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DeKalb County students and parents pressure school board to keep promises

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DeKalb County students and parents pressure school board to keep promises

Druid Hills High School students and parents, including senior Clare Finnerty, front, protest 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. They were joined by students, educators and alumnae from Cross Keys High School who were protesting conditions at their school. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Sara Amis, contributor 

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in The District, an exclusive newsletter for Decaturish subscribers. To become a paying subscriber, visit supportmylocalnews.com 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb Board of Education approved a tentative Fiscal Year 2023 budget and a tax levy resolution for a 23.08 millage rate at their regular meeting May 9.

During public comment, students, parents and community members spoke, many seeking to make sure that the board follows through on promises to modernize Cross Keys High School and address overcrowding and dilapidated buildings in the rest of the Cross Keys school cluster. Others pressed the board to put Druid Hills High School back on the priority list for modernization and repair, while still others criticized the leadership of the school board in general.

Lance Hammonds, president of the DeKalb NAACP, said that he felt the board had betrayed the community’s trust, and that every board member who voted to fire former Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Watson-Harris should be voted out. Hammonds said that he wasn’t there to defend Watson-Harris, but that she had shown more “attention and responsiveness” to the NAACP and its request for a community volunteer policy than any of her predecessors or the board.

“I’m here to speak out about the failed leadership of this board that has put our children and our community at risk by not doing the job we elected you to do,” said Hammonds. “This board has totally failed in its duty to hire and support a superintendent to lead this school system. The facts are that this board in their last two attempts to hire a superintendent has squandered $1.4 million in salaries plus legal fees. This money could have paid for repairs at Druid Hills High School and many of the other schools in the county.”

Retired teacher Juana Alzaga said, “The community along the Buford Highway corridor has been underserved and neglected for many years.” She described the crowded conditions in the Cross Keys cluster and the excessive number of trailers. She also praised the leadership and responsiveness of the former superintendent.

Students at Druid Hills High School drew attention to the dilapidated conditions at their school after it was removed from a project list that also included Cross Keys HS in February.

The state Department of Education sent a team to Druid Hills HS, resulting in a scathing letter to the DeKalb Board of Education from state Superintendent Richard Woods.

The board reacted by blaming Watson-Harris and firing her suddenly on April 26.

However, the conditions at Druid Hills and Cross Keys, as well as other schools throughout the district, are not new, the community members told the board during public comments. Dr. Stanley Carter called the conditions at Druid Hills HS “a shocking and careless disregard for health.”

Student Suzanna MacKenna described headaches from being exposed to mold at Druid Hills High. ““Our school is a hazard to everyone who walks the halls,” said MacKenna.

Parent Ghila Sanders described the lack of maintenance that created those conditions. “There are over one hundred open requests that have not been answered, some dating back over three years,” said Sanders.

One factor contributing to deteriorating facility conditions is that some projects that have been recommended in both district master plans, and SPLOST project lists were never completed. According to community members, some necessary repair, expansion, and renovation projects never find their way onto project lists or are subsequently removed.

Piecemeal problem-solving

A new Cross Keys HS appeared on a list of SPLOST V projects in 2016 and was to be completed by June of 2022. That project never started. Neither Cross Keys nor Druid Hills High School are recommended for renovations in a 2011 master plan for the district, although the 1927 terra cotta sewage system at DHHS was at that point already handling several more buildings than it was designed for and was 24 years past its expected life span.

Both Cross Keys and Druid Hills were recommended for modernization in the district’s recently adopted Comprehensive Master Plan. However, Druid Hills was removed from a list of projects in February and the board instead voted for $444 million in district-wide repairs that call the CMP into question.

In addition to creating possible budget conflicts, the repair plan appears to continue a long-term pattern of addressing facility problems piecemeal, which contributes to financial waste. Parent Stephen Langdon pointed out that the facility condition assessments used to generate the list of repairs are only intended to be components of a plan, and the associated costs are only for materials, therefore actual cost of projects is likely to be much higher.

“The board’s approval last month will allocate all of the funds available from SPLOST VI,” said Langdon. He went on to say that none of the board’s stated priorities will be possible unless they revisit the decision.

DeKalb County Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Rebekah Cohen Morris, a Doraville city council member who is also a former Cross Keys HS teacher, said that there was a history of the board promising funding that then evaporates, not just for Cross Keys but for other schools in the cluster. The Cross Keys cluster, which includes schools in the Buford Highway and Doraville area, is over 90% Latino and is described by Morris as “severely dilapidated, overcrowded, and segregated.”

Morris says that neglect of the Cross Keys cluster is long-standing.

“In 2018 when we informed the former Superintendent Dr. Green that Cary Reynolds Elementary School had roof leaks throughout the building, mold, and mildew, he told us they would simply put a tarp over the roof,” said Morris.

Cary Reynolds Elementary School was originally built in 1961 and recommended for renovation in 2011. The Georgia Trust has it on a list of “places in peril,” describing the deterioration of the building due to deferred maintenance.  It is slated to be phased out and possibly torn down in the new CMP.

“The community is thankful that the board has continued to pledge funds to the Buford Highway schools, but we are also committed to seeing that the board follows through on the promises that have been made,” said Morris.

The 2023 budget

Chief Financial Officer Charles Burbridge presented a tentative budget for Fiscal Year 2023 to the board.

Budget priorities listed include full step increases, living wage increases, restoration of the full school calendar, and deferred maintenance.

Remaining ESSER and CARES Act funds are to be used for class size reduction, expansion of early learning centers, HVAC and roof replacements. Burbridge clarified in response to questions from board members that remaining CARES and ESSER funds are allocated and the funds were spread out over the life of the program rather than spending all of it in one year.

“If someone asks you, why do we have $280 million left, it’s because that’s what we planned on having in order to meet our targets,” said Burbridge.

Board member Marshall Orson clarified that $44 million in the administration budget is actually intended for staff salary increases throughout the district.

Burbridge presented a tax levy recommending a millage rate of 23.08 mils. Orson suggested reducing the millage rate to reflect a rise in the tax digest.

In response to a question from board Chair Vickie Turner, Bubridge said that he would like to return with an analysis of different millage rates rather than respond immediately.

“Thank you, Mr. Burbridge, I could tell that was loaded and you moved around it gracefully,” said Turner.

DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner. Photo by Dean Hesse.

“We’re one of the few districts in the state allowed to collect more than 20 mills,” said Orson. He added that the district’s total revenues were $2.55 billion and that lowering the millage rate would not affect the district’s budget.

The board approved the 23.08 millage rate.

Board member Allyson Gevertz brought up the possibility of a bond to complete facilities projects throughout the district. Conversation turned to the maintenance budget and the need to fill plumbing and construction vacancies in the district.

Gevertz also raised the topic of an educational non-profit which was rejected by the board earlier in the year. “We have donors waiting and would have access to millions in order to get some things done earlier rather than later,” said Gevertz. Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta expressed support for a nonprofit.

Turner described the idea that a non-profit could receive millions in donations as “ambitious.”  Gevertz responded that it was part of Perkins & Will’s recommendations in the CMP.

Charter schools

The board approved charter school contract amendments for DeKalb Agriculture Technology and Environment, Inc., DeKalb PATH Academy, DeKalb Preparatory Academy, GLOBE Academy, International Community School, Leadership Preparatory Academy, and Tapestry Public Charter School.

Deputy Superintendent Melissa Harris presented a contract extension for DeKalb Preparatory Academy. The board approved a contract renewal for two years in November, which was passed on as a recommendation to the Georgia Department of Education. GADOE recommended an extension of the existing contract for two years instead of a new contract for only two years, which would allow DPA to correct problems and then seek a regular five-year charter renewal.

Board member Dr. Joyce Morley raised objections. She appeared to believe that DeKalb Preparatory Academy was suggesting the contract extension rather than GADOE. When Harris tried to explain the approval process to clear up the misunderstanding, Morley cut her off, saying, “I understand the process. Answer my question.”

The board approved the contract extension for DPA.

HVAC upgrades

Interim Chief Operating Officer Richard Boyd presented requests for several projects including roof and HVAC upgrades and removal of asbestos and lead based paint. He also requested funds to pay unpaid invoices related to an equipment rental agreement with Herc Rentals.

When asked how to prevent similar problems in the future, Boyd mentioned a communication bottleneck between MUNIS, the tracking system that the district uses, and the systems used by project managers, architects and others who often work for contractors.

“There needs to be some kind of system where once an invoice is put in, my project managers can go in and look at that,” said Boyd.

Boyd also presented the district’s five-year local facilities plan. This plan was approved by the board in February, and then presented to the state Department of Education.

“Is this the plan that the state superintendent said that he would not approve? So, we’re passing a plan on to the state Department of Education that we know they’re not going to approve?” asked Gevertz.

Boyd said that his department had met with the state superintendent’s office and was in the process of coming up with a plan that addressed their concerns about Druid Hills High School, including an inspection by the fire marshal and a camera inspection of the sewage system.

Hans Williams, planning analyst for DCSD, said that while the GADOE did not require that Druid Hills HS be put on the facilities plan, there were maintenance problems at DHHS that must be addressed before they would approve the plan.

“Is there a point where it makes more sense to do the modernization and get the reimbursement from the state?” asked Gevertz.

Board member Anna Hill requested a list of all schools in the district that needed modernization, and asked about the process for approval of the facilities plan.

When asked by more than one member of the board, Williams confirmed that the facilities plan did not obligate the board to any specific project, but merely expressed an intention that allowed the district to be reimbursed for those projects.

“I made the point back in February that putting a school on the list did not obligate the board, back when there was just an energetic effort to remove Druid Hills. I’m glad we’re all in agreement now,” said board member Marshall Orson.

DeKalb County School Board member Marshall Orson. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Morley asserted that before the students made a video about the conditions at Druid Hills HS, that none of the board members knew anything about it. She went on to say that the position of schools on project lists were based on political influence, and that the involvement of Georgia Superintendent Woods was due to people from the district exerting influence to get him involved. Later in the discussion, she described it as a “setup.”

“It’s not the board members’ job to make repairs. That’s the superintendent’s job,” said Morley.

In an interview last month, former superintendent Watson-Harris told Decaturish that repairing Druid Hills HS was not within her financial authority. The board limited her ability to enter contracts without board approval from $100,000 to $50,000.

Other sources have said that the district’s maintenance department is chronically underfunded and understaffed, although the FY 23 tentative budget adds $60 million to the maintenance and operations budget.

Dr. Morley says children being used as ‘pawns’

DeKalb County School Board member Dr. Joyce Morley virtually attends the boards regular meeting on May 9, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Morley went on a long tirade, accusing unnamed people of making decisions for their own benefit and using children as pawns.

She went on to berate Williams for an error in the facilities plan that he said would not affect the outcome for the district, calling him “arrogant,” and “entitled.”

Morley went on to complain about being treated with disrespect.

Gevertz stuck up for the employees.

“I just want to say thank you, you are valued, your work is valued,” said Gevertz, addressing her remarks to both Boyd and Williams. She went on to say that she knew they were both doing the work of two or three people.

“I know we’ve blocked getting you help, and I know this plan needs to go out today,” added Gevertz.

Gevertz asked Williams to clarify that the modernization of Cross Keys was included in the facilities plan. He said that the required language was created before the modernization program existed, but that the modernization of Cross Keys was listed in the plan as a “modification.”

“Cross Keys modernization is an approved project. The board approved it last month,” said Williams. “The public should start seeing movement on this next fall, and we should break ground within a year after that.”

Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley pointed out that the facilities plan as written had already been approved by the state, and that failure to approve it at the current meeting would cause the district to miss the deadline.

Morley demanded that Williams tell her why his department hadn’t told her that the facilities plan had already been approved by the state and that they were up against a deadline.

Williams informed the board of the timeline and deadlines at the February board meeting, and the process was described several times in the course of the May 9 meeting.

Orson said that he agreed with Morley in that many departments in the district brings decisions to the board at the last minute.

“We need time to deliberate,” said Orson.

The board approved the facilities plan as written. Corrections to the plan can be made in July.

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