Some skeptical of DeKalb schools’ plan to seek more building money

The DeKalb County School District has several public meetings scheduled, beginning today, laying out its case to possibly seek up to $265 million in additional funds to pay for construction cost increases and additional capital projects.

The plan to seek more money — potentially through a referendum for additional tax funds — to complete projects in the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax V program is being met with opposition from residents and parent groups across the district. Many are worried about approving so much when the district’s leadership is up in the air, with many district departments being run by interim leaders and Superintendent Steve Green set to vacate his post by next summer.

“To me, it’s like a ship without a captain, and no hands on deck,” parent Debbie Miller said. “Now is not the time to be asking for this. You don’t have a leader.”

The district released a detailed statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that addresses cost overruns for sprinkler systems and construction cost increases as well as building or rebuilding a handful of elementary schools.

“Many of the old, small elementary schools that are receiving some renovation money in E-SPLOST V would better serve the district by being totally rebuilt rather than replacing key systems,” district officials said. “In E-SPLOST V, there was not enough money to build more than a few new elementary schools and replace key systems for a few others. Even schools receiving enough money to substantially renovate/replace key systems will still be facilities built over 60 years ago to meet the instructional needs of that time.”

DeKalb schools are in various states of disrepair, with problems from heating and cooling malfunctions to leaking roofs, mold, even mysterious odors. The district has 23,870 maintenance requests during the 2017-2018 school year alone. Green has said it would take about $2 billion to fix all facilities concerns.

Among the casualties from the earlier list of projects could be plans to expand the capacity at Lakeside High School. Plans initially called for $26 million to expand Lakeside's capacity from 1,800 to 2,500 seats. According to the E-SPLOST document, the expansion would make room for 38 classrooms and other building space and parking spaces and was expected to be complete by 2022.

The school currently is expected to be over capacity by some 250 students this year and currently has 10 portable classrooms, district officials said. The about-face was made because the school has lost enrollment since hitting a peak in 2016.

“Nearly all of the new construction in E-SPLOST V was planned with the purpose of relieving capacity,” district officials said. “There is no doubt that Lakeside High School is still overcrowded … However, of the remaining major construction projects in E-SPLOST V, Lakeside is in the best position to be moved from E-SPLOST V to another, less certain funding source.”

Several parents were concerned with the fact that the district’s school improvements were not coming from its strategic plan.

Debbie Miller, a DeKalb parent with a child who attends Lakeside, said the proposal to possibly remove the Lakeside project meant nothing would be done to address possible growth and the school’s limited campus size.

“The facility doesn’t meet their basic needs,” Miller said.

Miller is part of Educate DeKalb, a group of parents and others that was initially developed to address the needs at Lakeside. Their mission has since expanded to cover issues across the district. Among the concerns is the district seeking funding while its leadership is in flux.

“With the superintendent deciding not to renew his contract, I’ve been very concerned about the cabinet vacancies,” Miller said. “There’s lots of deficiencies in there.”

Kay Colson, a DeKalb resident who also is part of Educate DeKalb, said there has been lack of transparency in the district’s E-SPLOST process, from projects not included on its initial referendum seeking the penny tax for school improvements to poorly attended community engagement meetings and an online survey that “could be filled out by multiple people multiple times.” She also expressed concern that the district’s strategic plan had holes and did not directly address many of the district’s specific needs.

“When you think about it, the basis for starting a project wasn’t there,” she said. “It was jump in, fix this, do this, do that. Dollars seemed like the only motivation to get it done. And now we want to borrow money to fill the gap. Irresponsibility from step one.”

Joel Edwards of the government watchdog group Restore DeKalb said no additional funds should be given to the district because it is hard to see what benefit came from the first allotment.

“We’re saying hell no to any GO bond,” he said. A general obligation bond, which would require voter approval, is one of the means the school district is considering to raise money for the cost overruns and new work. “We want an accountability as to where our money is going,” Edwards said. We’ve got air conditioning in disarray, we’ve got leaking roofs, we’ve got mold. The sad thing about it is (most residents) have no clue to what’s going on because they don’t go to the board meetings. To be informed, you’ve got to be in the trenches.

“We’ve been in trenches, and we see a lot of discrepancies.”

Five meetings will be held through Sept. 10 at high schools across the county, including:

• Clarkston High School, today, 7 p.m.

• Chamblee High School, Tuesday, 7 p.m.

• Miller Grove High School, Wednesday, 7 p.m.

• Columbia High School, Sept. 4, 2019, 7 p.m.

• Lakeside High School, Sept. 10, 2019, 7 p.m.