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Dear Decaturish – One child’s loss is NOT another child’s gain

Decatur Editor's Pick

Dear Decaturish – One child’s loss is NOT another child’s gain

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Dear Decaturish,

First, in full disclosure the firm I work for represents the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) and I was front and center on the lobbying for Senate Bill 53. However, I am not writing this on behalf of DCSD, I am writing it as a City of Decatur resident, taxpayer and parent.  I am sure some may think that my professional association with DCSD will impact my objectivity. However, Decatur Is my home and I am very loyal to that home, but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with every position taken by our elected representatives. In fact when I agree with them I am more than willing to actively support their initiatives.  For example, when the senior school tax homestead exemption bill ran into trouble at the legislature I offered to assist (Pro-bono) in getting that legislation passed (although maybe there should have been an income limit on that legislation). However, on this issue I disagree with them.

Further, I have the ability in my job to withdraw from lobbying on an issue if I so choose, and if I believed this bill hurt CSD I would have never lobbied for it. I love living in Decatur, and one of the reasons we moved here, as many do, was for the schools. In addition, for the past several years I have been volunteering my time for Oakhurst and FAVE, the last four years as PTO Co-President (at both schools), because I deeply care about the educational experience of not just my child, but all kids in CSD. Would I really do all that and then lobby to hurt that very school system? Of course not. However, I also care about the children in the DCSD. Moreover, many of them do not share the financial advantages and privileges as do many of us in Decatur. This is why I support the concept behind SB 53, which would not have led to the negative consequences for CSD peddled by members of our school board.

I totally understand how expensive it is to run CSD, especially with Decatur’s limited commercial base, but I am not OK with us expanding that base at the expense of the kids in DCSD, a system that is trying to educate a population that has the second largest number of poor students in Georgia. This is exactly what has been happening for years, primarily by Atlanta, but also in Decatur. By way of example, if the city of Decatur annexed all the commercial areas by the new Walmart, the city would rightly get all that new tax revenue because they would now have to provide services to that area, but CSD would also get the share of that tax revenue that used to go to DCSD, but with no new students.   SB 53 was specifically targeted to address this issue.

I have seen the quotes in Decaturish and I have read the canned response that some of my friends have received from CSD board members, after they reached out to in support of SB 53. Unfortunately the information in those responses at best distorts the facts, and/or provides no specific details to support CSD’s objections. Therefore, I think it is important for all Decatur residents to understand the facts on this issue, and decide for themselves. Of course SB 53 has now been vetoed, so it is gone, but this issue is far from over, so what I would hope is that for those who agree with me, contact your CSD board members and urge them to work in good-faith with DCSD on a fair solution to this issue, which must be centered on an annexation process where ad valorem educational tax revenue associated with annexed property that is predominantly commercial (i.e. CSD is educating few, if any additional students) remains with DCSD.

Finally, it is also important for CSD to work toward a solution on this issue if they hope to mend the relationships they may have damaged. By not properly engaging with the DeKalb County legislative delegation when they were considering SB 53, which the delegation passed unanimously, including those members who represent Decatur, and then hiring a lobbyist to go to the Governor to request a veto without discussion, has put not only CSD, but the City of Decatur Government in a bad place in regard to future legislation. Further, this could hurt CSD’s future relationship with DCSD, which has actually been a very good working relationship. In fact DCSD for years saved CSD money by providing federally required educational services and programs that CSD does not provide for certain CSD special needs students and those who need alternative schools; DCSD has also been providing use of three of their swimming pools for Decatur High School’s team, at no cost.

However, you have CSD contending in their canned response, “We could have addressed these concerns and negotiated a compromise if we had been contacted about the bill when it was being developed.” I would prefer not to waste anybody’s time getting into this sophomoric argument, but since CSD is contending this publicly, it needs to be responded to. While it is true that DCSD did not engage CSD during the legislative session on this issue, CSD has known for some time that DCSD has had issues with these harmful annexations and CSD has not acted to address it, until the legislation forced them to do so.

Further, CSD never discussed their concerns with the Chairs of the DeKalb Senate and House Delegations, one of them being the primary sponsor of SB 53. Additionally, CSD had no meaningful engagement with members of the DeKalb Senate and House Delegations during this process, including the members who represent Decatur. CSD apparently thought the legislators should consult them, but like it or not, that’s not the way it works, and if it’s that important you find the time to properly engage.

The only instances of engagement that I am aware of is a phone call between the CSD Superintendent and Senator Elena Parent after SB 53 passed the Senate, and the attendance of the CSD government affairs staff at one of the hearings held by the DeKalb County House Delegation. At that hearing, the staff person expressed that CSD wanted Decatur carved out of the bill so that it only impacted Atlanta Public Schools. The representative did not clearly articulate a substantive reason for such a carve-out and thus none of the legislators believed CSD’s request was reasonable. To my knowledge there was no other effort to engage in the legislative process (and there were other delegation meetings on SB 53) nor did they try to offer or negotiate any compromise language. If this was such an important bill I would expect at least one of our board members or the superintendent would be present at these meetings or try to actively meet with legislators.  I understand they are all busy with their day jobs and respect that they already volunteer a lot of time as board members, but so do their counterparts at DCSD and they managed to attend no matter how short the meeting notice, because that is how important SB 53 was to them.

Further, last year when Senator Parent was getting feedback on a bill similar to SB 53, she requested input from the leadership at CSD, and received no response.  Therefore, it is not reasonable to argue that CSD did not have the opportunity to be heard as the issue was being considered during last year’s General Assembly, studied by the bipartisan Senate Study Committee during the summer and fall of 2018, and SB 53 followed the normal committee process through the General Assembly this session. One last point: during the Feb. 12 CSD board meeting, 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 DCSD, but according to the legislators I have talked with and the DCSD 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.

I leave you with this, and really it speaks louder then all my words above: Yesterday, I asked my son would he want an upgraded chrome book at school?  His answer, yes definitely. Then I asked what if that meant a kid at another school could not get a chrome book, his response, no way, we already have enough stuff, we don’t need to be taking away from kids who don’t have the good things that we have.  One child’s loss is NOT another child’s gain. I hope our school board will show the same wisdom and empathy as my 10 year old son.

–  Dan Baskerville

Editor’s note: Baskerville also provided a Q&A about this issue. City Schools of Decatur provided a similar Q&A with different answers to some of these same questions, which you can read by clicking here

Here is the Q&A Baskerville provided: 

F.A.Q. ON SENATE BILL 53 AND RELATED INFORMATION

Q: What is the issue?

A: Over the past several years the Cities of Atlanta and Decatur, which are the only cities within DeKalb County with their own independent school system, have undertaken municipal annexations often driven by commercial property. Even the residential annexations have involved very few households  with  children. The cumulative impact of these annexations has been the transfer of significant amounts of revenue from the DeKalb County School District (DCSD), with the second largest population of poor students in Georgia (approximately 73% on free and reduced lunch which equals over 72,000 students), to two of the wealthiest school districts in Georgia, without any meaningful increase in responsibilities (and therefore costs) for Atlanta and Decatur to educate additional students.

Q: Why was this legislation so important to DeKalb County Schools

A: The amount of revenue transferred to those other school systems, due to annexations since 2013, from DCSD is over $4.5 million annually, for fewer than 60 students. The most impactful of all is the recent Emory annexation, which is a case study on this issue as it shifted fewer than 10 students, but approximately $2.25 million/year in perpetuity to Atlanta Public Schools. Although most of the lost revenue has been due to annexations by Atlanta, they are not limited to Atlanta, the most significantly in 2013 there was an annexation whereby over $500,000 in tax revenue annually was lost by DCSD to the benefit of the CSD, again with the transfer of fewer than 20 students. I read a comment by a person “Decatur Taxpayer” in response to a Decaturish article and he claimed incorrectly that all of East Parkwood was already part of the City, but it was not, and I am happy to provide documentation that shows the actual impact of this annexation (of course he also claimed maybe it was me parading as another commenter who made a critical comment). What makes this situation more dire is that there are several areas that are prime to be annexed that could include the taking of DCSD school buildings and other infrastructure, with no compensation required, even though they were paid for by DeKalb County taxpayers. Adding insult to injury is the fact that many of the students who attend these schools do not live in the area to be annexed and would no longer be able to attend their current school.

Q: How did this legislation come about

A: Senate Bill 53 is the product of several years of effort to resolve this matter and study by the Georgia General Assembly, including a Senate Study Committee this past year.

Q: What did the legislation do?

A: The bill does not change the process for how a municipality can annex property, instead it provides a separate and distinct process of how a school district boundary in DeKalb County can be altered after a municipal annexation. This includes language to allow an agreement between school systems for the transfer of school governance for smaller annexations. It is almost a certainty that any future Decatur annexation that would have been subject to this bill would have fallen under this language.

Q: What about the claim from City Schools of Decatur Board members that this legislation “would tear the fabric of our community….”

A: That is a total distortion of the truth. The purpose of the bill is to put a stop to CSD (and APS) annexing areas that are primarily commercial (and some that are residential) , but taking few or no students. Further, as mentioned above the bill provides a process that would allow DCSD and CSD to work together so any students that are part of an annexation could go to CSD. There is no reason to believe that would not have happened, as DCSD representatives repeatedly made it clear during discussions on the bill they would work with CSD.

Q: What about the claim by CSD board members that this could cause residents with children to have to pay CSD Taxes but not be able to send their kids to CSD.

In the very unlikely situation that a family who was annexed into the City of Decatur was blocked by DCSD from sending their children to CSD, they would not pay CSD taxes as they would not be under the governance of CSD. However, that situation is not going to happen, DCSD is not going to stop any family that is annexed into Decatur from attending CSD if they want to, and the bill allows such an agreement to be made between school districts. Furthermore, there might be parents whose kids would prefer to stay in their current schools in DCSD, it is not unusual that annexations occur and some people don’t even want to be part of them, but not all annexations require 100 percent approval of those being annexed, so they can unwillingly be forced into a new jurisdiction and to change schools.

Q: Did SB 53 have constitutional problems?

A: Absolutely not. 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. Even the City of Atlanta does not believe this is a requirement. Further, 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, there was no such letter with this bill.

Q: SB 53 must have had some problems since the Governor vetoed it?

A: The very vague veto message, said this act would subject referenda outcomes to legislative review, subjugate home rule, and invite litigation. A few observations: subjecting the referenda to legislative review was seen as a good thing and, the legislation provided an alternative where school districts could mutually agree to confirm a referendum; the bill would actually strengthen home rule in DeKalb and was an expression of a preference by the entire DeKalb delegation; every bill that has opposition has the possibility of inviting litigation, and the Governor has not shied away from signing legislation where knew litigation would be filed if he signed it.

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