Opinion: Five reasons DeKalb board should vote 'no' on sales tax construction list

DeKalb has some of the most involved parents in metro Atlanta and that is likely to lead to a packed house Monday when the school board considers how to spend the half billion dollars from the renewed penny sales tax, known as the Education-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax V or E-SPLOST V.

You can expect to see parents dressed in matching shirts to speak to complaints about how their school or their cluster would be affected. The district has a list of recommended projects that some parents are supporting. (See this post from Wednesday by a parent urging the board to vote "yes" on the list and not delay.)

But other parents fault the list and the process leading to it. Among them is attorney Andrew Flake, a parent active in what he calls the "Sagamore Hills and Lakeside efforts to keep DeKalb's community-based schools strong."

Both sides voice valid concerns. I know many people see dissent as unproductive, but I found it encouraging parents care enough about their local public schools to mobilize.

By Andrew Flake

In considering a hasty sign-off on the current staff-recommended E-SPLOST V project list, the DeKalb Board of Education is poised to make a big mistake.

Specifically, the Category 2 project list -- which contains recommendations for massive capacity additions to certain high schools -- runs counter to what most of the county wants. It is based on bad and flawed data and predicated on planned student moves that would violate board policy and legal requirements.

More prudent for the district, our children, and the county as a whole would be to defer voting for 60 days to correct the most glaring problems and evaluate far more sensible alternatives to deal with the overcrowding the district claims is driving its plans.

Among the reasons to reject the proposed plan, and at a minimum to defer vote on the capital building  construction portion, are:

  1. The proposed plan undermines community-based schools. It is widely recognized, including by the school district until recently, that smaller community-based schools provide the best education. In its own presentation concerning E-SPLOST planning from April, 2016, DCSD noted that the standard high school size was 1,600, with “ideal capacity” utilization of 85 percent to 100 percent. In other words, 1,360 to 1,600 student enrollment is an ideal range. Suddenly, however, as of Sept. 7, staff are proposing construction of mega-schools of 2,100 students plus all across the county, with no explanation and no analysis of impact. It was only on Nov. 18, and in the face of massive community opposition, that the district admitted in a FAQ that its standard of 1,600 seats will change as a result of this process. This is a sea change, a major discussion point by itself, but it has never been previously presented to or considered by the board – or until this month, even acknowledged by staff. Whether a new mega-school standard even makes sense is a critical topic for community discussion and input.
  1. The development process for the proposed plan/Option B provided no fair analysis of alternative options, and bypassed consideration of major areas of need in the county. As a notable example, one logical potential answer to the supposed overcrowding the district is projecting would be building a new high school in the City of Doraville, along with a reasonable rebuild of Cross Keys High School. From the beginning, a Doraville Cluster option was preferred by many, even in the largely hidden “stakeholder” groups and “steering committees” run by the district’s consultants. This option allows for appropriate allocation of the Cross Keys Cluster to meet the needs of the county’s directive to correct this Cluster’s flawed boundaries. It would also relieve overcrowding at Dunwoody, Chamblee, Cross Keys, and Lakeside without adding the over-large, poorly planned additions. The only explanation the district has ever offered for rejecting this option and strong public sentiment is a flawed online survey it conducted. In taking this survey, very few voters understood what was actually at issue, very few total voters participated in the aggregate, and multiple “ballots” could be cast by the tiny fraction of stakeholders who did. Further, Option A was vastly preferred for much of the time, but the “vote” was subject to heavy lobbying based on what is now known to be inaccurate information during the last few days. It is shocking that the district would propose making any decision whatsoever on such a shaky basis, much less a decision that overrides common sense, its own policies, and overwhelming community sentiment against it.
  1. We have insufficient data. It is far from the case that the project list – and certainly the secondary school construction portion – is based on “superior data.” Quite the opposite. The district admits it completely failed to formally engage with the county and to coordinate in any fashion on traffic or other impact studies. Yes, it is proposing buildings that will have dramatic impacts on traffic patterns and neighboring communities. The suggested addition of a new Cross Keys High School at Briarcliff Road and Druid Hills Road is a prime example. The time for effective studies is now, to determine whether building makes sense – not after the fact, only to verify construction makes no sense. Even the projected growth in some cases ignores the realities in the county, and the district’s planners have still been unable to produce the raw data or any evidence of how their projections were derived. In her Nov. 29 editorial in this space, parent Allyson Gevertz equates voting with the plan with trusting Superintendent Steve. Green. Respectfully, however, the current plan does not come from Dr. Green – it comes from unelected consultants and staff planners who have, at least in this instance, failed to do their homework. It was Dr. Green who claimed in this column on Sept. 26 that, in our school governance, we should be concerned about “too much power and secrecy concentrated in the hands of a detached…bureaucracy,” and that such a system would “ultimately fail students, schools and society.”     That is the problem here: all of the power as it relates to the current proposal has, to date, rested with a few insulated planners and consultants. And if history is any judge, we should be very skeptical of unsubstantiated projections from the district – especially where we are being asked to put $500 million of E-SPLOST funds behind them.
  1. The public input process has been severely flawed and non-transparent. The only ones making decisions in this process have been the central planners in school district operations and their consultants. The stark reality is that the closed doors opened (somewhat) only on Sept. 27 of this year, when the district revealed for the first time its recommended construction and other plans for spending $500 million in E-SPLOST V funds. Whatever the district claims to have been doing before that time on the “input gathering side,” it was not sharing information about plans.  Indeed, if the community input process was “unprecedented,” it was so only in its limitations. The district’s planners and consultants obviously ran an insulated process limited to a select group of individuals, reserving to themselves the right to do whatever they planned to do in the first place. Neither participants nor the wider community had any real insight into what was being planned. So poorly was the information shared with the wider community, that scores of attendees at the post-Sept. 27 community input sessions (including Columbia High School and Chamblee High School) were forced to raise their hands by the dozens and note they did not have sufficient information to offer further opinions even at that late stage. A critical gap in the supposed input was the absence of any elementary school representatives, including parents. Elementary school children and their families are the ones most directly and immediately impacted by the proposed school construction, yet they had no meaningful role in shaping the Sept. 27 proposal and project list. Continuing that omission, to date, their effort to provide input and any changes after the fact have proven futile
  1. The district is proposing unlawful redistricting that would contravene its own policies. The proposed plan contains hundreds of “assumed student moves” that, expressed in plainer English, mean redistricting. Calling them “assumed moves” is mere nomenclature that does not change what is being proposed. And we know the district has specific redistricting in mind. In the case of Lakeside Cluster, to take one egregious example, the proposal would pull 250 students out of Lakeside High School and, in violation of the district’s Policy AD, force them out of their natural community and along busy and unsafe major highways to school. By proceeding to build a plan that assumes student moves – and clearly intending to move those students – but not actually applying its policies, the district will be acting arbitrarily and unlawfully. Now that the outlines of specific plans are clear, why not consider whether the moves pass muster under county policies and legal strictures?

Waiting just means, again, the district will be spending money on expensive design and construction that will turn out to be not only unnecessary but improper. The fact that, as Ms. Gevertz suggests in her essay, the proposed list can be “modified” after the fact, based on the district’s discretionary and presumably closed-door assessment of needs, is only a stronger reason to vote no.

The district should not be permitted to gather input based on one half-baked plan, then change it multiple times (as has happened, including with the removal of one elementary school slated for Cross Keys Cluster), and then claim that it can fix problems later on the fly. If that is one of the top six arguments in favor of the current plan, it speaks volumes about why we need more time.

We need to pause. There is absolutely no reason why the vote has to occur on Monday instead of later, except that the district’s planners want to float a bond to start spending more money and to begin an expensive design process that will later be used as its own justification to continue. Why not make the wise decisions now? Voting on the current Category 2 project list Monday would be premature.

The district has claimed that it “strongly believe[s] that citizens whose taxes pay for a majority of the cost of educating our children should exercise control over decisions relating to that education.” Yet, it ran a largely closed-door process leading up to release of the Sept. 27 plan. And once that plan became public, the district has failed to incorporate any of the suggested changes or signaled any openness to considering alternatives.

According to my notes, chief operating officer Josh Williams told parents at Columbia High School in October the current plan is not “the be all and end all,” and encouraged them “if there is not another option” they liked, to “create that.” Taking him and the district at their word, residents have been doing exactly that, and they have come up with far more sensible and creative options that reflect the realities of their county than the district’s consultants ever have.

But the district has thus far done nothing with that input, having continued to fail to give residents a fair chance to weigh in on a capital plan that involves not just the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, but the futures of its students and our children for not just years but decades.

If Mr. Williams was serious that the current recommendation is not the “be all and end all,” and if the district and its officials have been serious in their public statements about local involvement and input, then the staff should withdraw the school construction portion of the current recommendation, allowing the board to defer vote on it, until at least February. Those 60 days could well be the most productive ever in terms of our children’s welfare and our county’s future development.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.