DeKalb County School District plans expansion of early learning program

The DeKalb County School District is planning a $15 million expansion of its early learning program next academic year, according to the 2022-2023 tentative budget. (FILE PHOTO)

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The DeKalb County School District is planning a $15 million expansion of its early learning program next academic year, according to the 2022-2023 tentative budget. (FILE PHOTO)

The DeKalb County School District is planning a $15 million expansion of its early learning program next academic year, according to the 2022-2023 tentative budget.

The district’s building plans and financial decisions are under a microscope after the board recently fired Cheryl Watson-Harris from her role as superintendent. The board did not give a reason for the decision at first, but those issues later surfaced as sources of tension.

The 10-year comprehensive master plan recommends the creation of six early learning centers for 3- and 4-year-olds in vacant campuses or at underutilized schools. These would be established between the years 2026 and 2030, per the plan.

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The $15 million expansion in the proposed budget would take place next year. It would establish early learning classrooms in existing schools around the district. Operational costs, such as staffing and curriculum, make up most of the total. Currently, there are two early learning programs in the district.

The programs were one of board member Diijon DaCosta’s main concerns about the tenative budget, he said.

“I’m so excited about that,” he said.

Nearly 94,000 students attend DeKalb schools, making it the state’s third-largest district.

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The tentative budget, approved at a DeKalb County Board of Education meeting on Monday, totals $2.55 billion. It includes the addition of more counselors, psychologists, media center specialists and skilled workers, and funding to address school safety needs.

It also includes employee raises. Although the district did not specify on Monday which employees would receive raises or how much the raises would be, bus drivers, school nutrition workers and custodians are slated to receive living wage adjustments.

The district also plans to use federal funds on things like class-size reductions, HVAC and roof replacements and the early learning centers.

The federal pandemic aid that will fund those projects will dry up in about two years, board member Marshall Orson noted, and the district will have to find recurring funding sources to continue those initiatives.

The board will adopt the final budget in June.

Debate over the proposed early learning centers sparked the ongoing controversy around conditions at Druid Hills High School. When district staff asked the board in February to approve a resolution saying they planned to modernize the aging facility, board members raised concerns about spending an estimated $60 million on that project but not immediately planning to create more early learning centers.

“I think about when we talked about the disparities that are going on in this district — about our little boys and girls that cannot read on grade level — and that is not on this resolution to move forward, now. And a major renovation is,” DaCosta said in February. “That’s what I don’t understand.”

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