High-rise Atlanta high school comes with steep cost

The gleaming new North Atlanta High School crosses over a lake, rises 11 stories and eases student overcrowding. At about $147 million, it also costs more than any other public school in Georgia.

Located about a half-mile from Cobb County’s Chattahoochee River border (see map), North Atlanta opens on Aug. 7, with features including a built-in robotics lab and a rifle range for Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students. The school moved 3 1/2 miles from its Buckhead location, which had reached its enrollment capacity.

North Atlanta costs nearly $50 million more than originally planned, sparking criticism of the site selection and whether the school board adequately tracked expenses.

Formerly an IBM office building, the school cost Atlanta Public Schools $55.3 million to buy the property and another $91.4 million for construction, renovation and athletic facilities.

“It’s a high-rise high school. … As we build new facilities, we want them all to be environmentally and technologically state of the art,” said Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel, whose daughter will be a freshman at the school.

But cost overruns at North Atlanta High frustrate Dawn Brockington-Shaw, whose daughter is a freshman at Mays High School in west Atlanta.

“It’s going to cost them more than they expected because they’re taking a corporate building and trying to make it safe for teenagers,” she said. “It was probably a poor decision to buy that building and property, but now that they’re in it, there’s nothing to do other than complete the project.”

About 1,650 students will initially enroll at North Atlanta High, with the population expected to increase to 2,400 in about five years.

The school system paid so much for the facilities because Atlanta property values are high and the school is the largest in the city, chairman McDaniel said.

While the total price tag may cause sticker shock, its cost (excluding property purchases and athletics facilities) is $163 per square foot, which is lower than a few other recent Atlanta Public Schools construction projects, according to a letter sent to residents by school board member Nancy Meister.

But a WSB-TV survey showed that North Atlanta’s construction costs were higher than recently built schools in nearby school districts. For example, Archer High in Gwinnett County cost $50.6 million, or $115 per square foot, and has an enrollment of about 2,100 students.

Financial consultant Robert Stockwell said he’s concerned that the Board of Education may not have fulfilled its duty to provide oversight of the project before it was approved in April 2012. The “working budget” for the school was listed at $42 million, but it jumped to $71 million when the board voted — a 69 percent increase.

“It was almost like the administration hid the numbers until the last moment,” said Stockwell, who wrote about the project on his Financial Deconstruction blog. “The first time the board ever saw a cost, although there may have been some discussions behind the scenes, was when they approved the $71 million contract.”

He said the contract for the school appeared to be justified given its size and scope, but he said the Atlanta Public Schools board and the administration didn’t do a good job of tracking expenses.

McDaniel said that even if the school board didn’t discuss the project much at public meetings, board members were updated “every step of the way, so there was no problem with oversight.”

The costs jumped from $42 million to $71 million because early plans called for a smaller school, with a 1,600-student enrollment, according to the school district. In addition, the initial estimate was based on typical renovation expenses, without considering the new building’s topography and design, McDaniel said.

The project’s budget increased another $20.5 million by last month, in large part because of $13 million in extra costs to remove unsuitable soil and buried trash that had to be replaced with crushed rock, according to Meister’s letter. Also, contractor JE Dunn Construction Group Inc. had to remove asbestos, level floors and pay higher prevailing wages sought by the U.S. Department of Labor.

No other school in Georgia appears to have cost so much, said Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza.

“The department is unaware of any school district in Georgia where the costs of construction even closely approximate $140 million,” he said. “Land costs are obviously a lot more expensive in Atlanta than they are in many other areas of the state, and that’s a big factor.”

Parents in north Atlanta said they were impressed by the school, which includes a football field, track, baseball field and parking decks so that the school can host districtwide events.

Rewa Berry, whose son will be a senior at North Atlanta High, said it will allow the public school system to compete with private schools for students. She liked the 3-D art classroom and a student broadcasting center.

“Students will have a lot more access to technology and be more competitive on a global level,” Berry said. “Sometimes you have to pay out the costs to provide what the kids need.”

Kim Zemmali, a French teacher at Sutton Middle School that feeds into North Atlanta, said she was pleased that the Atlanta school district planned ahead to deal with its overcrowding problems.

“We couldn’t grow. We knew we had this big burst in enrollment coming, and they solved it by building a new high school,” said Zemmali, the parent of a sophomore and co-president of the community group North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools.

Students from Sutton Middle will move into the old North Atlanta High site, and when they fill it, the old Sutton Middle will house sixth-graders.

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