By Jason Massad
Chamblee Charter High School, one of the best performing high schools in the DeKalb County School system, could be rebuilt if the DeKalb school board agrees to finance the project with federal bonds.
The board recently voted to accept $58 million in low-interest or no-interest bonds from a federal program aimed at revamping facilities in large school districts across the nation.
Chamblee Charter High School, located at 3688 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, has banked away $11.2 million from an ongoing local-option-sales-tax, but hasn’t spent money to improve a campus that parents complain suffers from mold problems, chronically overcrowded hallways and rat infestations.
The reason: A few million isn’t enough to make much of a dent in the problem. Adding $58 million to the funds would be enough to completely rebuild the campus, the school district’s top financial officer said.
Several members of the Board of Education, meanwhile, said they are leaning toward allocating the federal bond proceeds to Chamblee High School – one of the most desirable high schools in the district for students looking to transfer from its poorly performing schools.
“I think the support is good. I think the board is committed to doing something for Chamblee,” said Jim Redovian, who represents District 1, where Chamblee is located. “Our building division will give us a list of priorities in order of what they think is important. Chamblee is one of the most important in the system.”
At the beginning of the school year, hundreds of students that were scheduled to attend poorly performing schools requested a transfer to Chamblee High School. The school – which was already at capacity – has added an annex in Stone Mountain 17 miles away.
Eugene Walker, an at-large board member, said that it’s important that academic ratings be raised across the school district so that students can stay in their resident schools. However, under the No Child Left Behind Act, students have a right to request a transfer from poorly performing schools to places like Chamblee High School, which is hitting its federal targets.
“Now, I’m speaking for myself, but that’s what I’m committed to and I stand by that. We need to do what’s best for the system. Chamblee is one of our premier schools,” Walker said. “Another goal is to bring other schools up to snuff so [students] can stay in their own facilities.”
Donald McChesney, who represents District 2, covering the North Druid Hills area, was more reserved about putting his support behind Chamblee High School. He acknowledged the needs of the more than 90-year old school, but said pressing needs exist across the district’s 140 schools and education centers.
“We have $2 billion of building needs in the county and $500 million to fix it,” he said. “You can see that’s 25 cents on the dollar. Yet everyone in their community says, ‘My school needs it more than someone else’s school.’ You can see the dilemma the board has.”
Thomas Bowen, chairman of the board and the District 6 representative, said that the federal bond program could be ideal for the traditional financing of a new school. Unlike the local-option-sales-tax, which pays for voter-approved projects across the district, the issuance of bonds is suited to a specific project that has specific collateral and security for bondholders.
“That’s why it seems ideal for this type of financing,” he said. “It’s not like they are competing for nickel-and-dime repairs. They are competing with schools like them, and they are arguably at the top of the list.”
The board has yet to schedule a meeting to decide how to allocate the bonds. The meeting is anticipated to be scheduled sometime in November.
Marcus Turk, the district’s chief financial officer, said the bonds will be low-interest or no-interest based on when the bonds are sold and the financial health of the school district.
Once the bonds are sold, the district will be reimbursed the interest owed on them – up to a certain point – or a tax credit will be issued to investors.
Collette McDonald, a local real estate agent, said she is concerned about the fate of Chamblee High School because her young children attend the public school system and because of the impact a rebuilt Chamblee High would have on the Brookhaven real estate market. But she remains cautious.
“[The possibility] is exciting and I think everyone feels that way,” she said. “We’re hesitantly excited. We’ve been promised money in the past and it hasn’t come.”