Opinion: DeKalb response to Druid Hills High doesn’t inspire confidence

041822 Stone Mountain: Druid Hills sophomore Santiago Gonzalez-Cassavoy holds a sign reading, “Fix Our School!,” showing support of school renovations outside of the DeKalb County School System Administrative and Instructional Complex during a DeKalb County Board of Education meeting Monday, April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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

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041822 Stone Mountain: Druid Hills sophomore Santiago Gonzalez-Cassavoy holds a sign reading, “Fix Our School!,” showing support of school renovations outside of the DeKalb County School System Administrative and Instructional Complex during a DeKalb County Board of Education meeting Monday, April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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

Debate over which schools should get major renovations accents DeKalb divide

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The DeKalb school board’s overall response to disturbing student video of broken bathroom doors and water-damaged walls at Druid Hills High School came down to this: Yes, that’s dreadful, but other schools are even worse.

That’s a statement that inspires questions rather than confidence. Why does a school district with a solid tax base and E-SPLOST to improve facilities have other schools in worse shape? And why aren’t the board members who cite terrible conditions in other schools demanding accountability for maintenance and repairs?

Those answers haven’t been forthcoming. Longstanding racial and economic tensions between south and north DeKalb caused the board to become caught up with other questions, such as who gets heard in the district and who gets more as a result.

The student-narrated video tour of Druid Hills High drew national news coverage and 50,000 views in 10 days. The teens resorted to social media after school board members voted in February to remove a recommended large-scale modernization of Druid Hills High from its 2021 comprehensive master plan, the only project to be eliminated.

The video led the school board last week to reconsider the Druid Hills High project, but it was not restored to the master plan — a master plan that cost $2 million and ranked both major construction and maintenance needs. The sometimes-terse board discussion began around safety concerns but quickly escalated to equity concerns.

“Our children are suffering throughout this district,” said board member Joyce Morley. “Not just the north. The south is, too. Some of the schools here are deplorable. What’s going on in Druid Hills is bad. Yup, it is but there are other schools going through the same thing.”

Board members said they worried about the students elsewhere in the district who didn’t create a viral video to plead their case. “I am glad to say our other children on the southside of the district are being brought to the table in an equitable manner,” said board chair Vickie Turner.

DeKalb will now determine spending by tiered priority needs of each school. Those are repairs 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. That means rather than a modernization estimated to cost up to $60 million, Druid Hills High might get $3 million in repairs.

Board member Anna Hill won 5-2 board support for a triage approach of tackling “mission-critical deficiencies” at every school, the scope of which Hill, an accountant, placed at $410 million but the superintendent says is not known yet.

Speaking to the protesting Druid Hills students, Hill thanked them for their video and advocacy, but said, “As a board, it is our responsibility to consider the whole district and not just one school. Failing to address the needs of all schools is a bit like a parent who has three children who all need shoes. Instead of buying all the kids shoes, the parent buys one kid a suit and ignores the other kids who need shoes.”

But the school board member representing Druid Hills High School contends students there need more than new shoes. They need hazmat suits given the dangers in their building.

“At the end of the day, the condition of Druid Hills High School is beyond deplorable,” said Marshall Orson. “It is not just a leak in the window but water rushing in to such a point that there are signs in classrooms that say, ‘Don’t go near the socket because you might be shocked.’”

State School Superintendent Richard Woods agrees with Orson. In the wake of a state Department of Education review of conditions at Druid Hills, Woods released a letter Monday in which he chastised DeKalb over its equity argument.

“Let me be clear: each and every student in DeKalb County Schools has a right to functioning bathrooms; air-conditioned and heated classrooms; spaces free of mildew, mold, and flooding; and safe conditions to learn. Each and every facility in DeKalb County Schools should meet that basic standard – at present, Druid Hills High School does not,” said Woods. “Your governance team has also cited a perceived lack of funding. In reality, there has been a lack of leadership, responsibility, and urgency regarding this core responsibility of DeKalb County Schools: providing safe and fully functioning facilities.”

DeKalb is not alone in dealing with laments about decrepit buildings. In a 2020 survey of school districts nationwide, the U.S. General Accountability Office found that 53% of public-school districts needed to update or replace multiple building systems, especially the aging facilities common in DeKalb.

On the edge of the Emory campus, the Druid Hills complex contains seven structures. One, built in the 1920s, is the oldest DeKalb educational facility still in use. “The school has an attractive facade that is deceiving in that it masks what goes on behind it,” said Tamara Shipley, chair of the Druid Hills High School Principal Advisory Council Members. “Repairs, updates and maintenance are not going to fix these issues.”

Longtime DeKalb Schools employees watching the board debate from the sidelines blame the deteriorating conditions on too little investment in infrastructure and a laissez-faire attitude toward maintenance. Parents and teachers contend their complaints about building problems have been ignored for years.

“You have a resource in teacher and staff members,” DeKalb teacher Henri De Vastey told the board. “Please, ask us. We will tell you. You don’t want to be Vladimir Putin in Ukraine with only generals’ opinions.”