By Jason Massad
Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed toward DeKalb County schools after a voter-approved sales tax in 2007.
The tax money purchased everything from new auditoriums, upgraded heating systems and air conditioners, additional classroom space, and new roofs across the district’s 140 schools and education centers.
However, at Chamblee Charter High School, a $19 million cut from the tax serves merely as an uncertain promise that the 93-year-old school with chronically overcrowded hallways, a rat infestation and a now-eradicated mold problem will be rebuilt anew.
“What we’re facing is that it could be a gamble whether a new school will be built at all,” said Jim Redovian, who represents District 1 on the DeKalb County Board of Education. “Everything could change [in the future].”
Redovian says that the Chamblee facility – one of the best-performing high schools in the district – needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
The sentiment is enthusiastically backed by parents of students attending the high school and members of the Chamblee High Parent-Teacher-Student Association.
The rub is that constructing a new facility would require an additional $20 million to $25 million, according to district estimates.
The necessary cash could be delivered to the district via a local sales tax that could be put before voters in 2012. However, an uncertain economic climate casts doubt on whether that measure, if floated by the board, would gain acceptance by voters.
In effect, Chamblee has deferred spending its tax money in order to wait on additional money to build a new high school, but no guarantee exists that will happen anytime in the next several years, if at all.
The uncertainties surrounding the north DeKalb high school have led parents with ties to the school to openly speculate whether the district intends to close Chamblee altogether. A newsletter distributed in September by Collette McDonald, a local real estate agent, reflects the uncertainty among some in the community.
“Over the past few days we have received many e-mails regarding the possible closing of Chamblee High School and consolidation with Cross Keys,” it says. “So many rumors are flying – calling attention to the public’s concern over Chamblee High School.”
Robert Moseley, deputy chief superintendent for the schools, did not return phone calls related to this story.
There’s a noticeable gap between what parents understand about the future of Chamblee High and what district officials and its board members are discussing.
For instance, Redovian said he is pushing a plan that could put a rebuilt Chamblee High School on a faster track than a 2012 sales tax. A federal stimulus program allows the district to accept more than $55 million in tax-free bonds to pay for capital improvement at the district’s schools.
For his part, Redovian said Chamblee’s $25 million need should rank as an urgent need but acknowledged that such a large chunk of the financing “is going to be a battle to get” on a nine-member board.
Some who are active in monitoring the schools don’t even know of the plan. McDonald said she had never heard of the possibility of financing a replacement of Chamblee High School by accepting the bonds. Recommendations for ways to spend the money, if accepted, would come rapidly in the next several months.
Not everyone is buying that a secret plan exists to shutter Chamblee. Linda Podger-Williams, a parent of a student at the school, said she has stopped reading the ubiquitous school-related blogs and e-mail notices that make the rounds with such gloom-and-doom scenarios.
“Nobody on the board or at the county is saying that,” she said. “They are just putting that out there.”
Under any funding scenario for a new campus, Karen Ruffin, co-president of the Chamblee High School PTSA, said recent events surrounding a flood of 250 students wanting to transfer to Chamblee put the spotlight on the need for upgraded facilities, especially considering that Chamblee is at capacity.
The school ranks among the best high schools in the state. The only thing lacking is modern facilities, she said.
“What needs to happen if Chamblee is going to be a receiver school, then Chamblee needs to be sure that kids can safely and effectively go to the school,” she said.