Shortfall to hit students

Children in wheelchairs will continue to struggle with too-tall toilets and insurmountable steps, while student athletes keep tripping on cracked and uneven running tracks.

Such physical issues will remain at dozens of DeKalb County schools because of a basic accounting failure that is triggering more than $30 million in cuts to a list of sales tax-funded construction projects.

It’s a fraction of the total building program, and most of the projects at risk are small. But they mean something to children and parents at affected schools, such as Dunwoody High, where $1.2 million in work at the tail end of a major renovation is on the chopping block.

The school was supposed to get new handicapped parking spots — the present ones are at the bottom of a hill — and a repaved lot, plus repairs to floors damaged during construction.

“It’s never going to look like a new school,” said Caren Morrison, co-president of the Dunwoody High School Council, a parent advisory group. “We worked really hard to come up with this list, and now they’re saying, ‘That’s great, you’re not getting it.’”

Voters in DeKalb, as in other metro Atlanta school systems, approved a five-year sales tax that should generate hundreds of millions of dollars for construction. As officials were closing the books on the last tax, they discovered a glaring problem: Years ago someone — officials say they don’t know who — failed to set aside money for finance costs associated with the building program.

The interest on bonds has mounted to $21 million. Add a $10 million cost overrun in a high school renovation project and a miscalculation involving revenue from the state, and the school system is $36 million short of the cost of completing the remaining projects.

New superintendent Cheryl Atkinson has asked the school board to shelve three dozen projects. The board is expected to act on Monday.

“The ineptitude that it took to make a mistake like this is borderline criminal,” said Jennifer Hatfield, a parent at Evansdale Elementary School in Tucker. The school stands to lose bathroom and playground improvements for the disabled.

Hatfield’s son is in a first grade classroom with a girl in a wheelchair. Hatfield knows the girl’s mother and said the child encounters adult-sized toilets that are difficult to mount from a wheelchair. A rise in the entry to the gym is hard to roll the chair up.

And the play field that she’d use when she is older can only be accessed by stairs or a nature trail. She’d have to wheel down the street.

“It’s a very big, long hill that she’ll have to go down on her wheelchair while she brakes,” Hatfield said.

The funding cuts include $2.5 million in projects for the disabled at about 20 schools, more than $11 million in new heating and cooling systems at eight, nearly $700,000 for new toilets and sinks at 13 elementary schools and $8 million in renovations at three high schools — Dunwoody, Redan and the DeKalb School of the Arts.

Atkinson also proposes to cut running track replacements at four schools, saving $1 million.

At Peachtree Charter Middle School, parents raised $41,000 toward repairs of its track, which dates from the 1960s. The surface is cracked, and tree roots have raised what parent Stephanie Holmes calls “speed bumps.”

“We have injuries weekly from the kids hitting the speed bump things,” she said.

One big remaining project to be funded in part by the expiring sales tax would be spared. Atkinson proposes rebuilding Chamblee High School, even though the budget ballooned $10 million over the $69 million estimate.

The failure to anticipate debt payments on construction financing is the biggest culprit. Christy Willis, president of the Georgia Association of School Business Officials, said that’s unheard of.

“Typically, your bond counsel as well as your underwriters walk the school through it and are very thorough,” Willis said. “You just look at the principal and interest schedule and adhere to it.”

School board members expressed outrage at an emergency meeting Atkinson convened Feb. 29 on the problem.

By Thursday, school staff had discovered $5 million in interest payments over the past year, trimming the shortfall. But Atkinson is still recommending $31 million in cuts.

Donna Edler, a school board member since 2011, traces the problem to a unanimous decision by the board in May 2009, when administrators projected big surpluses. The board added $47.5 million in projects to the construction program.

“If they weren’t added to the list, we might not be having this conversation,” Edler said. “That $47 million, in my head, that’s the issue.”

Marshall Orson, co-president of the Emory-LaVista Parent Council, has been an advocate of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. But he said the board failed to effectively monitor the program in this case.

“Not one single board member noticed that there was no line item for interest?” Orson said. “What was that about . . . did they think the money was free?”

● Improvements for the disabled at about 20 schools: $2.5 million

● Air conditioning and heating systems at eight schools: more than $11 million

● Emergency generators for security systems at several schools: $2.1 million

● New sinks, toilets and other fixtures at 13 elementary schools: $684,000

● New kitchens, ceilings, more HVAC work and other projects at various schools: $2.1 million

● Running tracks at four middle schools: $1 million

● Renovations at Dunwoody High, Redan High and DeKalb School of the Arts: $8 million

● New computers: $229,000

Source: DeKalb School District