School overcrowding, a proliferation of trailers, leaky roofs and broken bathroom stalls dominated the disussion and questions posed to DeKalb County School District officials during a March 14 community meeting at Dunwoody High School.
A lack of money to make significant capital improvements poses serious challenges in solving some of these pressing problems, according to Superintendent Stephen Green. Conversations are needed about how to find more revenue to speed up repairs to aging school buildings, athletic fields and other school facilities to meet the obvious demand, he said.
Green and other school administrators faced tough questions from more than 100 people packed into the DHS auditorium for the “On the Scene with Dr. Green” event where the crowd broke into applause several times as one person after another complained about school conditions.
Many Dunwoody parents blasted the ongoing addition of trailers, or portable classrooms, on school campuses to alleviate overcrowding with no apparent long-term solution in sight. Parents said administrators seemed to fail to anticipate future growth and the increases of students to the schools due to ongoing development, resulting in new schools and new additions being already too small when they open.
Advocates for Cary Reynolds Elementary School in Doraville were also present to urge the school district to prioritize repairs to the school’s leaky roof, for example. A Georgia State University student who attended Cary Reynolds and graduated from Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven said she hears the same complaints she had when she was a student in DeKalb Schools about poor school maintenance and overcrowding. She also noted these schools are filled with mostly Latino students.
“What do you have to say to students who have been in trailers all of their educational life?” she asked Green.
Cary Reynolds is budgeted to get a new roof in 2022, so school administrators said they are forced to do patch work until that time as a way to use tax dollars efficiently. Other maintenance issues such as broken bathroom stalls and stained ceiling tiles are being repaired as quickly as possible, Green said. But the system is in “deferred maintenance mode” and is forced to react to issues as they arise because of limited funding, he added.
With new schools under construction – including a new Austin Elementary in Dunwoody opening early next year and John Lewis Elementary in Brookhaven opening in fall 2019 — overcrowding in the area is expected to be significantly reduced.
DeKalb Schools Operating Officer Dan Drake said the district is in preliminary talks with the city of Dunwoody to possibly use the existing Austin Elementary School for students. Locating students in the current school and in the new Austin Elementary School when it is slated to open in 2020 would be “stop gap” measure to alleviate overcrowding until a new SPLOST vote could happen, Drake said.
“We’re just starting the discussion … but there’s that possibility,” Drake said.
Green added there is not enough money to do everything residents want as quickly as they would like to see done. Finding a new revenue source to dedicate specifically to facilities and maintenance could be the answer to resolving many issues, whether through a bond referendum or an extra penny to future educational special local option sales tax.
DCSD currently serves nearly 102,000 students, has 140 schools and centers and employs 15,500 people, including 6,600 teachers, according to its website.
The E-SPLOST approved by voters in 2016, a renewal of the past penny sales tax, is expected to bring in close to $600 million over its five-year life. Besides the new middle schools in Dunwoody and Brookhaven, a new Cross Keys High School is slated to be built in unincorporated DeKalb County at the site of the former Briarcliff High School. Dunwoody High School is expected to get a 29-classroom addition by 2022. DHS is also slated to get new artificial turf athletic fields as part of the E-SPLOST spending.
“There are competing interests across the county and when the needs outstrip the resources, you have to set up criteria” on what to do first, Green said.
Dunwoody City Councilmember Tom Lambert said his son would soon graduate from Chamblee Charter High School and has been taught in trailers the entire time he’s been in DeKalb schools.
“You have to forgive our skepticism … that they are considered a short-term solution,” Lambert said. DeKalb Schools has an approximate $1 billion budget, he added, which made him wonder if the district was “too big and bloated” to properly educate students.
Green denied that allegation, saying administrators are also not happy with overcrowding and the use of trailers. “The math is simply the math,” he said. “It took us a long time to get into this situation and we are now climbing our way out.”
In an interview after the event, Green elaborated on his comments about a bond referendum to say he and individual school board members were having initial conversations about “testing the waters” to see how people would react to the idea.
There is a gap between what E-SPLOST dollars bring into the school district and what the needs to be done to fix schools and bring facilities up to the top standards demanded by the community, he said.
“I sense a bit of impatience that it’s taking too long and the only way to accelerate is with an infusion of additional dollars,” Green said. “We’re reaching the nexus of where we may have to find out what the public’s will is.”
This story has been updated.