DeKalb school system OKs new school construction plan

The DeKalb County school board on Wednesday authorized a new school construction plan for the next five years, stripping it of controversial elements that outraged parents late last year.

In November, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson stunned parents, and some school board members, with a school “organization” plan that involved school closures and changes to attendance lines — and a hasty timetable to approve it. One of the most controversial elements involved sending some middle school students to expanded high school campuses.

Parents seethed, and the district reacted.

The plan adopted by a 6-3 vote Wednesday scraps school closures and is silent on major redistricting. Board members made some last-minute modifications that seemed to mollify the last loud pockets of criticism: They ditched a proposal to stretch some elementary schools from fifth to sixth grade, and they dismissed a proposal to convert Chapel Hill Middle School to a “theme” school for select students.

Parent Sonia Farmer characterized that last decision as a qualified victory. Now, her son will be able to attend his neighborhood middle school without worrying about whether he can get in. But overall education levels in south DeKalb, where Chapel Hill Middle is located, still need to rise, she said. “It’s just a small step in the right direction.”

Jennifer Hatfield, the PTA president at Evansdale Elementary in north DeKalb, said the new plan will satisfy parents in her area. The old one called for the closure of nearby Livsey Elementary, a relatively small building tucked into a residential area. The plan also would have shifted some Evansdale students into a different middle school attendance zone.

“It appears they listened to us,” Hatfield said. “They’ve taken out everything that could potentially trigger controversy or opposition.”

DeKalb officials said the new plan had to be completed quickly to qualify for state construction funds. It was previously presented in conjunction with a redistricting plan and a December deadline, but officials then realized two things: they had more time, and they did not have to present a redistricting plan to the state. Thus, the deadline moved, and the talk of large-scale redistricting ceased.

The facilities plan, which will be funded in part by local sales tax revenue, calls for the expansion of several buildings. Austin, Fernbank, Pleasantdale and Rockbridge elementaries will grow to 900 students, while Smoke Rise Elementary expands to 600. McNair Middle will grow to 1,200 students and Chamblee High will expand to 1,600, while several schools will add an undisclosed amount of capacity.

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