DeKalb County superintendent asks for ‘grace’ on school repairs plan

DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris has asked for “a little grace” as her administration tries to figure out the ramifications of this week's surprising decision by the school board about districtwide building repairs. (AJC file photo)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

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DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris has asked for “a little grace” as her administration tries to figure out the ramifications of this week's surprising decision by the school board about districtwide building repairs. (AJC file photo)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris is asking for “a little grace” as her administration tries to figure out the ramifications of a surprising decision by the school board about districtwide building repairs.

At a meeting this week, the board voted 5-2 in the final hour to put critical maintenance needs across the district first rather than major projects at a shorter list of schools. That was a blow to supporters hoping for modernization of Druid Hills High School, estimated to cost up to $60 million.

“We’re in a process of digesting what was presented and doing an analysis of how that fits into what we were planning to do anyway,” Watson-Harris said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Druid Hills sophomore Santiago Gonzalez-Cassavoy holds a sign reading, “Fix Our School!” outside of a DeKalb County school board meeting in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on April 18, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Druid Hills sophomore Santiago Gonzalez-Cassavoy holds a sign reading, “Fix Our School!” outside of a DeKalb County school board meeting in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on April 18, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Druid Hills sophomore Santiago Gonzalez-Cassavoy holds a sign reading, “Fix Our School!” outside of a DeKalb County school board meeting in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on April 18, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ExploreDeKalb school board favors districtwide fixes over Druid Hills repairs

Before Monday’s vote, she had urged the board to give staff time to vet the proposal. The school district has previously been accused of misusing taxpayer dollars and not keeping promises made to the community, she said.

But five members of the board decided not to heed the caution of Watson-Harris, who assumed her post nearly two years ago — the district’s sixth superintendent in almost a decade.

“We have to unpack what’s already been done, what we had already planned to do, what are the priority items that can be easily completed, our capital projects and the new priorities,” she told the AJC on Wednesday.

Board Chair Vicki Turner told the AJC the board’s vote does not supersede the district’s existing comprehensive master plan. That’s the 10-year plan for facilities that district staff and outside contractors spent more than a year putting together.

“We’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We are not doing that,” she said. She added that they were “adding this to the table for more, I believe, of a holistic view of the district instead of in silos.”

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DeKalb County Board of Education Chair Vickie Turner speaks during the meeting on April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The board discussed how best to address needed building repairs across the district. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

DeKalb County Board of Education Chair Vickie Turner speaks during the meeting on April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The board discussed how best to address needed building repairs across the district. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb County Board of Education Chair Vickie Turner speaks during the meeting on April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The board discussed how best to address needed building repairs across the district. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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The new plan ranks the needs at each school, including deficiencies that would affect a school’s ability to stay open, could progress to that level or are necessary to maximize a facility’s efficiency and usefulness. The projects could range from replacing roofs and windows to updating fire alarm and plumbing systems.

Board members acknowledged poor conditions at Druid Hills High, but said other schools had it far worse. But improving school facilities has been a priority for years, Watson-Harris said, and some of that work has already begun or been completed.

Anna Hill, the board member who introduced the new plan, estimated the cost to address the critical deficiencies districtwide would total $410 million. Turner said Wednesday the cost could top $600 million.

Watson-Harris told the AJC she wasn’t yet ready to estimate the cost of the priority repairs. Construction costs have gone up since the first estimates were received last year. Some projects have been completed. The district will be pulling from federal funding, its general fund, pandemic aid and special tax revenue to address the needs, she said.

In 2021, voters approved an extension of the district’s E-SPLOST, or education special purpose local option sales tax. It’s expected to bring in more than $700 million for these types of projects by 2027, DeKalb officials have projected.

ExploreDeKalb Schools to revisit Druid Hills renovations after student video

Hill’s plan does not address some goals included in the comprehensive master plan, such as the creation of early learning centers or efforts to address overcrowding and underuse in schools. Watson-Harris said her team is figuring out what funds will be left over to complete projects outlined in the master plan.

That uncertainty concerns Allyson Gevertz, who voted against the plan. The comprehensive master plan also included major renovations or complete rebuilds at several schools, but the board’s shift in focus calls those projects into question.

“It’s unclear how we’re going to fund both this priority project list and the comprehensive master plan recommendations at the same time,” she said.