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DeKalb School Board member responds to annexation involvement allegations

Annexation, new cities Avondale Estates Decatur Metro ATL

DeKalb School Board member responds to annexation involvement allegations

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.
DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

This story has been updated.

By Dena Mellick

DeKalb County School Board member Marshall Orson is responding to a report by CBS 46 news that said he has allegedly been secretly supporting Atlanta annexation. He told Decaturish the report was “misleading and incomplete.”

The CBS 46 report said Orson had met multiple times with annexation advocates, and now Rep. Karla Drenner of Avondale Estates wants him investigated.

Drenner told the Atlanta CBS affiliate that a constituent filed an open records request and obtained Orson’s emails, passing them along to her.

In the report, Drenner said, “When I read these emails, I was surprised by the fact that a member of the DeKalb County School Board appears to be in support of decimating DeKalb County Schools.”

DeKalb Strong, an organization that is against Atlanta annexation efforts, released the emails on its website. They show email conversations between Orson, Together in Atlanta representatives, and Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan.

CBS 46 Reporter Jeff Chirico asked Orson about statements that could be interpreted as pro-annexation in his emails such as, “This is a complex issue which, if not handled properly, runs the risk of pitting the school community against annexation.”

In another email, Orson writes to Wan and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver D-Decatur, “As we all have discussed at various times, a key to a successful annexation push will be to keep school attendance zones intact, particularly Fernbank and Briar Vista.”

Orson said in the CBS report his emails are being misinterpreted and it’s his responsibility as a public official to gather information from as many people as possible.

In a statement to Decaturish Friday, Orson said,

The CBS Channel 46 report was misleading and incomplete, based on a small number of emails taken out of context. The full record shows that I have actively engaged with stakeholders on both sides of the annexation issue, including a constituent who has since become a leader within DeKalb Strong, offering to collaborate on a strategy that prioritizes cohesion of schools.

As a DeKalb School Board member, my responsibility is to the entire school district. As annexation and incorporation conversations have grown in intensity, I recognized that such possibilities necessitated planning for a process that would ensure an orderly change in the event changes occurred and no matter what the formal shift in local government. I have always and will continue to look for solutions that minimize a disruption in school services and avoid a reduction in access by, and opportunity for, all our students, including the possibility of joint operation of schools between APS and DCSD under an intergovernmental agreement. We must prioritize an outcome that keeps our school communities intact and the focus on excellence across the district, while actively planning for all possible scenarios.

Atticus LeBlanc is a DeKalb business owner who unsuccessfully ran for DeKalb’s School Board last year and is also a supporter of the DeKalb Strong group. He said that although he campaigned for the Druid Hills Charter Cluster, he is opposed to Atlanta’s annexation of Druid Hills because of the impact on the schools.

LeBlanc said Orson has been helpful to his efforts to oppose annexation by trying to facilitate compromise between the Druid Hills Charter Cluster and DeKalb County, right around the time the emails are dated.

He said once the Druid Hills Charter Cluster fell through and it became clear an annexation could happen, it was necessary for Orson to be part of those conversations.

“It has been apparent for over a year that the failure of the DHCC petition could result in Atlanta annexation. So once DCSS refused to allow the re-submitted cluster petition to be heard, everyone knew the annexation was going to garner more support,” said LeBlanc.

He continued, “Some of us, including Mr. Orson, continued to encourage DCSS to compromise with the cluster folks to avoid annexation until as recently as last month, when Superintendent Thurmond supposedly compared the charter cluster discussion to the civil rights protests in Selma. I think Mr. Orson’s emails allude to, if there’s going to be an annexation, how do you still figure out what’s the lesser of evils? How do you think up a more palatable solution, knowing what the consequences of annexing the area are?”

LeBlanc said, “As much as someone wants to point to a conspiracy, the fact of the matter is, it’s a complex, difficult issue that would have been a lot easier to work out earlier. But unfortunately, the resubmitted petition was never brought up for a vote and calmer heads didn’t prevail.”

On Friday afternoon, Dr. Melvin Johnson, chair of the DeKalb Board of Education, released the following statement about the allegations:

Recent news reports and communications from stakeholders of the DeKalb County School District have raised important and serious allegations that Marshall Orson, a member of the Board, has violated the principles and protocols in the Board Member Handbook as well as Board policy.  In accordance with established Board protocol, the DeKalb County Board of Education will consider these allegations at the next Board meeting on Wed., April 1, 2015 in the Cabinet Room of the Robert R. Freeman Administrative Center, 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd., Stone Mountain, GA 30083.

Decaturish has reached out to Rep. Drenner for comment and will update the story as we get more information.

This story has been updated to include the statement from Dr. Melvin Johnson.