Decatur Schools hires lobbyist to urge veto of annexation bill affecting DeKalb County SchoolsDeKalb Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green. Photo by AL SUCH with WABE.
This story has been updated.
Senate Bill 53, which awaits the governor’s signature, would make school annexations separate from municipal ones, meaning they would need to be approved in a separate referendum.
DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Stephen Green and the county school system’s lobbyist, Dan Baskerville, said City Schools of Decatur has employed its own lobbyist to ask the governor to veto the bill.
Green and Baskerville did not know why City Schools of Decatur objects to the bill.
“I don’t know that I’m 100 percent clear on that,” Baskerville said. “I know Dr. Green and the board leadership have had conversations with them. I don’t know that they’ve made a clear argument as to why.”
School Board Chair Lewis Jones said Decatur objects to the bill because “it’s bad for Decatur.”
“It’s important, in our view, that all children in the city of Decatur attend city of Decatur schools. Period,” Jones said. “This bill would change that.”
Jones said the school system spent $10,000 to hire Mark Middleton to lobby the governor on its behalf. The expense was not approved in a public School Board meeting. Jones 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 city of Decatur, which is separate from the school system, initially raised objections to the timing of Senate Bill 53 being signed. The city had an annexation bill, Senate Bill 89, that annexes the Legacy Park property, the former United Methodist Children’s Home.
Several of the cottages at Legacy Park will temporarily house families from the Swanton Heights apartment complex while that development undergoes renovation by the Decatur Housing Authority. Doug Faust, Executive Director of the DHA, said the plan is to have 10 families on the Legacy Park property at any given time as Swanton Heights is redeveloped.
If Senate Bill 53 had been signed before Senate Bill 89, it would have meant those students were technically in the county school district. But Senate Bill 89 has been signed, while Senate Bill 53 awaits the governor’s signature.
Green said the county school system didn’t object to Senate Bill 89 being signed before Senate Bill 53. Green says DeKalb is open to working through its differences with other school systems on annexation questions and cited DeKalb’s deference to the Legacy Park annexation bill as an example.
“That typifies the way we’ve approached this from the beginning, by holding off on SB 53 to allow SB 89 to go forward,” Green said. “That would allow respect for both sides.”
Jones said the county school system did not reach out to the City Schools of Decatur about SB 53.
“We didn’t learn about it until it passed the Senate,” Jones said. “To talk about the specifics of what’s fair and not fair, I think misses the point. If you want a fair bill we need to sit down together and come up with it. You don’t get a fair bill by keeping us in the dark.”
In a statement, the school system said while it did not directly negotiate with City Schools of Decatur about the bill, the school system was aware of it.
“We understand that Decatur’s objections go to both the process and the substance,” the school system said. “With regard to the process, while we were not in direct conversations with them, this legislation (in its current and previous iterations) has been in circulation for two years. Apparently, until very recently they never discussed it with their representatives in the Legislature and even then they primarily asked to be exempted with which the Legislature did not agree.”
Green said annexation of unincorporated areas into other school systems deprives the school system of crucial revenue.
An email from Green’s office points to the city of Decatur’s Parkwood annexation in 2014 as an example of the problem.
“Decatur completed the Parkwood annexation … and it diverts more than $500,000 a year to Decatur City Schools but moved fewer than 20 students into that district,” the email from Green’s office says. “Between Atlanta and Decatur annexations, more than $4.5 million annually has been diverted since 2013 for fewer than 60 students. As a result, [the DeKalb County School District] is educating pretty much the same number of students with significantly less money. DCSD has the second largest population of poor students in Georgia. Approximately 72 percent (~73,000) of DCSD students are on free and reduced lunch.”
Jones said Parkwood’s annexation was initiated by that neighborhood, not the school system.
“If you look at the Parkwood annexation, and look at the number of kids in Parkwood, I don’t think we come out ahead in that,” he said.
But what about DeKalb County Schools’ argument that it deprived the school system of revenue?
“That might be,” Jones said. “The broader thing I’d say about that is … annexation presents issues. We can work these things out and there’s a fair and equitable solution if people can sit down at a table and come to a compromise. We stand ready to do that. We weren’t given the chance.”
Green said SB 53 is important to the county school system’s future.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to protect our resources to serve our students,” he said. “We have demonstrated it’s not the goal to abolish annexations altogether. It’s about being strategic about it and come to a mutually beneficial collaboration. There’s always a window of opportunity to collaborate. We cannot continue down this path where land and commercial property are siphoned into another school district, taking that property tax with it and leaving us with less money to educate our kids.”
Jones said the school system is simply “asking the governor to veto what we believe is a very bad and unconstitutional bill.”
“If the bill gets vetoed, we stand ready to work with the DeKalb County school system and address their concerns to come up with a fair compromise that will address the interest of our children and theirs,” Jones said.