District 1 DeKalb Board of Education member Nancy Jester discusses proposed cuts to school projects in her district during a March 8 DeKalb BOE meeting

DeKalb’s Board of Education has a big decision to make in a short amount of time on cutting millions slated for school projects so Chamblee Charter High School can be rebuilt.

The clock is ticking, according to Dan Drake, director of planning and forecasting for DeKalb Schools. If the Chamblee project isn’t started soon, the system risks losing federal money used to pay for the project, he told school board members at a March 8 meeting.

At stake for Dunwoody is $1.1 million to finish projects at Dunwoody High School and $250,000 to build a track at Peachtree Charter Middle School.  School officials originally intended to pay for these projects using sales tax money, but have recently discovered a $36.5 million shortfall in the account.

That number is revised from the $41 million figure given to school board members on Feb. 29. Drake says school finance officials were able to locate an additional $4.83 million to help make up the difference.

Much of the discussion was about Chamblee and Dunwoody high schools. The board deferred a vote on the project list to March 12.  School finance officials first discovered the shortfall when they realized the Chamblee project would cost $10 million more than anticipated. The rebuild, which hasn’t started, will now cost $78 million. Further investigation revealed a bigger problem.

The school board borrowed $300 million in bonds to pay for projects funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST. For reasons that haven’t been explained, the school system did not budget for the interest on the bond payments. Much of the shortfall consists of $21 million in borrowing costs.

DeKalb County Board of Education members listen during a March 8 meeting about cuts to a list of projects funded by sales tax money. From left to right; Board Chairman Eugene Walker; Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson; and BOE Secretary Margaret Francois

The cuts would come from the SPLOST III project list. Voters in November approved SPLOST IV, but none of that money will go toward unfinished SPLOST III projects.

DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who is new on the job and was not present when the sales tax-funded project list was approved, assured board members that school employees are on top of the system’s finances.

“We went back and we checked every single account known to anybody at this district,” Atkinson said. “I personally asked the former CFO, ‘Was there anything that we might not be aware of?’ We think we have a really solid handle of what we have.”

School board members praised Atkinson for bringing the problem to their attention.

District 1 Board of Education member Nancy Jester said she can’t support the list until she has answers to her questions. Jester wants to know if some of the unfinished work at Dunwoody High School was leftover from the original renovation, asking if the contractor had finished the job. In Dunwoody High’s case, the $1.1 million is leftover from the $21 million the school received for renovations.

Jester said if the board approves the list, she might not have any leverage to get the contractor for the Dunwoody High job to come back and tie up any loose ends.

“If I pull the trigger on that, good luck to the stuff that needs to get done there, half of which is on the contractor,” Jester said. “It’s not fair to a community that came in on a project under budget. I just don’t agree with it.”

Other board members also chimed in, saying work at their schools wasn’t finished properly.

“We’ve been dealing with quality of schools for a long time,” said District 5 board member Jay Cunningham. “We’ve got new schools, but they ain’t worth a crap when it comes to quality.”

Caren Morrison and Donna Nall, co-presidents of the Dunwoody High School Council, said they think the issue has less to do with the contractor for their school’s project and more about the competence of school staff.

“We are suffering from a level of incompetency in putting bids together, when you have things omitted because they’re not written into the contract,” Nall said.

In this video, District 1 DeKalb County Board of Education member Nancy Jester discusses her concerns with the list of cuts from the SPLOST III project list.