Opinion: Reject DeKalb general obligation bond that includes Lakeside High expansion

A DeKalb homeowner says DeKalb Schools has higher-order problems than  overcrowding at Lakeside High School.
A DeKalb homeowner says DeKalb Schools has higher-order problems than overcrowding at Lakeside High School.

Homeowner says school district’s financial waste and inefficiency ought to make voters leery

Physician Edwin P. Ewing, Jr. has owned a home near Lakeside High School since 1983. When he heard Lakeside might be expanded again, he asked why. The answers he received and his own research led to today’s guest column.

First some background on Dr. Ewing. Before retiring from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he  provided infectious disease pathology diagnostic consultation to physicians worldwide, conducted laboratory research on diseases of public health interest, authored or co-authored many medical publications, taught courses on HIV/AIDS to other physicians at the national level, and served as a laboratory chief. He used his CDC-sponsored formal training in strategic planning to develop new information technology for the agency, leading the team that created the popular Public Health Image Library.

His original question about the proposed Lakeside expansion led to deeper inquiries into how the DeKalb County School District arrived at its decision, and he found what he calls “an all-too-familiar story of people rushing to simplistic, piecemeal solutions without taking the trouble to define problems comprehensively.”

“Too many people in positions of responsibility have no idea what strategic planning is or why they should do it,” he said. “Human nature would rather rush to supposed solutions than put in the hard, unglamorous, but ultimately rewarding work of understanding and defining problems first.”

By Edwin P. Ewing, Jr.

With high hopes, DeKalb County voters in 2016 approved a 1% sales tax increase, E-SPLOST V, to fund school improvements. Unfortunately, the DeKalb County School District never developed a clear, data-informed plan to manage all the projects that E-SPLOST V could have funded. School facilities are suffering serious disrepair across the district. Some are badly overcrowded, while others are partly empty. Voters suspect much of the E-SPLOST V money has been wasted through mismanagement or worse.

Now the DeKalb County School District wants even more money, but does it yet have a plan?

In 2018, the district engaged the Georgia School Boards Association for $285,000 to develop a 2019-2024 Strategic Plan. The result featured a section on facilities that turned out to be a sham. The plan's needs assessment phase, always required to develop any valid conclusions, never progressed beyond community input sessions. Planners deliberately refused to collect data from individual schools to inform facilities decisions.

According to a January email I received from Linda Frazer, interim associate superintendent, Office of Accountability, the planning team would "not address the specific needs of individual schools." School board member Marshall Orson informed me by email in May that "The assessment of facilities is not part of the strategic plan... as that is a tactical consideration."

A "tactical consideration"?

The plan listed many goals and performance measures, but presented no baseline data to justify or quantify them. According to an Aug. 5 email to me from Dr. Frazer, those baseline data were still being collected.

Yet, the Board of Education approved the plan back on July 8 by a 6-1 vote. Proposing and approving solutions before defining problems is like trying to build a house by starting with the roof.

The district’s lack of a strategic plan has wreaked chaos in facilities maintenance and construction initiatives. The situation at Lakeside High School exemplifies both.

In March of 2017, in response to severe overcrowding at Lakeside, the school board approved a $27 million expansion of the school to include new classrooms and a multi-story parking deck. In doing so, the board evidently failed to consider Georgia state campus size guidelines, traffic challenges, watershed problems, lack of specific component scalabilities, student safety, and the absence of any strategic plan for facilities at Lakeside or elsewhere. Trenton Arnold, regional superintendent, Region II, confirmed in his May 14th email to me that "the Strategic Plan does not specifically address Lakeside High School."

The DeKalb County Commissioners and Educate DeKalb unanimously opposed any expanding of Lakeside High. The Lakeside Principal Advisory Council also unanimously opposed it in a vote on Feb. 7, 2018. Nevertheless, the district rushed ahead to order a feasibility study and organize a Construction Advisory Committee.

In 2018, the architectural firm Perkins+Will tried to do a feasibility study for expanding Lakeside. Given the firm's potential to further benefit if the report was favorable, this arrangement suggested a conflict of interest. Struggling with unsettled architectural details, shifting enrollment projections, and rising construction costs, the firm could not complete the study, yet it declared the project "feasible." The Construction Advisory Committee began poring over construction details. Again, this sequence was like trying to build a house by starting with the roof.

Dan Drake, the district’s interim chief operations officer, in the Dec. 10, 2018, Construction Advisory Committee meeting, which I recorded on video, claimed, "We've heard loud and clear from the Lakeside Cluster as a whole, that they did not want redistricting so that's why we're moving forward with a (Lakeside expansion) plan that was fully supported by the Lakeside Cluster."

However, the Lakeside Cluster Summit itself has been less clear on this issue. The 2016 feasibility study published by Education Planners stated Lakeside Cluster Summit's position this way: "No consensus from Lakeside cluster, but provides a 'thought paper,' that supports not losing any students from the cluster and 'provisional' support for a 750+ seat Lakeside if it is feasible. Provides creative ideas for Lakeside HS, including off-site 9th grade academy."

The secretary of the Lakeside Cluster emailed me the minutes from the group’s 10 meetings from Aug. 14, 2017, through May 13, 2019. None of these minutes document the Lakeside Cluster Summit ever taking a position for or against the expansion.

Some citizens have suggested that a solution to the overcrowding crisis at Lakeside and other high schools in Regions 1 and 2 would be to build a new high school in the Doraville area.

A 2016 study by Education Planners LLC addresses this option on page 19: "The possibility of finding a suitable, cost-effective tract of land in Regions 1 or 2 for the construction of a new high school and/or middle school is a substantial unknown, thereby limiting the appeal of any option requiring new land."

In other words, no one knows because no one has taken the trouble to look.

The district now advocates a general obligation bond, part of which would be used to expand Lakeside. The bond would obligate DeKalb County taxpayers to pay as much as $80,795,125 just in interest over the period of the bond -- not a cent of which would benefit any DeKalb students!

DeKalb Schools will try to frame the bond as a benefit to students, but the only clear beneficiaries would be architects and contractors. Approving a bond at this time would simply perpetuate and expand the financial waste and inefficiency that have plagued the school district until now.

The district’s recent community input sessions on the general obligation bond have been a farce. In a classic power tactic of trying to get others to play with the cards they deal, DeKalb Schools has tightly controlled its community session and online survey questions to give the district some of the answers it wants no matter how people answer. However, in the three community sessions I attended, comments showed that most participants saw through this trickery.

Until a neutral third party conducts a forensic audit of DeKalb’s contract process and the district engages an independent expert to develop an informed, authentic, comprehensive strategic plan for facilities, one cannot justify the burden of new property taxes for a general obligation bond. Furthermore, this extra tax burden, disguised as "low monthly payments," could hit many citizens hard when the next recession arrives. For all these many reasons, the general obligation bond is a bad idea.

I urge DeKalb County voters to vote NO to the GO!

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