DeKalb, metro school buildings need thousands of fixes

A clutter of garbage cans sit in a hallway at DeKalb School of the Arts. Above, ceiling tiles have been removed to let water fall freely from a leaking HVAC system.

The school year just started, and many issues — no air conditioning, leaks throughout buildings, crumbling ceiling tiles and filthy carpet — among those to be addressed by the DeKalb County School District are holdovers from previous years.

“The average age of a (DeKalb County School District) school campus is more than 40 years old, so our maintenance demands are significant,” district officials said Friday.

Metro Atlanta school districts are contending with thousands of facilities maintenance requests that have gone months — in some cases, years — without being addressed. Some districts are working aggressively to address the problems as recent studies show adverse working conditions can directly impact student achievement.

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Two of Lisa Harris’ children attend Chamblee Charter High School, a DeKalb County School District school. Teachers there have reported not having air conditioning in their classrooms.

“If there’s facilities problems, be it with infrastructure or basic needs, then that’s one of those areas that can and should be immediately remedied,” she said. “It doesn’t require a long-term investment, just that things are working efficiently.”

DeKalb County School District outsources some of its maintenance work to outside vendors, and officials said previously that was done to get more of the requests tackled. DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said it hasn’t helped. She voted against renewing an outside vendor’s contract during the board’s August meeting.

“I don’t see where it’s helping,” she said. “Unless they have a stake in the game, they seem to be less entrenched. There’s no pride in it for them. It’s a matter of being vested and invested, and seeing it as less than a means to an end and something that has to be done for our children.”

Morley said she told Superintendent Steve Green about cracked driveways and walkways outside Stoneview Elementary School in Lithonia. Some of the pavement was redone after she brought it up. Recently, she brought up conditions at the counseling center at Redan Middle School, where carpet is dirty and pulled up in some places.

“There are various reasons a roof or ceiling may leak,” DeKalb Schools spokesman Andre Riley said last week via email. “This includes excessive rain, condensation, a malfunctioning plumbing assembly, or simple wear and tear.”

About $100 million has been earmarked for building fixtures through the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) to replace heating and cooling, electrical, plumbing and other major systems, the district said.

The district’s computerized maintenance management system prioritizes issues across the district. Officials said heating and cooling issues are prioritized according to the scope of their impact, from one classroom all the way up to the entire school.

In July, when asked about the various states of disrepair at district buildings, Superintendent Steve Green said it would take about $2 billion to fix all facilities problems. The district had 23,870 maintenance requests during the 2017-2018 school year. Currently, there are 3,733 outstanding, including those added this year.

Gwinnett County Public Schools officials have said they intend to use funds previously lost to austerity cuts to aggressively address maintenance issues in schools. Officials did not answer a request seeking information about the number of outstanding requests.

Cobb County Schools officials said they are not seeing an irregular number of maintenance requests, but did not detail the number or type of facilities issues being addressed.

“Our facilities are in good condition and are ready for children to learn and teachers to teach,” the district said via email.

Research shows building conditions can affect student outcomes. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that student test scores can be directly impacted by schoolhouse room temperatures. Researchers studied temperature impacts on about 10 million PSAT test-takers, and discovered the hotter the room, the lower students scored. The conditions affected black and Hispanic students as much as three times more, the study pointed out.

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley began a concerted effort in the spring after conversations with student and community advisory groups to address conditions at several Clayton schools, district spokeswoman Jada Dawkins said Friday. The district has 1,900 current maintenance requests after fulfilling nearly 10,000 since the spring.

“He spent a lot of time with the leaders over the summer, making sure to budget for switching out old HVAC systems and not just putting a Band-Aid on an issue,” she said. “It was an exhaustive effort to go to those schools and make sure things were being replaced and other minor issues were being addressed.”

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