Under state order, Georgia district sets school renovation

Facing state demands to move forward, a suburban Atlanta school board has voted for a $50 million overhaul at an aging high school after previously voting three times against it

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (AP) — Facing state demands to move forward, as well as public pressure after students produced a viral video showing widespread disrepair, a suburban Atlanta school board on Tuesday voted for a $50 million overhaul at an aging high school after previously voting three times against it.

The DeKalb County school board voted unanimously to renovate Druid Hills High School, news outlets reported.

"I am proud to say today that we're in unison, that we want what's good for this district," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that board chair Vickie Turner said. "It feels quite refreshing that we've made this progress."

The dispute over Druid Hills climaxed after students made a video about poor conditions including raw sewage, crumbling bathrooms and signs warning of possible electrical shock around utilities in one room. But last month the board rejected plans to overhaul the high school, instead voting to make minor repairs at all the district's schools.

Students from at least two other DeKalb high schools have since published similar videos. The dispute dredged up racial and class tensions that often divide the 93,000-student district between a wealthier white minority in its northern end and a poorer, Black majority in the southern end.

State Superintendent Richard Woods intervened in the dispute by saying the state would refuse to approve the district’s facility plans until it addressed issues at Druid Hills. Such a refusal would block the district from obtaining state facilities money. Then the state appointed a special advisor to oversee the system’s building upgrades and maintenance.

In the meantime, board members fired Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent, with Turner appearing to blame Watson-Harris for poor conditions in a letter to Woods.

Tuesday’s vote adds Druid Hills to the district’s five-year building plan. Work slated to begin in September will include roofing, plumbing, heating and air conditioning. The district will pay for it using local sales tax collections.

The state hired Tanzy Kilcrease, who is retiring from Bibb County schools, to oversee DeKalb starting June 1. She told WABE-FM that she's going to assess conditions across the district.

One of Kilcrease’s responsibilities will be ensuring DeKalb carries out repairs in its state corrective action plan, including some updates that must be completed by June 30.

The state Department of Education said Tuesday it would approve state facilities funds for DeKalb as long as the district follows through.

About 60% of the immediate needs identified in the plan have already been addressed, interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley said Tuesday. She said a broken sewer line will be repaired by Friday, while roof repairs will be complete within two weeks. She also said the district is working to repair heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems.

“This is a collaboration,” Kilcrease said. “It’s a partnership. It’s our goal for them to be successful in assuring that we have standard quality facilities for all of our students in DeKalb County.”