One of the biggest complaints levied against DeKalb Schools is that its facilities are in poor shape. But why is that?

According to a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution interview with DCSD Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green, it would cost almost $2 billion to make all the necessary repairs to DeKalb School’s facilities. Not only is that number huge, but it is also likely higher than necessary due to years of neglect and mismanagement by past administrations.

I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about DeKalb Schools and one of the questions I have continued to be plagued by is this: Why are the facilities in DeKalb in a state of such disrepair, especially compared to other Metro Atlanta school districts?

I began to look at the traditional arguments: “Other districts have more money to invest in their schools,” “That district’s buildings are newer,” “Those districts have wealthier students,” or “Those districts spend more money per student.”

I’m not entirely convinced that those answers explain why DeKalb’s buildings suffer more than other districts.

Below you will see revenues and expenditures from 2017-2018 for five large Metro Atlanta districts. While a more in-depth, statistical analysis would reveal additional insights, one obvious fact stood out to me: DeKalb County has a significantly greater school to student ratio than other Metro Atlanta school districts (i.e. we have smaller schools with fewer students). (Source: Georgia Department of Education)

For example, in Gwinnett, there are 143 schools for 182,500 students and in Cobb there are 112 schools for 113,000 students, while in DeKalb there are 139 schools for 101,800 students.

Here you can see how much the school districts take in at state (“State Revenues”), local (“Local Revenues”), and federal (“Federal Revenues”) levels.

Revenues

revenues

In this Expenditures chart, you can see how much each district spends on Instruction, Pupil Services, Staff Services, General Administration, School Administration, Transportation, and Maintenance/Operations. The final “Per FTE Total Expenditure” is the total amount each district spends on each student.

Expenditures

expenditures

These revenues and expenditures do not include eSPLOSTs, which are another interesting point to consider. Gwinnett County’s most recent eSPLOST resulted in $927 million in revenue for capital improvements, while DeKalb’s SPLOST V resulted in $500 million in revenue. DeKalb has as many schools as Gwinnett, but it has $427 million less to spend on the current schools and on the construction of new schools.

School Consolidation?

I am not suggesting that DeKalb Schools should close some of its school buildings, but one must acknowledge that maintaining a greater number of smaller schools presents challenges. Meeting and overcoming this challenge will require careful planning going forward.

After teaching in both DeKalb and Gwinnett, the difference in quality of facilities is truly shocking. DeKalb has almost as many school buildings (and all the costs that accompany a school building, like principals, custodians, lunchrooms, etc.) as Gwinnett but it has almost 50% fewer students in their school district.

Cobb County School District has 20 fewer schools than DeKalb yet it has 13,000 more students. While smaller schools are somewhat cheaper to operate and maintain, larger schools are still cheaper to operate and maintain on a per capita basis. For example, performing arts spaces, athletic fields, certain administrative functions, etc., are needed and cost similar amounts at all schools regardless of size.

What DeKalb – and other school districts in similar situations – need to do to avoid closing schools is to dramatically improve the way it does school maintenance. I believe this can be done, but it will take intentionality and careful planning.

At a recent board meeting in DeKalb County, board members criticized the lack of responsiveness from the outsourced maintenance company the school district had contracted to maintain the grounds and the exterior of the buildings.

In order to address these concerns, we could consider the following changes:

  1. craft contracts that will hold maintenance personnel accountable for the completion of work orders (by imposing penalties), and
  2. employ multiple companies to provide maintenance and repairs to school buildings.

For example, the contract could state that the “repair must be made within 7 days or a late penalty will be deducted from the monthly payment to the company.” The contract could also provide bonuses for especially quick work order processing.

Additionally, by employing multiple companies, DCSD could switch between companies depending on who is completing certain types of work orders more expeditiously. They could also terminate contracts with companies that continuously underperform, while still maintaining contracts with other companies – thereby ensuring that there are no gaps in completing maintenance and repair requests because they can still be fulfilled by one of the companies employed by the district.

And I’m not writing this blog post to simply point out flaws and possible solutions – I’m writing this because kids – including my own – deserve well-maintained facilities. Not that a study was probably necessary, but a new study showed that students performed worse on tests due to overheated classrooms. The study also revealed that black and brown students were more likely to be affected by these kinds of issues.

When I taught for two years in DeKalb, I spent months without air conditioning in my classroom. And this was not unique to me – this was something that was happening in many classrooms and schools across the county. Our students deserve to have an incredible, world-class education and perhaps part of the achievement gap can be explained by a lack of adequately maintained facilities.

Looking Forward: eSPLOST VI

As DeKalb begins to look forward to the idea of eSPLOST VI, decision-makers (i.e. planning department, school board) need to prioritize funding for capital improvements based on legitimate facility needs assessments and other unbiased metrics. Yes, it would be wonderful if every school had a natatorium or astro-turf field. But until we finish taking care of past neglect from a myriad of causes, I believe we need to make sure every leaky roof, every broken air conditioning unit, every – literally – broken window needs to be repaired and consistently maintained before we begin to spend eSPLOST money on the “nice-to-haves.”

This sounds repetitive, but if board members and county staff want to benefit all students in their school districts, they must make decisions that broadly benefit all students focuses on the maintenance needs before splurging on extras.

I know that talking about “maintenance” is not sexy. It’s much more exciting to talk about bringing new schools online, but as this awesome Freakonomics podcast points out, we may have become too obsessed with innovation that it’s “led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of.”

As spend money, we need to be sure to spend where the need is regardless of where it is in the county or whose board district it is in.

As we consider the maintenance concerns that seemingly overwhelm our county, let us prioritize the spending of our time and energy on the needs that exist – and there are many. In order to see our school district flourish and succeed, we are going to have to stop seeing ourselves as “the North” or “the South” but as one school district.

Fulton County Schools:

7,500 teachers/11,500 employees, 105 schools, 96,700 students

DeKalb County School District:

6,000 teachers/11,000 employees, 137 schools, 101,000 students

Atlanta Public Schools:

3860 teachers/6,000 employees, 89 schools, 51,000 students

Cobb County Schools:

7280 teachers/18,000 employees, 112 schools, 113,000 students

Gwinnett County Public Schools:

11,000 teachers/22,000 employees, 143 schools, 180,000 students