Sunday Morning Meditation – Checkmate
This story has been updated.
Somewhere along the way, our country gave up on education.
I don’t mean people stopped caring about it. There are people who have made careers out of caring about it.
But to date, no one seems to have gotten anything meaningful done about it, aside from making some schools better while failing others. We keep changing the educational models, even keeping the ones that aren’t proven to be effective across the board. We mix and match. We have traditional schools, and arts schools and charter schools.
The point of all this juxtaposition is giving parents a choice in the way their children are educated. The problem is that it isn’t a choice that’s available to everyone. Whether it’s lack of means, lack of mobility or, frankly, parents that just don’t give a damn, there are some kids who are stuck going to one particular school.
The system has a sort of built-in inferiority, mediocrity by unintentional design. We end up inadvertently punishing the kids stuck in these terrible schools.
I’m not saying anything new here. But why hasn’t anyone really done anything about it?
A decent public education inside and around the Perimeter is a rare thing these days. City Schools of Decatur, which now resides in the appropriately-named Beacon Municipal Center, lures in parents who are looking for a way out of the cheating scandals and accreditation debacles of neighboring school systems.
The Decatur school system has increased the value of the city’s property. I’m going to repeat that one more time because I swear some people don’t ever connect the two: the quality of our schools made our property values rise. Good schools can transform a community.
They can also cost a community an arm and a leg. I take some special delight in hearing the state representatives for Dunwoody talk about the need for an independent school system like it’s the solution for everything. Setting aside that it would create a majority white school system in a region of the country that, historically, hasn’t done well with that sort of thing, it’s not the solution for everything.
Gather round and listen Dunwoody, for I shall tell you a tale.
It’s the tale of a city with an independent school system called Decatur. Its schools don’t just meet arbitrary state expectations. They exceed them and then run laps around them. As it turns out, parents don’t want their kids to become morons. So they’re all rushing to buy houses here. But the houses are too small and they have growing families, so they are knocking them down, building bigger houses and … oh my god we’re gentrifying, aren’t we?
And how. There’s are at least five houses on the market for – I kid you not – $1 million. They’re very nice houses, I’m sure. Still, let’s take it as a given that the average parent in some of these areas that have awful schools isn’t going to be able to afford to live Decatur.
Now Decatur has a unique dilemma, one that I’m sure Dunwoody will avoid. Dunwoody’s school system feasibility study shows a $30.7 million surplus. The city of Dunwoody also has more than twice the population of Decatur, spread out over 13 square miles compared with Decatur’s four.
As enrollment increases, Decatur is struggling to find more space for school buildings. But it isn’t just space that’s an issue. It’s also about the amount of money the system can borrow to build on the space it has.
I reported this story the other day, but I still don’t think it has quite sunk in yet. City Schools of Decatur wants an $82 million bond referendum. Raising the millage will cost taxpayers an arm and a leg, but the best part? It won’t be enough. That’s because school debts and city debts are joined at the hip. Collectively, Decatur’s debt has about reached its limit.
But its school system will soon reach its limit on the number of students it can hold. Current CSD enrollment is more than 4,300 students. Enrollment projections show the city adding somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 students by 2020, depending on the growth scenario.
The city has also reached a limit on the amount of space available for schools. Decatur’s City Commission has prioritized the development of commercial real estate because it generates more tax revenue. The city’s current residential to commercial ratio is 86 percent to 14 percent. New cities being proposed in DeKalb County are starting with at least a 30 percent commercial tax base.
That means potential places to put schools in Decatur, like the Callaway Building, are off the table. City Schools of Decatur will have to cannibalize some of its own buildings. One idea floating out there is turning the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, the place President Obama visited when he was in town, into a K-3 school.
The city of Decatur has checkmated itself. It’s not clear where it all goes from here.
This isn’t a promise that what happened in Decatur will happen in Dunwoody or any other city that wants its own school system. It’s a caution. As Saint Teresa of Avila once put it, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”
Meanwhile, there are still kids stuck in these terrible schools. What happens to them when independent school systems and better schools within school systems leave them behind?
I see very little sense of urgency in our elected leadership about this issue. I’ve seen a lot of dilly dallying and destructive behavior. Exhibit A: The other day, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed used his state of the city breakfast to throw Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen under the bus. Speaking before the city’s elected and business leadership, Reed publicly upbraided the new super over a dispute regarding the sale of APS property.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution recounted it, the mayor said, “She’s new, she’s inexperienced in this city and doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
She’s also got the unenviable task of restoring the public’s faith in a system that’s been rocked by a cheating scandal. I think even Dr. Carstarphen would recognize she is not perfect. Still, it would be nice, given the recent history of APS, if the city’s mayor would at least attempt some pretense of showing the city’s business community that the leadership of Atlanta’s city and its schools are on the same page.
But not to be outdone, even DeKalb County Schools has proven lately that in spite of intervention by Gov. Nathan Deal two years ago, not much has changed. Politics, not students, drives the actions of the school system. Parents pursuing a Druid Hills Charter Cluster found this out the hard way when they tried one last time to convince Superintendent Michael Thurmond to reconsider his opposition to their idea.
It did not go well, the charter cluster parents reported. The superintendent compared their petition to Civil Rights struggles in Selma, Ala. and reportedly said, “That just because it is in the law doesn’t mean that he has to agree to it.”
It’s widely believed that Thurmond, a former state legislator, wants to run for CEO of the DeKalb County Commission. Sticking it to parents in Druid Hills can’t hurt his chances.
Now Druid Hills parents are doing what has been the ongoing trend in education in Atlanta and around the country. They are climbing into the escape pod and headed to the educational Mecca known as … Atlanta Public Schools. Somehow in all of this, APS has emerged as the better educational option.
Education has become a merry-go-round of BS, thanks in large measure to the failings of our political leadership. They’ve all managed to avoid making the hard decisions necessary to ensure the future of our school systems.
As long as nothing changes, parents will always leave bad schools for better ones every decade or so.
The way I see it, the only real way forward is the one no one wants to take because it’s too difficult. We need a consolidated metro-wide school system in the Atlanta area. We need one school board and one superintendent, not three or four of each. We need one central office and fewer bureaucrats. We need one voice, not a chorus of people singing from different sheets of music. We need one vision, not systems where the leaders are always looking for the next job and the parents are looking for an exit.
I mentioned this to a state legislator the other day. “It’ll never happen,” was the response.
Maybe. But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that it will be any less complex than handing over three DeKalb County Schools to Atlanta or changing the state constitution so Dunwoody can have its own system.
It’s not about how complex it is. It’s about the will of our elected officials.
It’ll never happen because the political leadership either doesn’t want it or doesn’t have the guts to make it happen.
But it needs to happen. Until we recognize that all of these kids are our collective responsibility, we will be in a region-wide checkmate for the foreseeable future.
Our kids will remain pawns, when they should be the kings.