Plans to augment the size of the overcrowded Dunwoody High School have been stepped up and the budget for its construction has been raised, but DeKalb County Schools officials say the need for a voter-approved general obligation fund to cover a $95 million increase in construction costs throughout the school system is necessary to ensure all projects can be completed.
“Dunwoody is the only school with a major addition whose long-term enrollment forecast increased since 2015 [to] ’16. To accommodate this, the addition will need to be larger and the project will be fully funded,”,” said Hans Williams, the district’s planning director, at the Aug. 27 meeting held at Chamblee Charter High School.
The meeting was one of several being held by the school district to receive input from the public on proposals related to the education special purpose local option sales tax (ESPLOST) and its budget issues.
The process for the meeting began with a presentation from administrators about ESPLOST and the budget with no questions taken from the public. After the presentation, attendees broke out into small groups in classrooms where they could discuss what they heard and try to get more information.
Some city officials said these kinds of meetings are not very helpful, however, and lead to more confusion and questions from the public.
“They spend a half-hour on an overview that is light on specifics and then ask people to answer questions with details they don’t have,” said Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch, who attended the meeting and is running for mayor.
“Very often [the district] is pretending to seek opinions and input,” she added.
Dunwoody Councilmember Terry Nall also attended the meeting and is also running for mayor. He said breaking out into small groups limited attendees’ ability to hear feedback from those in other classrooms.
He said school administrators also made the meeting confusing by tossing out a lot of numbers at one time.
“This made it very confusing and the failure to take questions from the audience resulted in no clarifications,” he said.
Voters approve a new ESPLOST referendum every five years, which brings in about $500 million each time, creating a cycle in which planning for a project takes place more than a year in advance of any revenue coming in and several years before any major construction can begin, Williams explained at the meeting.
“We are now in ESPLOST V, the fifth cycle since the program began. Since 1997 it has paid for minor improvements and major fixes,” Williams said.
Due to Dunwoody’s high enrollment numbers, the high school’s addition, originally slated to cost $17.7 million, now stands at an estimated $28 million, and completion is set for 2022.
Enrollment elsewhere in the area is declining, however, and that is harming progress in general, Williams said.
“The decline in district enrollments since 2015 means it is now harder to meet the state’s standard of need for building additional classrooms,” Williams said.
Another problem is the rising cost of construction.
“The primary driver is that industry wide construction costs have increased 15 to 20%in just the past few years,” Williams said.
The shrinking available labor pool is a factor as well. Unemployment is below 4%, which drives up labor prices.
“And the price of all construction materials has risen substantially,” Williams added. “This is especially true of steel, aluminum and other materials affected by US-imposed tariffs in 2018 and 2019 with further tariffs under discussion. It has resulted in an $82 million increase in estimated ESPLOST V construction costs.”
Williams said higher expenditures are “driven also by more stringent requirements for retro-fitting fire sprinklers into existing buildings, requiring additional work at significantly greater cost than originally planned for.”
The estimated cost of ESPLOST V projects is $95 million more than the current budget. Despite this, the DeKalb County School District still has millions of dollars of needs for capital improvement. At the same time, while revenues from sales tax receipts are coming in better than expected, some of the revenue into ESPLOST V from state capitol reimbursements is now uncertain.
Options in three parts were introduced at the Aug. 27 meeting to alleviate the situation and find solutions. Option one involves balancing of the ESPLOST V budget to $561 million by removing projects, reducing the scope of projects or increasing project budgets.
Option two suggests a referendum to approve a general obligation (“GO”) bond issue in the range of $222 Million to $265 million to complete the current ESPLOST program and any other proposed projects.
Option three would be implemented if the GO bond passed. “If there is a GO bond referendum and it’s approved by voters, step three is to adjust the ESPLOST V program to account for schools being rebuilt and therefore no longer needing renovations,” Williams said.
“An alternative idea, just for discussion and not part of the three-step proposal, is to move the charter program at Chamblee High School to Cross Keys,” he added. “This would eliminate the need for any further addition at Chamblee, freeing up $21.5 million. Some of that would be used to increase the size at Cross Keys to accommodate the program.”
More information on the proposals and a public input survey can be found at dekalbschoolsga.org/e-splost/e-splost-and-go-bond-2019. The survey will close Sept. 15.
–Kevin C. Madigan and Dyana Bagby