DeKalb schools seek $500 million tax extension, don’t specify projects

DeKalb County School District officials could face an uphill battle in May as they ask voters to approve $500 million in taxes for school improvements, but have not provided a list of projects the money would buy.

District officials say that was necessary to stay in line with the past practice of having the vote to extend the 1-cent education special-purpose local option sales tax on the ballot at the same time as neighboring jurisdictions: City Schools of Decatur, Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County. The lack of information about specific schools to be built or other improvements to be funded could have an impact on votes, for a district a few years removed from a multimillion-dollar deficit and threats of state oversight.

While Fulton and Atlanta have provided a list of projects intended for their E-SPLOST dollars, DeKalb’s list is a work in progress because new Superintendent Steve Green wants to allow parents and other DeKalb residents to have a say in the decision-making. So far, the DeKalb Board of Education has approved a list of the categories for which it seeks certain amounts, such as security, renovation and technology improvements.

After the vote, the public will be invited to participate in the process, helping decide which projects are more necessary than others and whether anything should be added to the plate.

“We needed some time, based off the fact that we have to do more in-depth analysis with what we need,” said Daniel Drake, the school district’s director of planning. “We will develop five project focus areas and then we’ll come back and dress the skeleton with more details in the process, through summer and fall.”

The public will vote on it during the May 24 primary.

Public hearings will take place in July and September, and the board plans to approve a detailed list of projects to be funded by the tax in December.

DeKalb Board of Education Chairman Melvin Johnson said the wording of their resolution gives voters an idea of what type of projects to look out for as the process begins. That, in addition to the meetings set up through the fall, should go a long way in ensuring transparency.

“It will ultimately play OK,” Johnson said. “The reason why is we’re not just asking them to trust us. Unlike in years past where you may have had political decisions made, this board and the superintendent are dedicated to putting the resources where they’re needed.

“We still will have transparency. Nothing’s going to be done where the public is not aware.”

The need for more analysis arose as the district began investigating overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster of schools late last summer. Drake said similarities to what had driven schools in that area above capacity were found in other clusters. As a result, a feasibility planning process for secondary schools will commence in June. The results will be presented to the school board in July, with general projects from the study to be placed on the list of projects delivered to the community.

“Because Cross Keys (cluster) was overcrowded, as well as nearby … we needed to take a step back and look at all middle and high schools and have a plan to avoid other potential overcrowding,” Drake said. “We’re going to do this right, and we’re going to have public engagement. We’re not going to rush through something and not get it right.”

Transparency is a big deal when seeking money from the public, said Scott Layne, board chairman for the Association for Learning Environments. Layne said in Texas, where he’s assistant superintendent for support services for the Irving Independent School District, a facility assessment is done across the district to clearly define projects to be completed before any money is sought.

“I’ve never really heard of anybody just taking money and trying to figure it out after the fact,” he said. “You owe it to the taxpayers to clearly identify what you’re gonna utilize the money for. They wanna know what they’re voting for. That’s going to have a bearing on their vote.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.