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DeKalb legislative delegation blasts City Schools of Decatur over veto of annexation bill

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DeKalb legislative delegation blasts City Schools of Decatur over veto of annexation bill

State Sen. Emanuel Jones speaks during a May 13 press conference about Gov. Brian Kemp vetoing Senate Bill 53.
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Editor’s note: You can find City Schools of Decatur’s full statement on the veto and CSD’s Q&A about this topic at the end of this article. 

This story has been updated. 

By Sara Amis, contributor 

Members of the DeKalb legislative delegation on Monday sharply criticized Governor Brian Kemp for vetoing Senate Bill 53 and also criticized City Schools of Decatur for lobbying for the veto.

The bill would have separated municipal annexations and school system annexations. It required a separate vote and negotiation between school systems to include compensation for transfer of school buildings among other things. It was introduced to provide a legislative resolution to the ongoing lawsuit brought by the DeKalb County School District to halt the annexation of the area around Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control. Senate Bill 53 is the product of a study conducted by state legislators which was prompted by that lawsuit.

In a statement, City Schools of Decatur called SB 53 “detrimental and unconstitutional,” and said that, “Nobody from [the DeKalb County School Board] or the DeKalb legislative delegation ever contacted CSD about the bill. Having been excluded from the discussions leading to its development, we were left with no option but to request a veto.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Green, Superintendent of DeKalb County School District, said “Senate Bill 53 has been in the works for two years. We have been very public and very visible about that.”

Green said the City of Decatur discussed the bill at a meeting in February where City Schools of Decatur Superintendent David Dude had said he planned to reach out to Green.

Green said that he had initiated a meeting with Dude in April.

“We are very concerned about the transparency with regard to the communication around Senate Bill 53,” Green said.  “We have shown a history of being willing to work collaboratively with other school districts and the City of Atlanta.”

State Sen. Emanuel Jones said that there had been ample opportunity for CSD to register objections.

“The reason why I am standing here today is because personally I feel blindsided.  I had no indication whatsoever, as the author of this legislation and chair of the DeKalb County Senate delegation, that there were any concerns from anyone related to Senate bill 53, and I’m talking specifically about City Schools of Decatur,” said Jones.

Additionally, Jones offered copies of letters sent to Gov. Kemp urging him to sign SB 53, and said, “In my efforts to try to ensure that there were no issues with this legislation, I tried to keep in touch with the Governor’s office.  None of my requests got a response from anyone at the Governor’s office.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jones indicated that the lobbyist hired by City Schools of Decatur did not communicate with him.

“Nor did I hear from this lobbyist, Mark Middleton, who I understand was Governor Kemp’s fraternity brother,” added Jones. “Mark never reached out to me as the author of Senate Bill 53.  It seems to me that [City Schools of Decatur] was intent on just vetoing this legislation, and had an inside track on how to do so.  I’ve never seen in my 15 years up here that kind of backhanded undertaking, particularly when all of the parties were willing to work with City Schools of Decatur and anyone else who had objections related to this particular legislation.”

Legislators pointed out that the bill received unanimous support from the DeKalb delegation, which represents both DeKalb County and Decatur.

“I have served in the General Assembly for nineteen years, under four governors and five speakers,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale, who is chair of the DeKalb House delegation. “I can never recall an instance where a local bill was vetoed that had unanimous support from all of the delegation members in both chambers. From my perspective, not only is the veto unprecedented, but the veto statement itself lacks any real substantive concerns.”

Drenner went on to say that City Schools of Decatur had the opportunity to attend and participate in committee meetings but did not.

“How did the City Schools of Decatur, who did not participate in the legislative process, show up weeks after the session ended, and get a bill that everyone had agreed upon vetoed?” asked Drenner.

According to Dr. Green and Senator Jones, annexations of parts of DeKalb County by Atlanta and Decatur since 2013 have been focused on commercial property, maximizing resource transfer while minimizing the number of new students who accompany the annexation. The DeKalb County School District has lost $4.5 million annually due to the annexation, but only about 60 students.

State Sen. Elena Parent characterized the annexations as a resource transfer that heightens existing inequities between rich and poor.

“I’m fortunate that I represent three great school systems, Atlanta, Decatur and DeKalb,” Parent said. “My most perfect wish is that they all are excellent and all are able to educate children within them to the highest quality. But I have to say that I don’t worry too much when the other two are the wealthiest school systems in the state.  I worry about the resources being sucked out of DeKalb County.”

Green said DeKalb County Schools students are in need of those resources.

“Seventy percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunches,” Green said. “We need everything we can get to take care of our students and provide the kind of wrap-around services that they need to keep them whole so they can continue to get the quality education that they deserve.”

Sen. Jones pledged to “explore all avenues,” beginning with a meeting with Governor Kemp to try to persuade him to rescind his veto.

“We are not done. We are just beginning,” Green said.

Here is the full statement from City Schools of Decatur about the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 53: 

City Schools of Decatur Board of Education Statement on SB 53 Veto

On Friday, May 7, Governor Kemp vetoed Senate Bill 53. City Schools of Decatur (CSD) thanks the Governor for taking this action to prevent a detrimental and unconstitutional bill from becoming law.

“We opposed SB 53 because we believe it is important for all children in the City of Decatur to attend City of Decatur Schools, as they do now, and SB 53 would have changed that,” said Board Chair Lewis Jones. SB 53 would have created two Decaturs: one for children attending our schools, and another for children not allowed to. It would be especially unfair to those forced to pay taxes to support schools their children could not attend.

In addition to preserving the fabric and identity of our small community, there are many practical reasons to keep the city and school boundaries aligned. Separating the city from its schools would create serious inefficiencies for no reason.

The proponents of SB 53 have stated incorrectly that SB 53 was focused only on commercial annexations. If that was the intent, the effort misfired, because the actual text of the bill went much further. The bill would have prohibited any adjustment to City Schools of Decatur’s boundaries from any annexation involving fewer than 2,000 students. All conceivable residential annexations were included, including individual half-lots. The only exception was for annexations expressly approved by the DeKalb County School Board (DCSB) through a formal intergovernmental agreement. Although described as a “cooperative process,” by giving DCSB power to approve or disapprove any annexation, the intergovernmental agreement exception actually removed any incentive for DCSB to cooperate.

We could have addressed these concerns and helped to negotiate an appropriate bill if we had been informed about it and included in the discussions leading to its development, but that did not occur. Nobody from DCSB or the DeKalb legislative delegation ever contacted CSD about the bill. Having been excluded from the discussions leading to its development, we were left with no option but to request a veto.

Attached to this press release are questions and answers that have arisen about SB 53 over the last few months.

SB 53 QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Question: How would SB 53 have caused Decatur residents to pay for schools they couldn’t use?

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.

Question: How would SB 53 have complicated the delivery of local services?

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.

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.

Question: How did SB 53 violate the state constitution?

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.

Question: When did CSD first learn about SB 53?

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.

Question: How long did the Senate deliberate over SB 53 before passing it?

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.

Question: What did CSD do when it learned about SB 53?

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.

Question: Did any member of the Georgia General Assembly notify CSD about SB 53?

No.

Question: Did any member of the DeKalb County School Board or administration notify CSD about SB 53?

No.

Question: Did CSD communicate its opposition to SB 53 to the DeKalb legislative delegation?

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.

Question: When the DeKalb County House Delegation held a hearing about SB 53 in February, did they inform CSD about the hearing?

No.

Question: Did CSD send a representative to the hearing anyway?

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?

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.

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?

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.

Question: The legislation passed unanimously out of both chambers. Doesn’t that mean the legislators all agree that it’s good legislation?

No. It is common for “local legislation,” such as SB 53, to pass unanimously in deference to those legislators who sponsored the bill.

Question: DCSB has pointed to Decatur’s annexation of Parkwood as an example of its concern. Who initiated this annexation?

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?

No. Annual tax revenue to DCSB from the annexed properties would have been less than $115,000 this year.

Question: Did the Parkwood annexation bring revenues in excess of costs?

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.

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