Some community advocates say they are pleased to hear Brookhaven officials are trying to keep the new Cross Keys High School in the city. But they also say the site selection could have benefited from more public participation.

“I think it’s great that Brookhaven is trying to get creative as it proposes different ideas to Dekalb County,” said Rebekah Morris, a former Cross Keys High School teacher and executive director of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, which works with those living in apartments complexes along the corridor. “I think this shows that the county should’ve been more transparent during the site selection process and these discussions could’ve taken place in a more collaborative and possibly more effective manner.”

The existing Cross Keys High School as seen in a Google Maps image.

Yehimi Cambron, who graduated from Cross Keys High School and now teaches there, is president of the Cross Keys Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to funding scholarships and advocating for students in the Cross Keys area.

The foundation conducted an unscientific study before the Board of Education vote asking people to say where they wanted to see the school built. That survey included members visiting Plaza Fiesta, asking people if their children attended Cross Keys High School and, if so, explaining to them the options of where to build the new high school.

Yehimi Cambron. (Special)

“A lot of the parents briefed said they prefer to keep the school near the community,” she said.

The DeKalb Board of Education voted 4-3 last month to build the relocate the new high school from Brookhaven at the old Briarcliff High School site, across I-85 from the current site at 1626 North Druid Hills Road. The Briarcliff site, a 26-acre property the district still owns, is located less than 2 miles south of Cross Keys High at 2415 North Druid Hills Road in unincorporated DeKalb County.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, City Councilmember Joe Gebbia and City Manager Christian Sigman recently met with DeKalb Schools Superintendent Stephen Green and his staff to offer financial incentives to keep the school in the city.

At the meeting the city officials presented several financial incentives, including the city purchasing unused DeKalb School property, to try to lure school officials to build the new high school on Buford Highway.

The school district has allocated nearly $85 million in ESPLOST funding for the new 2,500-seat school. It is needed to alleviate overcrowding at the current Cross Keys High.

Several apartment complex sites on Buford Highway were considered for the new Cross Keys High School and the district drew up several site plans, but determined purchasing a new site would have also been more expensive, costing $19 million to $38 million more than using the Briarcliff site. District officials said purchase costs for the candidate sites ranged from $36 million to $54 million.

The former Briarcliff High site, which would be sold by the district if it had decided to buy a different property, was appraised at $21 million, according to school officials. The Adams Stadium and parking are not included in that appraisal.

The school district determined buying an apartment complex on Buford Highway would displace between 265 and 523 students.

Marco Palma. (Special)

Los Vecinos de Buford Highway President Marco Palma, a Cross Keys High School graduate, also praised the city’s efforts and said he thinks the community would get behind an option that would allow the school to remain in Brookhaven without having to tear down apartments.

“Perhaps if the city worked on building both affordable and low-income homes, the thought of apartment homes being torn down would be more palatable,” he said.

Gebbia said the city wants to keep Cross Keys High School in the city because having a high school is a major part of Brookhaven’s identity as a city.

“I agree with the city’s acknowledgment that the high school is a big component to the culture and identity of the city and it would be nice to keep both the elementary school and high school close to the Buford Highway community,” Palma said.

“Unfortunately, as things stand now that would mean displacing students and their families and our organization has had to deal with the consequences that result from this kind of displacement first hand.”

Morris said she hoped Brookhaven officials would also work as hard as it is to keep the high school in the city to maintain affordable housing in the city.

“Until Brookhaven suggests something that addresses the two major points of concern from the school board — that it not displace students and that it is mostly cost neutral) — I don’t see how or why the school board should reconsider,” she said. “The fervor and creativity with which Brookhaven is using in order to secure the high school within their city limits also gives me a kind of hope — that they will use this kind of creativity and passion to figure out how to maintain an equal number of affordable housing units within their city.

Cambron, the Cross Keys Foundation president, agreed with Morris that there was not enough community engagement by DeKalb Schools with parents and students who attend Cross Keys High School. A 4-3 vote on such an important decision also begs for more community feedback, she said.

She said it makes sense the city would engage in conversations with the school district to keep the high school in Brookhaven.

“A huge concern for me and the Cross Keys Foundation is there wasn’t meaningful discussions with stakeholders on a location,” she said. “I was kind of surprised by the vote and how split it was. On such a big issue … everybody needs to be on the same page.”

She said students and parents were not briefed by school officials on what was happening and were not asked what was best for students. “They need to trust the validity of their narrative and their stories,” she said.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling for Yehimi Cambron. 

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