By Jody Steinberg

“This time, we mean it. The renovation will begin soon.”

That seemed to be the message last week when the DeKalb County School System Capital Improvement Plan office held a construction update in the packed Cross Keys High School media center.

Close to 100 teachers, parents, community members and students – an unprecedented turnout – attended the show-and-tell, the most informative one to date. Those in attendance voiced their concerns, doubts and hopes for the overdue renovations and expansion to accommodate classes from High School Technology North.

DCSS operations staff, including Barbara Colman, the newly appointed Interim CIP Operations Officer, and project manager Andreas Peeples, seemed intent on getting the crowd to rally around the project, displaying architectural drawings and discussing the construction schedule.

The first phase begins with the fourth wing, which will be expanded to nine classrooms and labs, including two art rooms and oversized technology classrooms. Construction will continue one wing at a time: windows, doors, ceiling, HVAC systems, lights and white boards will be replaced, bathrooms upgraded and new paint throughout. The floors, which are cracked and chipped in many places, will be polished. Renderings also show an enlarged entrance and reception area.

Setbacks, mishaps

Cross Keys’ renovation plans, which at one point called for a completely new school, have been part of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan for years.

But numerous setbacks and mishaps have left the community frustrated and disbelieving: construction for a new HVAC system was abruptly halted when the contractor walked off the job; two architects and a construction firm quit; and construction scheduled to start in June is still in limbo.

Not only have these problems lowered expectations, they have cut into the $20 million allocated for the current renovation and merger.

“When Cross Keys first went on the list for renovation, our seniors were in fourth grade,” said Social Studies teacher Jeff Bragg, who has advocated for the school improvements and asbestos abatement for years. “Sadly, they’re not going to get to enjoy the progress. We expected to come back in August and have so much done, yet hardly anything has been done. What has been the delay?”

Permits, answered Colman. In spite of the fact that the CIP office requests dozens of building and disturbance permits each year, the permits for Cross Keys construction have, ironically, been delayed for a variety of reasons. One last permit stands in the way of construction, she added.

Students speak up

Student after student called DeKalb County Schools to task, questioning the current safety of the building and voicing frustration with spending their days in a crumbling building, enduring mold and roof leaks, an unsecured soccer field and broken promises.

“Why were we so overlooked? Are we not that important? There have been a lot of delays, but weren’t we at the top of the list [for construction]?” asked senior Henry Clabson, echoing concerns expressed by his peers, teachers and parents.

Meeting moderator Elizabeth Heckman, Area Assistant Superintendent, allowed the one-hour meeting to last almost two, giving voice to dozens of questions and complaints, responding frankly and deferring to colleagues for concrete answers as necessary.

“I hear the skepticism,” DCSS board member Don McChesney said, as discussion digressed from current plans to old frustrations. “This time it’s going to happen. You’ll actually see mortar, bricks and dirt. I think you’re going to like it.”

Their interest roused, people lingered after the meeting to study the renderings, meet Colman and talk with project staff, who discussed construction plans as if they are truly imminent. However, not everyone left convinced that change is in the air.

After so many years of what they perceive as broken promises, seniors Eric Nguyen and Ana Chavez remain skeptical that they will see much change before they graduate.

“I think it will get done,” said Nguyen, “but not in the time frame they promised.”