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Could proposed DeKalb County relocation provide space for Decatur schools?

Annexation, new cities Decatur Metro ATL

Could proposed DeKalb County relocation provide space for Decatur schools?

The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

There are many unanswered questions about DeKalb County CEO Lee May’s proposal of moving the county’s administrative offices out of Decatur to Memorial Drive.

But one question immediately rises to the surface. What happens with the property left behind? Could it be used to help with Decatur’s rapidly expanding school system? Or would it be developed as another commercial property?

Mayor Jim Baskett said there are benefits to both approaches.

“I guess there are some possibilities there and that would have to be something you would have to discuss with the school board, or the school superintendent,” Baskett told Decaturish. “It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, yeah there would be employees moving out of the city, true. But at the same time we’d be moving properties that are presently not on the tax rolls onto the tax rolls and with Decatur having as much property off the tax rolls as it does, that can never be considered a thoroughly bad thing.”

School Board member Julie Rhame said she isn’t sure the county administrative buildings, and the lots they occupy, are big enough for another school. She said when news broke last week, she drove around the property to give it a closer look.

“It’s not big enough for a school space, like for an elementary,” Rhame said. “It doesn’t look like it to me, because you have to have so much acreage for green space.”

But she wasn’t opposed to studying the idea further.

“It’s certainly worth exploring, absolutely,” she said.

School leaders are feeling the pressure already. The Board of Education recently gave its endorsement of an annexation master plan that board members hope will yield space for a new school. The Decatur schools system’s current enrollment is around 4,300 students. A consultant’s report on enrollment estimates that the city’s school system will grow to 7,398 students by 2020 without annexation in a high-growth scenario. Annexation will add an additional 747 students to the city’s borders. Decatur is currently pursuing an expansion of its high school and middle school. The cost of completing both plans would be more than $90 million.

As the city’s school system grows, it will be hard-pressed to find room for its student population without expanding its borders.

But annexation is no guarantee. There aren’t any bills being considered, and even if a bill is introduced and passes, it still needs the approval of voters in the proposed annexation area. Without annexation, CSD may be forced to reassess current uses of its buildings. One idea is turning College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center and turning it into a K-3 school. Another option is doing an addition to Glennwood Elementary and turning that addition into a CSD’s fourth and fifth grade academy, which would free up the 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue School building.

So the CEO’s proposal, vague as it may be, raises some intriguing possibilities for the school system. It could also be a prime piece of real estate to develop into a commercial area for the benefit of Decatur’s tax base. The city’s current residential to commercial ratio is 86 percent to 14 percent. New cities being proposed in DeKalb County are starting with a 30 percent commercial tax base.

Former Decatur mayor Bill Floyd, who attended May’s State of the County Speech, said he’s not even sure the county can legally move its administrative offices because the county seat must remain in Decatur.

Floyd said City Schools of Decatur may not sustainable over the long term as a smaller system, saying that “economies of scale” favor a larger student population.

“The biggest challenge fiscally that the city faces is in the schools and the reason that’s a challenge is because they’re expensive,” he said.