Decatur School Board chair pushes back against critic of CSD’s effort to thwart annexation bill
By Sara Amis, contributor
Senate Bill 53 was a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s Decatur School Board meeting.
City Schools of Decatur hired a lobbyist, Mark Middleton, to encourage Gov. Brian Kemp to veto Senate Bill 53 which passed in the Georgia legislature earlier this year.
SB 53 was intended to resolve conflicts between the DeKalb County School District and Atlanta Public Schools over the annexation of the area around Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control, but would affect all future annexations including those by the city of Decatur. Among other provisions, the bill would have separated municipal annexations from school district annexations and added a negotiation process. State Sen. Emanuel Jones, the author of SB 53, stated that annexations since 2013 have mostly been of commercial property which transfers revenue from DCSD to the relatively more wealthy Atlanta City Schools and City Schools of Decatur without transferring many students. The DeKalb legislative delegation unanimously supported the bill. Kemp vetoed SB 53 last week.
During public comment about the veto, speaker Andrew Lewis charged that the board acted counter to community values while disregarding the impact on students enrolled in DeKalb County schools.
Lewis said, “This cavalier attitude undermines the greater societal good that this community prides itself on. The Decatur board of education has a responsibility to the students and citizens of Decatur. I respect that incredible responsibility. But should the actions of this board to address our needs come at the expense of our neighbors?”
School Board Chair Lewis Jones defended the board’s actions, describing SB 53 as bad legislation.
“It would have made two Decaturs, where some attend our schools and some were not allowed to. We don’t think that would be good for our community,” Jones said.
Jones said that it is the responsibility of elected officials advocating for a policy to engage with those who will be affected by it, saying “If this board passes a policy, and it turns out we’re surprised at the reaction of stakeholders affected by it, I consider that a fault of this board.”
He continued to insist that the board was unaware of the bill, something DeKalb County School officials have disputed.
“We found out about Senate Bill 53 the day it passed the Senate, and when we made our concerns known to the representatives in the House, they dismissed them,” Jones said. “I regret the situation, but I do not regret our actions. I think we did the right thing for Decatur.”
Jones also said that he was told by legislators that City Schools of Decatur should have kept a lobbyist on retainer throughout the session if they wanted to be contacted about the bill. The School Board hired Middleton for $10,000, an action that was not voted on in a public meeting. Jones has said the expense was not large enough to require a public vote. He said the School Board did know about it and was supportive of it.
“The direct advice [from legislators] has been, do not expect us to give you a call, because we’re not going to. If you want to be engaged, we’re not going to do it unless you hire a lobbyist to take the call,” Jones said.
Superintendent David Dude said the school system may want to consider increasing its lobbying budget.
“I know that DeKalb County spent $142,000 this year already on lobbyists,” said Superintendent David Dude. “That’s something we may need to look at, whether we need to budget money for lobbyists, because they spent 14 times what we spent and maybe that’s why what happened happened.”
Jones was hesitant to endorse that idea.
“I’m not necessarily suggesting we do that,” said Jones, “I’m just telling you what the conversation has been.”
In other business, Mawuli Davis, representing the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, commented on the recent panel discussion on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports held May 9. He praised City Schools of Decatur’s participation and collaboration while emphasizing that it was only part of the work that Beacon Hill is doing.
“We don’t believe PBIS is the end all and be all. It’s not going to solve the achievement gap and it’s not going to address everything that we’ve been advocating for and working with the district on,” said Davis, encouraging parents to attend Beacon Hill meetings to discuss their concerns in person.