DeKalb County school officials recently decided to purchase a Doraville apartment complex so they can tear it down and build a new elementary school on the property.

“In a growing school district like DeKalb County, it is incumbent upon us to explore all options as we look to build new schools now and in the future,” DeKalb Schools Superintendent Stephen Green said in an email. “All real estate matters are discussed thoroughly, we perform our due diligence and according to board policy all matters must be approved by the Board of Education.”

The board on June 12 approved the purchase of the approximately 10-acre Shallowford Gardens apartment complex at 3630 Shallowford Road for $8.2 million. Plans are to begin construction of a new school building on the site next year, with the new 900-seat elementary school set to open in 2020.

“I literally cannot wrap my mind around how this is OK,” said Rebekah Morris, who taught English at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven and knows several students who live in the complex. She is also a founder of the Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, an organization seeking to empower apartment residents living along the corridor.

DeKalb schools says the new school is desperately needed to alleviate overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster of schools. Last year, the district approved a redistricting plan for the Cross Keys cluster that would move 1,700 students in these schools to other north DeKalb County schools. The Cross Keys cluster also is noted for many students who live along Buford Highway and do not speak English as their first language.

Morris said DeKalb Schools has “ignored” the Cross Keys cluster for years. She said that several public meetings last year that drew hundreds of attendees to discuss the redistricting process offered a way for the school district to show residents it did care about what was happening to the Cross Keys cluster.

“They held the meetings and said they cared about them and wanted to make things right … but now the plan to make things right is to send kids away,” Morris said. “I felt like this [purchase] was a slap in the face.”

In a recent blog, Morris wrote, “Before deciding to knock down your students’ homes after promising those same students and their families new facilities to address long-term neglect of the Cross Keys cluster, I think [the DeKalb school system] should have involved the public in the process, exhaustively explored other options and been able to provide clear, written and thorough explanations as to why alternative properties were not feasible.”

The new elementary school primarily will alleviate overcrowding at Dresden Elementary in Chamblee and Cary Reynolds Elementary in Doraville. The two schools have a combined 42 portable classroom units on their grounds as well as one restroom unit at each school, according to school officials.

Schools in the Cross Keys cluster are Cary Reynolds, Dresden, Montgomery Elementary School, Woodward Elementary School, Sequoyah Middle School and Cross Keys High School.

As of October 2016, there were 1,878 students attending Dresden and Cary Reynolds elementary schools with the demographic breakdown as 88 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian, 4 percent black and 1 percent white, according to school system data.

The school district is giving families living in the complex until the end of August to find a new home. DeKalb Schools and the owners of the apartment complex are offering $2,250 moving bonuses to help leaseholders who are up to date on their rent to move to a new home.

DeKalb schools spokesperson Eileen Houston-Stewart said district staff looked at properties and groups of properties in the northern area of the Cross Keys cluster in Doraville and Chamblee area.

They based their decision on several factors, including the acreage needed for an elementary school and avoiding hazards such as flood zones, aircraft pathways around DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, industrial zones and exposure to petroleum storage areas.

“Several sites were identified for review. During the processes of reviewing the possible sites, [DeKalb officials] became aware of the apartment owner’s interest in selling the property,” Houston-Stewart said. “Based on knowledge of this interest, [the school system] reached out to the owners to explore a possible sale.”

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.