Opinion: Alarming Druid Hills High video suggests deeper problems

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Why and how did district leadership allow conditions to deteriorate?

A viral student video showing long-festering maintenance issues, including raw sewage and possible mold at Druid Hills High School, led to a predictable response from the DeKalb County School District. In a letter this week, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said the district and the school board “remain fully committed to ensuring a positive learning environment.”

At a meeting Monday, the school board will reconsider its February decision to hold off on repairs to the aging high school on the edge of the Emory University campus. That decision produced outrage among Druid Hills parents and led to the video. The school complex is composed of seven structures. The main building, which dates to the 1920s, is the oldest educational facility still in use in DeKalb. (You can read about the school in this parent-generated report.)

On the surface, the official response and Watson-Harris’ praise of the student videographers for advocating for themselves appear positive. But the surface seldom tells the full story in DeKalb, a district that never gets its bearings and suffers from a long history of mistrust between parents and administrators.

For starters, the district has never been fond of whistleblowers, as many chastised principals, teachers and students can attest. Secondly, there is a belief in DeKalb that the loudest voices are the ones that spur results. While horrific, some complain that conditions at Druid Hills High School are better than those at other schools and should not advance them to the front of the line.

These are the questions that DeKalb needs to answer in this controversy:

Are the troubling conditions at Druid Hills High School unique or are other schools also in this bad of shape?

Is this a problem of aging buildings or a lack of regular upkeep and maintenance? If the latter, who is at fault and how can this be fixed quickly not only at Druid Hills but at all the schools with unsafe conditions?

Why does it take a viral video to spur action? Watson-Harris said that the disrepair at Druid Hills was “long known about.” If that’s the case, why didn’t the school board and district address it earlier?

It’s important to note the background here. In August of 2020, DeKalb Schools commissioned Perkins & Will, an architecture and design firm, to conduct an analysis of its facilities and create a 10-year comprehensive master plan. The firm listed Druid Hills High as a priority and estimated the remodeling and modernization cost at $52 million. That estimate has since grown.

Three DeKalb high schools have lower facility condition scores than Druid Hills, which earned a 69 on a 100-point scale. Parents at Druid Hills contend the score is boosted by the 88 awarded to the new science building. Three of the buildings in the high school complex scored in the 50s.

At a meeting in February, the DeKalb board voted 4-2 to remove the school from its list of construction projects, citing the now $60 million estimate for upgrading the crumbling school. The removal of Druid Hills from the list led to objections from outgoing board member Marshall Orson, who represents the area. In a statement this week, Orson said, “There is no question in my mind that the students of DHHS have not been treated fairly nor equitably. The condition of the facility is unconscionable.”

The student video confirms conditions are unconscionable. What DeKalb taxpayers ought to ascertain is whether they’re unusual. And, if they’re not, they ought to ask why district and board leaders would allow such reprehensible conditions to fester for so long.