Overcrowding at several DeKalb County schools in Dunwoody continues to anger some parents and frustrate city officials as they watch more portable classrooms, or trailers, being planted on campus grounds to house students and teachers no longer able to fit into the main school buildings.
DeKalb County School District officials say they are handling the overcrowding, which is focused in the northern area of the county, as best as they can with funding from education special local option sales tax dollars, or ESPLOST. Adding trailers is currently the most cost-effective and efficient way, according to district administrators.
But construction costs are increasing significantly in the current economy, they say, and not all projects originally planned can be funded by the approximately $561 million ESPLOST approved by voters in 2016. District officials say ESPLOST projects are estimated to cost $95 million more than the current budget.
Administrators are now proposing the Board of Education approve placing a referendum on the March 2020 ballot for a general obligation bond issuance of up to $250 million. If voters approve the general obligation bond, the money could be used to complete all the current ESPLOST projects and build a new 950-seat elementary school to serve the Dunwoody and Chamblee clusters.
Otherwise, cutting projects is now on the table, with public input meetings set to happen in August and September to go over those options.
But some members of the community and the City Council say the addition of trailers at such local schools as Dunwoody High, Peachtree Charter Middle and Dunwoody Elementary is not a long-term solution. Some trailers have been at the schools for nearly 10 years.
“I implore you to come up with out-of-the box solutions,” City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch told DeKalb Schools administrators Dan Drake and Richard Boyd at the July 22 City Council meeting.
“Trailers are the last resort, not the first resort … This time next year we can’t be having this same discussion,” she added.
Dunwoody and DeKalb Schools have been locked in a years-long war over school overcrowding and trailers. Tempers have flared in recent years after the school district added trailers to Dunwoody High School, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood and at a visible intersection on Mount Vernon and Vermack roads.
The council requested Drake and Boyd’s appearance following community uproar against the addition of two portable units, for a total of eight classrooms, at the high school over the Fourth of July holiday week that city officials said they were unaware was going to happen. A stop-work order was issued by the city because DeKalb Schools was building the trailers without the proper permit; construction started back up a day later after the proper permit was obtained.
DHS is located on a 29-acre campus and its main building was constructed to house a maximum of 1,509 students. Last year, enrollment was 2,098. DeKalb Schools predicts enrollment at DHS to 2,348 students by the 2021 school year, 2,311 students by 2023 and 2,363 students by 2024.
This year, DHS is dismissing students 10 minutes later, at 3:20 p.m., to allow for more transition time between the new trailers and the farthest point in the school, according to a letter from Principal Priscilla Cole.
More trailers are expected to be added to DHS next year, Drake said.
“If you haven’t picked up anything else … you’re in Dunwoody and here we believe the overcrowding and quality of facilities is a top priority for our community,” Councilmember Terry Nall told Drake and Boyd at the council meeting.
DeKalb Schools Board of Education member Stan Jester, a Dunwoody resident who represents the city on the board, attended the July 22 council meeting. He was asked by Deutsch if the board could discuss other ways to address overcrowding in north DeKalb other than adding trailers.
Jester said the majority of the board is “looking for equity” and opposes finding different solutions for various parts of the county. He added that he does not see any answer to overcrowding at Dunwoody schools other than redistricting.
In an interview, Jester said there are some 6,000 empty seats in high schools in south DeKalb. One reason for low school attendance in south DeKalb, he said, is due to a lack of jobs and opportunities. But he believes the Board of Education should consider what he calls countywide “cascade redistricting” to enroll students in schools closer to where they live.
“I’m not talking about busing students,” he said. “Smart redistricting means kids go to schools that are closest to them.”
DeKalb Schools does have some redistricting plans in motion. This fall, a redistricting process is expected to begin to address overcrowding at elementary schools in Dunwoody, Chamblee, Lakeside and Cross Keys clusters. The new 900-seat Austin Elementary School scheduled to open in January is providing a net increase of approximately 350 elementary school seats for the Dunwoody cluster, according to DeKalb Schools.
After this fall, the school district will begin the redistricting planning for a 41-classroom addition at DHS, an 18-classroom addition at Peachtree Charter Middle School and additions at Chamblee and Lakeside high schools as well as the new Cross Keys High School and conversion of the existing Cross Keys High School into a middle school.
The redistricting for these schools will be one year prior to the planned addition openings, according to DeKalb Schools.
DHS’s 41-classroom addition is budgeted at $27.2 million of current ESPLOST money, up from an original $17.2 million. The money would cover the addition, expanding spaces such as the cafeteria and paving over a retention pond to make room for much needed parking. The project is tentatively scheduled to be completed by 2022, but Drake acknowledged at the July 22 council meeting that date is likely to change.
In a May 15 letter to Jester from the DHS Principal Advisory Council and Construction Advisory Committee, members asked Jester to support the planned 41-classroom expansion while at the same time consider other long-term solutions. They described in the letter the addition “will provide much needed relief in the relatively near future and is not an option but a necessity.”
Jester said he was “confused” by their request and in an email response did not state he would support the addition. Rather, he asked the members to define how the addition would address other consequences of overcrowding, such as lack of space for student-athletes to train and no drama or chorus rooms.