DeKalb County Schools holds Q&A on 10-year facilities plan

DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County School District on Dec. 14 held a question and answer session via Zoom for its Comprehensive Master Plan.

The plan lays out the district’s strategy for accommodating shifting student population needs while addressing the fact that many of the district’s existing buildings are in disrepair.

The $1.2 billion plan includes renovations, repurposing and additions to existing facilities, as well as new construction. Among other projects, a new Cross Keys High School will be built on the existing site and an entirely new Sequoyah High School and Middle School will be constructed. A number of facilities deemed to be in poor condition will be rebuilt, including Stoneview, Idlewild and Jolly elementary schools.  $562 million of the overall cost is already funded by eSPLOST V and VI, while $670 million in projects is currently unfunded.

These new construction plans are meant to address projected overcrowding by 2030, especially for middle and high schools in the northern part of the county and for some elementary schools throughout the county. Another way that the district hopes to relieve overcrowding in middle schools is by converting some elementary schools into K-8 schools.

However, population increases are not distributed evenly. Overall enrollment has been dropping over the past five years even before the pandemic induced some families to leave the system indefinitely. A number of schools in central and south DeKalb are underused.

Director of Planning Hans Williams acknowledged that enrollment overall is on the decline, but said it was important to realize that some areas of the county were growing and that proximity to schools for students was one of the things that must be considered.

When asked how the new version of the CMP differed from previous drafts, Barbara Crum of the architecture firm Perkins & Will said that previous feedback from the public indicated that the district needed to focus on what to do about underutilized facilities as much as building new ones. For that reason, the latest version contains more plans for consolidations and for placing programs in need of space like the Flex Academy and magnet programs into underutilized facilities.

Reconfiguring school clusters and shifting school districts is another way DCSD hopes to address the overcrowding of some schools and the underutilization of others. Hightower Elementary will be moved to the Chamblee cluster, Ashford Park Elementary to Cross Keys, and some clusters in districts 3 and 5 will be consolidated.

Some commenters praised the planning process, while others felt it had been opaque and that the community had not received enough opportunity to offer feedback. Maria Damian, the chair of the Smoke Rise Elementary Parent Advisory Committee, said that the Smoke Rise PAC had requested a formal meeting with the CMP team to offer their perspective on redistricting plans.

Others questioned the assumptions that the district was operating under. “I do wish DCSD had better data to support their 950 seat elementary school model.  Are these schools actually cheaper to run? What are student outcomes at these schools versus smaller neighborhood schools? And why can DCSD never answer these questions?” asked Whitney McGuinness.

Still others were worried that promised funding for repairs at schools like Hawthorne Elementary would be further delayed as those projects have been shifted down the priority list by the new plan.

“As we said before, everyone won’t get everything, but everyone will get something,” said Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

Crum emphasized that none of the changes would happen overnight. “This is a long-term plan, ten years ahead,” she said.

Another presentation to school PACs will be given on Jan. 5, 2022. An overview of the Comprehensive Master Plan along with a video presentation given on December 8 is on the DCSD website.

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