After dueling Q&A’s about vetoed annexation bill, DeKalb and Decatur schools admit errors
The moment it became public knowledge that City Schools of Decatur hired a lobbyist to convince Gov. Brian Kemp to veto an annexation bill affecting DeKalb County Schools, both school districts began making their case in the court of public opinion.
Kemp ultimately vetoed Senate Bill 53, a bill that made school annexations separate from municipal ones, meaning they would need to be approved in a separate referendum.
CSD’s efforts to scuttle the legislation drew a rebuke from the DeKalb County Legislative delegation, but City Schools of Decatur countered they were not notified of the bill and said it would be harmful to the city’s interests.
CSD released a Q&A about the issue and then DeKalb County Schools released a Q&A that rebutted CSD’s Q&A.
In the process, both sides admitted that they initially erred in some of their talking points. DeKalb County Schools said CSD’s annexation of the Parkwood neighborhood in 2014 cost the school system $500,000 in revenue. CSD came up with a substantially different number, stating that the annexation only amounted to a little less than 115,000 in revenue.
So how did the two sides come up with two very different conclusions about this annexation?
CSD took a look at a spreadsheet DeKalb County Schools provided to Decaturish. Superintendent David Dude said DeKalb County Schools over counted the number of properties in the Parkwood annexation.
“I took a quick look at the spreadsheet you shared and it appears they have included about 50 percent more properties than were part of the annexation,” Dude said. “The values of houses in that area jumped over 25 percent on average immediately following the annexation, so it could also be that they didn’t adjust for that factor. Those two factors, combined, likely explain the difference.”
In response, DeKalb County Schools said it realized its error, but said it still believes Parkwood cost the school district a substantial amount of money.
“In regard to the value of the annexed properties, after a parcel by parcel review by the DeKalb County Schools Planning Department, of the 125 parcels of the Parkwood neighborhood listed on the previous spreadsheet, they have confirmed that only 73 were part of the 2013/2014 Parkwood annexation,” the DeKalb County School District said. “The value of these properties is approximately $300,000 in annual property tax revenue lost (see attached spreadsheet). We apologize for the mistake, but $300,000 is still substantial and significantly more than the amount CSD is claiming.”
CSD also corrected the record on a statement made in its Q&A. The Q&A said that, “Immediately upon receiving notice of SB 53 on Feb. 7 – the day it passed the Senate – Board Chair Lewis Jones distributed a copy to the Board for discussion at a Feb. 12 public meeting. Jones noted the Board’s opposition to the bill during his Chair Comments at the Feb. 12 meeting.”
The DeKalb School District noted that video shows Jones was not at that meeting.
Jones corrected his error after reviewing the DeKalb County School District Q&A.
Speaking on behalf of the School Board, Jones said, “[DeKalb County Schools] is correct that Mr. Jones was not in attendance at that meeting. The statement referenced in the Q&A was made at the March 12 meeting. We regret the error.”
Jones said negotiating this dispute through the media is probably not the best way to resolve it.
“It is not surprising that we and the DeKalb County School Board disagree,” Jones said. “Rather than proving the correctness of either side’s position, our different perspectives highlight the need for constructive engagement. Therefore, rather than continuing in this vein, we urge [DeKalb County Schools] to sit down with us to negotiate a solution that is fair to all of our children.”
DeKalb County Schools agreed with that sentiment, but said Jones was not providing the full story.
“Mr. Jones’s comments fail to disclose that prior to the Governor’s veto, [DeKalb County Schools] Board leadership met with CSD’s Board leadership, and as a result of that meeting [DeKalb County Schools] offered an [intergovernmental agreement] to try and address CSD’s issues on an interim basis and offered to commit to work with them on updating the legislation in a mutually agreeable fashion next session,” the DeKalb County School District said. “Further, we shared with CSD why the legislation was important not to just issues with CSD but also [Atlanta Public Schools] including our litigation regarding Emory. Our efforts and proposed IGA were rejected summarily. Since that time Mr. Jones has made no effort to reach out to [DeKalb County School] Board Chair Michael Erwin, nor has Superintendent Dude reached out to Superintendent Stephen Green. We continue to be willing to work with CSD in a good-faith collaborative manner.”
Here are the responses to CSD’s Q&A provided by both CSD and DeKalb County Schools. The response of both entities is noted and the Q&As have been updated to reflect the corrections made by both sides of this debate:
Questions and Answers on Senate Bill 53
Question: How would SB 53 have caused Decatur residents to pay for schools they couldn’t use?
CSD: The City of Decatur Charter requires that all property be taxed to pay for city schools. By separating city and school boundaries, SB 53 would have resulted in some city residents being taxed to pay for schools their children couldn’t attend. Those same residents might also be taxed to pay for DeKalb County schools their children would attend, resulting in double taxation.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: The simple answer is – it would not have caused that. Here’s why: CSD cannot subject property to school taxes that is not within their jurisdiction. Further, if a family’s property was annexed from DeKalb County Schools into Decatur, DeKalb County Schools would not have blocked the children from attending CSD. SB 53 anticipated this situation and allowed an agreement to be made between school districts so that those children could attend CSD schools. In fact, DeKalb County Schools offered to enter into such an agreement which was rejected by CSD.
Question: How would SB 53 have complicated the delivery of local services?
CSD: There are many examples, which are the result of trying to separate two entities – the City and its schools – that are inseparably intertwined. For example, the City of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur participate in many intergovernmental partnerships ranging from capital projects to school resources officers. Existing relationships might have had to be reconsidered and new relationships would be more difficult to establish if the city and its schools represented different communities and different taxpayers. Additionally, CSD is not authorized to issue bonds, relying instead on the City of Decatur to do so. If SB 53 had not been vetoed, CSD would have had to rely on Decatur residents who could not attend our school to approve and pay for the bonds needed for capital improvements.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: Again, the simple answer is that it would not complicate local services. DeKalb County Schools is not going to stop any family that is annexed into Decatur from attending CSD if they wanted to, and SB 53 allowed such an agreement to be made between the school districts. It would not complicate capital projects or school resource officers or any other intergovernmental partnerships… any more so than they are now. Each district would maintain the same services for any property or children that might change districts. Changing districts will always require adjustments. The only way to prevent these “complications” would be no annexations and that, it appears, is not going to happen. As CSD is aware, for 46 years Gainesville and Hall County had such an arrangement.
CSD: Finally, SB 53 prohibited even the smallest annexations, including routine annexations to join split lots, unify neighborhoods, or simplify service delivery boundaries. These small annexations are not motivated by tax receipts, but by other considerations such as creating efficient service delivery boundaries.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: This argument is totally inaccurate. The bill does not do anything to change current annexation law related to municipal annexations. While it does change the process for changing school boundaries, it does not impact the ability to change city boundaries. The types of annexations mentioned here would not be impacted at all. If there were children affected by these annexations, the bill allows them to attend CSD through agreement with DeKalb County Schools. In fact, DeKalb County Schools actually offered an Intergovernmental Agreement to CSD that explicitly addressed their concerns about one-off annexations of individual homes
Question: How did SB 53 violate the state constitution?
CSD: The City Schools of Decatur urged Governor Kemp to veto SB 53, in part, because it violated the Uniformity Clause and the Single Subject Clause of the Georgia Constitution.
The Uniformity Clause states that “no local or special law shall be enacted in any case for which provision has been made by an existing general law.”1 SB 53 violated the Uniformity Clause because it is a local law that conflicts with existing general laws (1) authorizing independent city school systems to maintain public schools within the boundaries of the cities they serve (2) providing for such independent systems to be supported by an ad valorem tax on all properties within their respective cities, id., and (3) providing for city and school boundaries to remain coterminous when cities grow through annexation. SB 53 attempted to exempt DeKalb County from all three general laws.
The Single Subject Clause holds that “no bill shall pass which refers to more than one subject matter or contains matter different from what is expressed in the title thereof.” The Georgia Supreme Court has held that any attempt to “amend, repeal, or modify the charters of two separate and distinct municipal corporations” in a single act violates the single subject rule.
SB 53 violated this rule by amending at least three local acts: local legislation creating and establishing the DeKalb County School System, the Atlanta Public School System, and the City Schools of Decatur. By its text, the bill acknowledges amending legislation for the DeKalb County School System. To be effective, it would also have to amend related legislation for the other two systems. For example, Section 7.14(a) of the City of Decatur Charter provides for the Board of Education to set the millage for the school tax and for the city commission to tax “all property subject to taxation in the city” to pay for the City Schools of Decatur. Another provision of the City of Decatur Charter entitles all Decatur children to attend City Schools of Decatur.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: It is an interesting claim by CSD that they urged Governor Kemp to veto SB 53 based on this theory, since when DeKalb County Schools’ lobbyists requested that the Governor’s office provide CSD’s objections, they replied that they had not received anything in writing. Further, the Governor did not include this rationale in his veto statement. As to the legal argument put forward, when legislative counsel at the General Assembly drafts a bill, if they believe there are constitutional concerns, they will include a letter with the bill stating that fact. There was no such letter with this bill. This bill was reviewed to ensure it complied with the Uniformity Clause and the Single Subject Clause, and in legislative counsel’s opinion it did. Moreover, there is no statute or constitutional provision that currently requires the boundaries of a municipal school district to remain coterminous with the boundaries of the municipality itself. In fact, for years the City of Gainesville and Hall County had an agreement in place that allowed students to remain in Hall County Schools even if their residences were annexed into the City of Gainesville. Even attorneys for the City of Atlanta have opined that this is not a requirement and Atlanta has enacted ordinances that do not impose such a requirement.
The argument about taxation of all property is misleading, at best. Decatur and CSD can only tax properties subject to their jurisdiction. CSD is a separate government than the government of the city of Decatur. Those properties which are not part of CSD could not be taxed by CSD, and Decatur would have no authority to collect such taxes.
Question: When did CSD first learn about SB 53?
CSD: On Feb. 7, 2019—the day it passed the Senate. The notice came from a third party unaffiliated with CSD, DCSB, or the DeKalb delegation.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: We have no reason to believe this is not true, but CSD has a government relations staff person who actively tracks legislation. How did they miss the introduction of this legislation? Further, the DeKalb Senate delegation discussed this legislation at their January 30, meeting prior to the legislation being introduced and then again after it was introduced at their February 6th meeting. The General Assembly can move at a frantic pace and legislators are very busy. To ensure you are able to keep up with all the bills being introduced and being heard, one must make sure they review the first readers daily and are on the meeting notification lists for committees, and that includes the DeKalb delegations. Like it or not, the burden is on the government relations professionals/lobbyists to keep track of what is going on. The burden is not on the legislature.
In addition, CSD knew that a similar bill had been introduced in the previous legislative session. Due to a lack of time, it did not pass. Knowing that the issue of school annexations had bene and was being considered by the Legislature, there appears to have been a complete failure in leadership by Decatur in engaging on a matter that CSD ultimately deemed important.
Question: How long did the Senate deliberate over SB 53 before passing it?
CSD: The bill was placed in the Senate hopper on Feb. 5. It was read and referred to committee on Feb. 6, favorably reported out of committee on Feb. 7, and passed by the Senate later that same day.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: As stated above the DeKalb Senate delegation discussed this legislation at their January 30, meeting prior to the legislation being introduced and then again after it was introduced at their February 6th meeting. Further, there had been a similar bill considered in 2018 and a Senate Study Committee took up the issues ultimately addressed in SB 53 that convened later in 2018.
Question: What did CSD do when it learned about SB 53?
CSD: Immediately upon receiving notice of SB 53 on Feb. 7 – the day it passed the Senate – Board Chair Lewis Jones distributed a copy to the Board for discussion at a Feb. 12 public meeting. Jones noted the Board’s opposition to the bill during his Chair Comments at the Feb. 12 meeting.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: This is incorrect as anyone can see in the video of the actual board meeting on Feb. 12th that they are talking about. Board Chair Lewis Jones was not even in attendance at that meeting. This is actually what happened at the Feb. 12 CSD board meeting https://youtu.be/8YOve5dDa78?list=PLtkZsZ9W0py0HiDpxYZHIVRTRduqlCXPQ&t=6012 (1:40:14 mark) CSD’s government relations staff provided an update on SB 53 and talked about how she and the Board should continue to engage the DeKalb Delegation and DeKalb County Schools but, according to the legislators we have talked with and the DeKalb County Schools Superintendent, that outreach never happened. In other words, CSD was very aware of the bill and even apparently what they should do but failed to do it.
Editor’s note: Lewis Jones corrected the record on this issue. Jones said:
“We do wish to correct one error in our Q&A, however, which stated that Board Chair Lewis Jones noted his opposition to SB 53 at the Feb. 12 meeting. DCSB is correct that Mr. Jones was not in attendance at that meeting. The statement referenced in the Q&A was made at the March 12 meeting. We regret the error.”
Question: Did any member of the Georgia General Assembly notify CSD about SB 53?
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: We will defer to members of the General Assembly to answer this question.
Question: Did any member of the DeKalb County School Board or administration notify CSD about SB 53?
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: While it is true that DeKalb County Schools did not engage CSD during the legislative session on this issue, CSD has known for some time that DeKalb County Schools has had issues with these harmful annexations, and CSD has not acted to address it until the legislation forced them to do so.
Question: Did CSD communicate its opposition to SB 53 to the DeKalb legislative delegation?
CSD: Yes. The Superintendent reached out to Sen. Parent Feb. 8 and spoke with her Feb. 12. Board members notified Reps. Oliver, Drenner, Shannon, and Evans, and Sen. Parent of their opposition to SB 53 on Feb. 11. Board Chair Lewis Jones spoke with Sen. Parent about the bill at her town hall March 19.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: We will defer to the legislators mentioned by CSD. However, we have previously spoken to each of them and according to them that outreach never happened – other than the conversation between Senator Parent and the CSD Superintendent.
Question: When the DeKalb County House Delegation held a hearing about SB 53 in February, did they inform CSD about the hearing?
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: See answer above.
Question: Did CSD send a representative to the hearing anyway?
CSD: Yes. CSD was informed of the hearing by a third party. Notice was provided at 4:14 pm on Feb. 14. The hearing began at 8 a.m. the next day, Feb. 15. CSD’s Director of Community and Government Relations, Courtney Burnett, attended to express CSD’s opposition to the bill.
Question: DCSB asserts that the City Schools of Decatur staff member attending the hearing did not articulate a substantive reason for Decatur to be excluded from the measure. Did CSD participate at the hearing?
CSD: Yes. The City of Decatur representative spoke first, registering their opposition to the bill and voicing the same concerns as those held by City Schools of Decatur. Additionally, Ms. Burnett read aloud alternative language proposed by the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: At that hearing, Ms. Burnett expressed that CSD wanted Decatur carved out of the bill so that it only impacted Atlanta Public Schools. There was no specific language provided or articulated at the committee meeting. The legislators did not believe CSD’s request was reasonable and thus did not entertain such a change. Further, there was an additional hearing on SB 53 the next week and after that at a full delegation meeting, so there was still time for them to propose alternative language. At subsequent meetings Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett confirmed that the City of Decatur did not object to SB 53.
Question: DCSB has asserted that a legislator requested input from City Schools of Decatur leadership on another annexation bill, SB 423, in March 2018. They assert this bill is similar to SB 53 and that the legislator received no response. Is this true?
CSD: No. SB 423 was not similar to SB 53: although they both related to annexation, SB 423 was a state-wide measure. Given the timing of the email seeking comment relative to the legislative calendar and the bill’s progress, City Schools of Decatur concluded the bill was not likely to proceed and did not engage on this matter. As anticipated, SB 423 was never voted on.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: The bills were not identical, but the theme was the same. Much of the language in SB 53 was taken directly out of SB 423. SB 423 was a general bill, while SB 53 was a local bill drafted to only apply to DeKalb County, but both bills had the exact same intent – ensuring districts enact annexations that are agreeable to the parties involved and not harmful to the students of DeKalb County. Although SB 423 did not pass, a hearing was held on it, and Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools were there to testify on it, CSD was not.
Question: The legislation passed unanimously out of both chambers. Doesn’t that mean the legislators all agree that it’s good legislation?
CSD: No. It is common for “local legislation,” such as SB 53, to pass unanimously in deference to those legislators who sponsored the bill.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: While it is true, that legislators outside the jurisdiction of a local bill, will usually defer to the will of the local delegation, it is not true that local legislation does not encounter significant opposition within a delegation itself. There are many pieces of local legislation that never make it out of the local delegation or make it out with significant opposition. A perfect example is the DeKalb County ethics bill this session which only passed out of the House Delegation by a one vote margin. What is unusual is when a bill as significant as SB 53 is approved by the DeKalb Delegation unanimously.
Question: DCSB has pointed to Decatur’s annexation of Parkwood as an example of its concern. Who initiated this annexation?
CSD: The residents of Parkwood; it was not an initiative of the City of Decatur or the City Schools of Decatur. From a budgetary perspective, it resulted in the City Schools of Decatur losing money.
Question: DCSB Superintendent Green has asserted the Parkwood annexation deprived DCSB of over $500,000 in annual tax revenue. Is this true?
CSD: No. Annual tax revenue to DCSB from the annexed properties would have been less than $115,000 this year.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: That is simply not accurate.
If you look at the 2013 assessed values (40%) from the Tax Assessors office for the specific parcels involved, the data match exactly what Dr. Green has expressed. The average FMV based on the parcel listing (backing into it from DeKalb County Schools estimated annual prop. Tax lost) comes to $498,057. Actually, when one compares this calculated FMV to the Zillow.com of average homes in this area (550K to 750K) it is slightly below.
We have no idea how CSD is arriving at their numbers, such as the amount coming to DeKalb County Schools from the annexed properties would have been less than $115,000 this year or that CSD’s actual tax receipts were just $162,278. Considering the number of parcels and their geographic location between Druid Hills and Decatur, Decatur’s presumed value of the parcels makes no sense. They appear to either have based their calculations on incorrect information or are providing misleading information based on some distorted calculation. We welcome any opportunity to share a spread sheet that shows these numbers and calculations from the Tax Assessor’s data.
Editor’s note: Superintendent David Dude pointed out that DeKalb County Schools over counted the number of properties involved in the Parkwood annexation. DeKalb County Schools conceded the point, and offered the following revised estimate.
“The value of these properties is approximately $300,000 in annual property tax revenue lost,” the DeKalb County School District said. “We apologize for the mistake, but $300,000 is still substantial and significantly more than the amount CSD is claiming.”
Question: Did the Parkwood annexation bring revenues in excess of costs?
CSD: No. The number of students in the area doubled since annexation, and City Schools of Decatur now serves 39 students in the annexed area. In FY 2019, CSD budgeted tax revenues of $5,968 per student, which means that tax revenue of $232,752 would be needed to break even. Actual tax receipts were just $162,278, resulting in a net loss. Tax income would still only have been $206,385 without Decatur’s senior homestead tax exemption.
DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOLS: The math is creative, but misleading. When did the new students (to get to 39… their number) move into the area? All at the exact same time? Did the district count their $5,968 per student for the entire year? (Yes… they did in this calculation) That is simply not accurate. And as noted above, we have no idea how they are coming up with their $162,278 tax receipts number, because it just doesn’t make sense.