. “However, it is helpful to point out that there are clear guidelines and consequences outlined in the Student Code of Conduct, which is shared with students and families every year. These rules exist simply to help maintain safe and orderly school learning environments.”

Editor and Publisher Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this story. 

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