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Posted by on November 17, 2011.

SPLOST makes new Austin Elementary School a reality

With the approval of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax IV, improvements to local schools, including the rebuilding of Austin Elementary School in Dunwoody, are now a reality.

But some in Dunwoody say they are skeptical about changes the sales tax will bring.

Some voters were concerned following corruption with past SPLOST funds. The district’s former superintendent and chief operating officer are facing theft and racketeering charges over their handling of school construction projects.

But some Dunwoody voters were against SPLOST IV because it promised to tear down Austin Elementary School and build a new, bigger school.

Dan Drake, director of planning and forecasting for the DeKalb County School System, said state guidelines could mean that Austin may not be rebuilt on its current site.

“There were really kind of three issues with that site. One is the size — 14 acres is what the state likes to see as a minimum,” Drake said. “The second is the high tension power lines. And under the high tension power lines, there is a high pressure petroleum pipeline.”

Current state regulations require that school buildings be a certain distance from high tension power lines and petroleum pipelines for safety reasons. Drake said the school system has not yet determined if the elementary school can be rebuilt on the current property while meeting those guidelines.

“If we can get everything we need within the space, we’ll do it,” Drake said.

Stacey Harris, a parent of a fourth grader and a kindergartner at Austin, said she and many other parents want the elementary school to stay on the same site so the large number of students that walk to school can continue to do so.

“They won’t guarantee that they can put it where it is,” Harris said. “When you have 650 students and one-half to two-thirds are within walking distance, it truly is a neighborhood school.”

Harris also believes SPLOST dollars would be better spent by rebuilding a smaller elementary school. New elementary schools will be built to accommodate 900 students. Austin currently houses about 650 students, Harris said.

“The Dunwoody cluster is overcrowded,” Harris said. “They’re spending $20 million for a net gain of 250 seats.”

In the scoring system the county used to assess the condition of schools, Chestnut Elementary School was the next in need of rebuilding. It can accommodate about 450 students, Harris said. “For $20 million, it would be net gain of 400-450 seats,” Harris said.

Drake said he heard complaints throughout the county about the way the schools were scored.

“There’s some subjectivity to that scoring. Some folks believe there’s been some inconsistency depending on who’s doing it,” Drake said. “We try to quality control it and account for those inconsistencies. But we’ve had different parents or groups come to us and say they want us to look at different scores.”

If it is determined that Austin will need to be built on a different site, Drake said the school system will include Dunwoody parents in the process in some way.

“We have not necessarily figured out how the public involvement process is going to be handled, but there will be a public involvement process,” Drake said.

DeKalb County is also assembling a 12-member SPLOST citizen oversight committee.

Drake said of all the projects proposed under SPLOST IV, he has heard the most complaints about Austin Elementary.

“It struck a nerve,” he said.

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DeKalb County SPLOST election results

Should a penny sales tax (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) be approved for specified projects for the DeKalb County school system?

Yes        33,114         62 percent

No          20,141        38 percent

Source: DeKalb Board of Registration and Elections