By Jody Steinberg

Cross Keys High School has waited for its time in the spotlight, and the Brookhaven school is ready for the DeKalb County School System’s chief operating officer, Pat Pope, to say, “You’re next. This time we mean it.”

The renovation of Cross Keys was due to be completed this year. But in spite of safety and sanitary issues and general disrepair, the start of the work has been delayed to mid-2009, with completion expected in late 2010.

The project originally was budgeted for $16.7 million, but only $11 million seems to be earmarked for construction. And every penny will be needed to get the school into shape.

The school has the run-down look and problems that come from age, use and neglect. The walls behind the gym stage are separating so much that daylight shines through from floor to ceiling. Floors are cracked and decaying. Windows are painted shut. The band room, which often floods, is infested with bugs, stinks of mildew and requires special vents to dissipate moisture. Toilets and sinks don’t work, walls and mirrors are broken, electrical outlets are uncovered, and the gym mezzanine is unusable because of a hole in the floor.

The sprawling campus isn’t fenced, and during a reporter’s recent visit, an unidentified man was assumed to be wandering the campus after appearing at a kitchen door, looking for handouts.

While the school system’s Web site (www.dekalb.k12.ga.us) touts “before and after” photos of heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) renovations in schools, they don’t reflect conditions at Cross Keys, where the contractor quit during the demolition stage. After the botched replacement under SPLOST II at an undisclosed cost, a patchwork system was reinstalled. Now teachers must reach into exposed ceiling tiles in the hall to adjust the fans; temperature controls vary depending on how many pipes have holes gnawed by rates or cracks from age.

The new HVAC system will take a $3.5 million bite out of the renovation budget, according to 2006 projections.

During construction, Cross Keys will merge with DeKalb High School of Technology North (HSTN), an arrangement proposed by the two schools’ faculty. The merger will bring up to 10 technical and vocational programs to Cross Keys, including dental assisting, health science, construction and automotive.

But the additional space requirements and room repurposing were not part of the original renovation budget, and Pope has not clarified how much more money will be allocated for the vocational classrooms.

Social Studies teacher and Organization of DeKalb Educators representative Jeff Bragg continually requests the updated plans and budget from the school system, but teachers have seen only plans for the fourth wing, which will more than double in size to accommodate technology classrooms. Pope assured teachers weeks ago that the renovation plans would be brought to the school and invited their input.

“I’m really tired of them asking for our input because we’ve given it to them — twice,” said ESOL teacher Laina Valentine, who teamed with colleagues from each department to submit ideas for “areas of the building that are in dire need of renovation.”

Pope did not return repeated requests for comment.

Bragg is concerned that the budget is not big enough for both the renovation and the HSTN relocation. He noted the disproportionate budgets for renovations and additions at other high schools, including a showcase $5 million-plus addition at Columbia High.

“Sometimes it looks like all they’re going to do is slap on a coat of pain and call it a renovation. It’s in no way equal to all they’ve done in other schools, and that’s part and parcel of what we see in discriminating against predominantly minority students,” Bragg said, referring to the significant immigrant population at Cross Keys. “We’ve been an orphaned school for decades.”

But the school community holds out hope amid the frustration.

“We got excited when they came last week and marked the ground for utilities,” Bragg said. “Then we reminded everyone that this is the third time we’ve seen that happen.”