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Decatur considers leasing space from other school systems

Annexation, new cities Avondale Estates Decatur Kirkwood and East Lake Metro ATL

Decatur considers leasing space from other school systems

City Schools of Decatur Board of Education during its July 8 meeting. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
City Schools of Decatur Board of Education during its July 8 meeting. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

City Schools of Decatur Board of Education during its July 8 meeting. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Superintendent Phyllis Edwards knows City Schools of Decatur is running out of room.

One of her ideas for creating more space is leasing it from neighboring school districts.

Edwards recently told Decaturish that she has reached out to Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools to ask if they have any school buildings nearby that they aren’t using.

“I’m talking to (DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond), ” Edwards said. “I’m asking him, ‘Do you have any properties you’re not going to be using? I’m also going to the Atlanta superintendent.”

While adding on to existing schools or building a new one would be a more obvious solution for most systems, Decatur is landlocked. One of the goals of a recent annexation master plan approved by the Decatur City Commission is providing space for the school system to grow. It could increase Decatur’s size from 4.2 square miles to 5.2 square miles. It would also add between 4,000 and 5,000 people to Decatur’s population, currently about 20,000 residents.

But a recent consultant’s report found that the majority of the school system’s growth will come from within the city’s current borders.  The 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.

The system is adding about 400 children each year, Edwards said.

CSD’s recent budget draft also shows signs of the amount of strain the growth is placing on the school system. The budget is a $4 million increase over the current budget. The bulk of that expense will be $1.9 million to hire about 25 more teachers. The school system will also spend $850,000 on portables to hold students during construction and ease crowding at schools. Edwards said there will be 10 portables at Renfroe and six to eight at the High School and another six spread across the city’s elementary schools.

Last month the School Board held a closed door executive session concerning real estate matters. While the specific topic could not be disclosed, CSD’s space issues are no secret.

“I’m having to be as creative as I can possibly be,” Edwards said.

One possibility she has explored is leasing the former East Lake Elementary building on 4th Avenue, about 1 mile from Oakhurst Elementary. That school closed due to redistricting by Atlanta Public Schools and was merged with Toomer Elementary in Kirkwood.

APS spokesperson Kimberly Willis Green sent over a spreadsheet showing that APS has about 14 vacant buildings, some of which are up for sale. East Lake isn’t on the list because it is being used for administrative purposes, Green said.

“Atlanta Public Schools is open to having a conversation with City of Decatur Schools about leasing empty buildings,” she said.

Quinn Hudson, spokesperson for DeKalb County Schools, did not respond to a direct question about whether DeKalb County Schools officials had spoken to Decatur officials about leasing space or whether it was something the DeKalb school system would consider. He instead treated the question as an Open Records Request – we didn’t file one – and sent two links to relevant school system policies on the subject.

Edwards said there are other alternatives if the rental idea doesn’t pan out, but they probably won’t be popular.

One idea is implementing split shifts, meaning that the system will educate one group of students in the morning and another group in the afternoon. The system could also add even more portables. Or it could explore becoming a year-round school system where a portion of the student body is out of school at any given time during the year.

The bottom line is that enrollment won’t slow down, even without annexation. An enrollment report attached to the agenda for the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting shows that the system is at 99.3 percent of its projected enrollment of 4,364 students.