South Cobb schools need more, get less, residents tell board

South Cobb resident and community activist Tre Hutchins graduated from Pebblebrook High School more than two decades ago, and when he walks those same halls he did as a teenager he is stunned by how nothing has changed.

This static state of affairs is driving Hutchins and others in the area to demand the Cobb County School District address what they believe is a lack of attention to this rapidly growing part of the county.

Several Pebblebrook parents and students made their voices heard at the school board’s March 21 meeting, pleading with elected officials to address safety, infrastructure, overcrowding and layout issues. Some of Cobb’s school board members have also hosted town hall meetings to provide updates on projects slated to be funded with the county’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

School board member David Morgan, who represents Post 3, said the south Cobb area is facing two decades of “neglect” and while the current SPLOST includes a slew of improvements to that area, it will not make up for that lost time. South Cobb parents, Morgan said, are “justified” in their frustrations with the district, as the area is “in more disrepair than other parts of the district.”

The current SPLOST program, which is projected to bring in $797 million over the next five years, was approved in 2017 and went into effect this year. For south Cobb, it would fund classroom additions and theater replacements for Campbell and Pebblebrook high schools; a theater replacement at Osborne; new gyms from Pebblebrook and South Cobb High School; a classroom addition at Hillgrove High School; replacement schools for Harmony Leland and King Springs elementary schools; a new middle school in the Smyrna area; and a slew of security improvements across the district. Construction is already underway for an expansion at Osborne, which will also be home to the district's $14.5 million career academy expected to open in 2020.

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Hutchins said that during the previous SPLOST cycles, Pebblebrook and other south Cobb schools have not received substantial improvements, despite the area grappling with a steady growth in student population. For example, a 12-classroom addition for Riverside Primary School in Mableton was slated to be funded with money collected in the previous SPLOST cycle, and while voters approved that referendum, the new building never materialized, Hutchins said.

“So when you vote for it and it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t allow the community to feel comfortable and trust that the school district will make decisions (based) on need,” he said.

It’s not that simple, said school board chairman David Chastain. Chastain said the school district relies on sales tax revenue, which is impacted by consumer spending. The south Cobb area has been on the district’s radar but the school board and superintendent have to look at the entire system when it comes to ranking projects.

“I think we are doing the best we can,” he said, adding the growth Cobb has experienced over the past 30 years began in East Cobb and expanded north, west and now in the south side.

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Morgan, who has served for 10 years, added Superintendent Chris Ragsdale is in tune with south Cobb’s concerns and the system is showing good faith by making some repairs at facilities. He said he hopes the momentum of improving south Cobb’s schools will continue if voters approve a next SPLOST.

“I think now the district is doing more than it’s ever done in terms of SPLOST for not only Pebblebrook High School, but for the South Cobb area in general,” Morgan said.