City Schools of Decatur stingy with information regarding property purchaseCity Schools of Decatur Board of Education. File Photo by Carey O'Neil
This story has been updated.
For weeks, City Schools of Decatur Board of Education members have held closed-door meetings to discuss buying property for a new school.
When members of the public have asked for information at recent School Board meetings about how CSD will address its need for more school space, board members have been vague. They’ve said during public meetings that certain details about real estate negotiations must be kept private. The state open meetings law does allow for closed-door meetings, called executive sessions, to discuss sensitive issues like property purchases. But when a School Board or any government takes action to buy property, board members must approve it in a public meeting.
Decatur’s School Board did vote publicly to go under contract to buy property for a new school. The vote came around 1 a.m. on June 10. By that time, most of the public had gone home. The regular School Board meeting was held on the evening of June 9, and the board went into its closed door meeting around 9:30 p.m.
The property under contract is located along Talley Street and Columbia Drive. The purchase price, according to Chairman Garrett Goebel, is $1.25 million per acre for 3.9 acres.
Goebel said the property addresses are 2601 Talley Street and 302, 304, 308, 312, and 314 South Columbia Drive.
But if you want more details about the property, like what stipulations are in the sales contract, good luck with that.
“That is all the information which the board is prepared to share at this time,” Goebel said.
Superintendent Phyllis Edwards, who was not at last week’s meeting, and School Board attorney Bob Wilson didn’t answer questions from Decaturish about the property purchase. School Board members could only confirm the property is under contract, but said they were waiting on Wilson for further guidance.
Edwards promised to divulge more information, but didn’t say when. She said she would ask for a public discussion about the purchase to be put on the School Board’s July meeting agenda.
“If Mr. Goebel directs me to do so, I will place an item on the agenda in July so that the board can talk about the purchase and agreement, if they choose to do so,” Edwards wrote in an email.
There was nothing on the agenda for the June 9 meeting stating School Board members would be discussing real estate and no indication the board would take any official action to purchase property once the meeting ended.
When Decaturish asked school system spokesperson Courtney Burnett on June 16 about a report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the Talley Street property, she said she was working to gather additional information about the purchase.
Board members Annie Caiola, Lewis Jones and Bernadette Seals could only confirm vague details of the deal, citing a need to get clarity from Wilson. Wilson, whose firm also represents the city of Decatur and the city of Avondale Estates, has not returned repeated requests for comment. Decaturish has also asked to see the sales contract, but CSD hasn’t provided it.
Goebel said he would see whether the sales contract could be placed online.
“I will ask if there is any reason why it cannot be attached to the e-board meeting agenda for the last regular meeting,” he said.
Caiola said that most of the information about the purchase should be public record. She said she asked Wilson after the June 9 meeting concluded on June 10 if board members could discuss the purchase.
“He said the contract is now a matter of public information,” Caiola said.
Caiola said the seller is local commercial property owner Chuck Bosserman. Messages left with Bosserman have not been returned. The school system has a long due diligence period, with a deadline of sometime in March 2016. Again, the exact deadline would be contained in the contract, which CSD has not provided.
Caiola said the board is interested in the property because it gives the school system plenty of time to back out if circumstances change. The AJC reported that the approval of a $75 million bond issue in November was one of the contingencies, but Caiola could not confirm that.
“I feel like it is a very good contract and opportunity for the school system,” Caiola said. “It gives us the opportunity to get out of it if things change.”
It’s also not known whether CSD would build another elementary school on the Talley Street property, or if it would relocate the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center there. If that happens, the Early Childhood Learning Center could be converted into a K-3.
If the School Board decides to build an elementary school on the Talley Street property, it would need a waiver from the state Department of Education. DOE guidelines require six acres for an elementary school.
Caiola said she thinks the DOE would cut City Schools of Decatur some slack, given the lack of available real estate for schools.
“We are optimistic the DOE would work with us on waivers,” she said. “I believe they are very aware of the challenges we face in Decatur. There are just not six-acre parcels of land available.”
The AJC report also says there are some environmental issues with the property, which was previously used as an automobile storage site.
Questions about possible environmental issues on the property also went unanswered by CSD.
School Board member Seals said board members would’ve had a hard time predicting whether any action would be taken after the June 9 executive session and wouldn’t have been able to inform the public beforehand.
“In the (executive session), we could’ve said, ‘Hey, no way,'” Seals said. “We could’ve said, ‘Bob go back to the drawing board.'”
Seals seconded Caiola’s motion to go under contract to purchase the property. She thinks the school system is getting a good deal.
‘”It was considered reasonable with what’s out there,” Seals said. “Space is just being gobbled up with all of this annexation talk that’s been going on.”
Decatur had planned to put an annexation referendum on the ballot this year that would’ve created more potential school sites. That plan died in this year’s legislative session.
School Board member Jones said he has encouraged CSD to release all of the information it can regarding the property purchase. Jones said he believed the June 9 agenda should’ve stated the School Board intended to discuss real estate matters in the executive session.
“I think it should’ve been noticed,” he said. “I think it was an error.”
Goebel said putting “Executive Session” on meeting agendas is routine. Typically school board agendas also note what an executive session will be about, like real estate or personnel issues. The June 9 agenda had no such notice.
“During our regular board meeting agendas, our regular practice is to have an agenda item which reads ‘Executive Session (Action) if needed,'” Goebel said. “At last week’s regular meeting, when we reached that point on the agenda, I did state that we had a need for an executive session to discuss personnel, legal, and real estate matters,” Goebel said. “And when we returned to an open session from executive session, the action on the Talley Street property was taken in public.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included a quote from CSD’s spokesperson that was misunderstood by the author. The quote has been removed and the section has been updated to clarify the spokesperson’s intent.