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Why the Legislature waited until the last minute to pass Decatur’s senior tax break bill

Decatur Local news

Why the Legislature waited until the last minute to pass Decatur’s senior tax break bill

Beth Byrnes sits in the living room of the Decatur home she and her husband Henri bought 35 years ago and raised three daughters in. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May 1 e-edition.

Decatur, GA — The state Legislature passed a bill updating City Schools of Decatur’s senior homestead tax exemption on the last day of the session.

Decatur’s representatives delayed the bill as they asked the Decatur School Board to commit to addressing concerns about literacy and special education, according to records reviewed by Decaturish and interviews with people involved in the negotiations.

The homestead tax exemption provides tax breaks to seniors in Decatur, keeping them from being priced out of the city. More than 1,000 seniors currently use the tax exemption for school taxes, meaning their ability to stay in Decatur would’ve been jeopardized if the homestead exemption bill had not passed.

Gov. Brian Kemp still has to sign the bill. Upon his signature, the senior homestead tax exemption will be on the ballot in November as a referendum. Kemp has until May 8 to sign or veto bills.

Beth Byrnes has taken a senior homestead tax exemption since it became available. Byrnes and her husband, Henri, have lived in Decatur for 35 years. They raised three daughters in Decatur. They both formerly worked for the Decatur Housing Authority.

Byrnes currently takes the S-6 exemption and estimates her family saves about $4,000 per year on their taxes. If the exemption were to expire, Byrnes and her husband could stay in the city but don’t know if they would.

“We don’t know that it would be worth it to pay that kind of tax when we don’t have kids in school here anymore,” she said. “We paid those school taxes for many, many years, and it was worth it when the kids were going to the schools.”

They would consider looking at other cities or counties that offer a senior homestead tax exemption if CSD’s exemption expired.

“The most important thing, though, I think, is there are a lot of elderly people who live here who wouldn’t be able to stay if we didn’t have it,” Byrnes said. “They just couldn’t afford it. Everybody deserves to age in the home they’ve created and their kids have grown up in.”

The Decatur delegation celebrated the passage of the homestead exemption bill, which would renew the exemption for five years if the governor signs the bill, and it’s approved by voters this fall.

“We are pleased to announce that the Georgia Legislature has passed the two Decatur bills, SB 287, regarding Board of Education Reapportionment, and SB 288, regarding the Decatur Senior Homestead Exemption,” the Decatur delegation said in a statement.

SB 287 redistricted CSD’s two election districts, which mirror those of the Decatur City Commission. That bill passed on March 27 and is also awaiting the governor’s signature.

Reps. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Becky Evans (D-Atlanta), Omari Crawford (D-Decatur), Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) and Sen. Elena Parent (D- Senate District 42) approved the statement.

Decaturish has reached out to Drenner, the chair of the DeKalb delegation, seeking further comment about her role in getting the bills passed, but has not received an immediate response.

Listening to parents’ concerns

During the legislative session, the Decatur delegation heard from parents who were concerned about the district’s approach to literacy instruction and the use of balanced literacy. Reps. Drenner and Crawford spoke with parents during Dyslexia Day at the Capitol on Feb. 7 and discussed their experiences in CSD.

The parents also met with Rep. Oliver on Feb. 24 and communicated with Rep. Evans throughout February and March about the literacy bill she introduced.

“These parents provided us with detailed facts and figures for CSD, around reading instruction, multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) and serving children who are struggling to learn to read; this included but was not limited to children with language-based learning differences and children from low-income backgrounds,” the statement from the delegation said.

On Feb. 27, the delegation met with a couple of Decatur School Board members and Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman to discuss the school district’s bills and meet with parent advocates, like Emily Beard.

“We didn’t really know what the protocol was, but we got a call in the morning that Karla Drenner wanted us to come because she was calling the school board, and she wanted us to be there to say our piece in front of the school board, so they would understand what we were asking for,” Beard said.

The meeting with the delegation and other presenters ran long and CSD had just a few minutes to discuss their legislation. Beard followed up in an email on March 3. A couple of weeks later, Drenner asked the parents what they wanted to see from the school board.

Based on the parents’ concerns, here is what the delegation requested:

– Commitment from the Decatur School Board for all members to meet with literacy advocates before the end of the 2023 school year.

– The multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) task force be kicked off by May 1, and the school board accept the dyslexia task force recommendations and review them at the board of education’s April work session.

In the fall of 2022, CSD launched a task force of teachers, parents and community members looking at how the district implements its dyslexia pilot program and instructional programming. The MTSS task force was supposed to look at MTSS and 504 eligibility processes and procedures, assess areas of improvement and review their implementation.

– The school district commits to writing and adopting a district policy that requires a review of all instructional materials and assessments. The review should include material for all subjects and grades, including those that support structured literacy, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

State Rep. Karla Drenner works at her desk on the House floor during the last day of the legislative session on March 29. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Negotiating the final details

A lobbyist for DeKalb County Schools was also involved in this process, but he says that he was not officially representing anyone in the discussion.

In an email dated March 19, lobbyist Dan Baskerville sent these parent requests to Reps. Drenner, Evans, Crawford, and Oliver. He also said that he thought the first two requests were reasonable and doable.

“The third request, while fair, is a bit more nebulous and could be hard to measure; so if you and/or the Board have issues or revisions to that request, I am not sure it should be an impasse for reaching a deal (ie. passing the bills),” Baskerville said in an email obtained through an open records request.

Baskerville was a Decatur School Board candidate in 2021. Baskerville facilitated introductions between the parents and Decatur legislators because he felt the school district has continued to “inadequately address these issues, and that hopefully by sharing these concerns with their state representatives, they might push the District toward appropriate action,” he told Decaturish.

“I was not officially or really even unofficially representing anybody,” he added. “When I ran for Decatur School Board, my biggest issue was about CSD’s approach to literacy instruction and how that was negatively impacting a significant number of Decatur families. I have continued to be concerned with this issue, including making comments at a board meeting and trying to support a group of Decatur parent advocates that work tirelessly on these issues.”

During the last week of the legislative session, Rep. Evans negotiated the final details of the letter signed by School Board Chair James Herndon that would satisfy the delegation’s requests, according to emails obtained via an open records request.

“Would you be willing to commit to meet by May 1st for # 1 request?” Rep. Evans asked in an email to Herndon on March 23. “And for #2, it is our understanding that the [MTSS] task force was to have parent appointments, not just a consultant. Is that true? If not, if it is just a consultant, we are troubled by that. If the intention is to have parents, then can you please commit to their #2 request?”

Parents have been advocating for improvements to special education in CSD for years. The concerns these parents shared with the delegation are the same ones they shared with the school board over the past year. But they didn’t intend for those concerns to become entangled with tax breaks for Decatur’s seniors.

“Our hope was that by educating them on these concerns, the legislative delegation might push CSD toward taking specific actions, that we outlined for them in a written request,” Beard said. “We never intended our efforts to upend progress on other issues such as annexation or the senior homestead exemption. Those issues between the DeKalb delegation and CSD’s Board of Education bled over into our advocacy around literacy expectations and demands. It should be a both/and, not an either/or.”

She added that CSD is a small district with many resources, but many kids cannot read at a basic level by the end of third grade, and the data is worse for Black and economically disadvantaged students.

Many parents supplement their child’s education with private tutoring, and many have pulled their children out of the school district as they struggle to get resources through CSD to support their students.

In an email signed by Beard and other parents, they said they felt their concerns were being heard and action is being taken.

Herndon said in a letter to the Decatur delegation that he commits to meeting with parents before May 1 and will request that the superintendent attend those meetings. The letter was sent to the delegation on March 27.

Fehrman has secured the services of Hanover Research, an independent research firm, to do an evaluation of the multi-tiered systems of support for the school district.

“The report from Hanover will be shared publicly, and the results will be used to guide the next steps in improving our MTSS process district-wide,” Herndon said. “We look forward to hearing the recommendations of the Dyslexia Task Force. The board will consider all the recommendations through the lens of what is best for all children in CSD, including recommendations made to the administration about curriculum review. [It] would be inappropriate to agree to accept them before they are submitted.”

He added that it is his preference that the MTSS review should include an opportunity for parent feedback before the recommendations coming before the school board.

In terms of reviewing instructional material, that is under the purview of the superintendent.

“Our legal counsel has made it clear that a board has no authority to this specific request,” Herndon said.

State Rep. Becky Evans goes over bills on the House floor during the last day of the legislative session on March 29. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

At the last minute

The homestead exemption passed on March 29, which was the last day of the legislative session.

Rep. Evans said the bill passing was never in doubt, but there was a possibility the school board would get a one-year extension and not the five-year extension the school board was seeking. She said there was a point early in the morning of March 27 where a “colleague” prepared a bill with a one-year extension of the senior tax breaks, but the delegation reached an agreement with the school board chair to get the five-year extension.

Evans said the Decatur homestead exemption bill passed “along with many other local bills from around the state” on Day 40 of the legislative session. If the exemption were to have a one-year extension, the school board would have to go through the legislative process again next year.

The homestead exemption bill was sent to the governor on April 5.

Herndon told Decaturish that both bills are critical to supporting the community and school district. He added that the senior homestead exemption is a priority of the school board.

“There’s no Decatur without a diverse Decatur, and we are proud to do our part to help longtime residents age in place, as well as welcome new seniors to this great community,” Herndon said.

As with legislation, details must be ironed out before a bill passes.

“However, it is noteworthy in this situation that some of the homestead bill’s delay involved issues that were unrelated to Decatur and DeKalb seniors directly,” Herndon said. “The CSD board was told SB 288 was delayed because we needed to meet the demands of a parent group regarding CSD’s approach to literacy instruction, particularly for students with dyslexia.”

Herndon said the board believes that is “an entirely separate issue” from tax breaks from seniors, albeit an issue the board takes seriously.

City Schools of Decatur is also one of several school districts participating in the state’s dyslexia pilot program. The school board discussed the dyslexia task force recommendations during its work session on April 25.

“We hope we can help our stakeholders recognize these are two independent issues and should remain so in the future,” Herndon said. “We remain committed to doing everything we can to benefit our students and the broader Decatur community.”

Senior Homestead Exemption by the Numbers

In 2022, 1,000 homeowners took the S-6 exemption, saving a maximum of $4,200, with an actual average of $3,915 based on property assessments, said Russ Madison, finance director for the city of Decatur.

“There were 70 homeowners with the S5 also saving a maximum amount of $4,200 and an average of $3,785 based on property assessments,” Madison said.

In 2023, 68 homeowners took the S-5 exemption, and 1,057 took the S-6 exemption, saving about the same amount as last year.

Home prices in Decatur have risen at a rate far exceeding income increases across the board, said Paula Collins, who chaired the citizen task force that formerly worked on the senior homestead exemption.

“That’s definitely the case for our seniors living on fixed incomes,” Collins previously said. “Some seniors, especially our most financially vulnerable, will definitely be priced out without the exemptions. They will not have the option to age in place. We will, effectively, be driving them out of our community.”

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