Druid Hills annexation into Atlanta: 'An opportunity to join a city on the ascent'

Natalie DiSantis is a past resident of Atlanta who now resides in the unincorporated DeKalb community seeking annexation into Atlanta.

She supports Together In Atlanta, which she calls "a grassroots effort by neighbors in the Emory University area hoping to become part of the robust growth and positive direction of the city of Atlanta."

Here is her response to  an essay on the blog last week  opposed to that annexation campaign. Later this week, I will post an essay by a Druid Hills High school student on this issue as well.

What remains to be seen is whether the General Assembly will act on an annexation bill. Because of the divisions in the community, this is a controversial issue that lawmakers may want to duck.

But there is a lot of interest within the community, as this essay indicates.

By Natalie DiSantis

Earlier this week, the Get Schooled blog published a well-written letter by Thomas Bodnar, a teacher at Druid Hills Middle School, regarding the proposed City of Atlanta plan to annex the Druid Hills community.  Mr. Bodnar’s commitment to advocating for his school and students is a shining example of what makes our community special.

Reasonable and thoughtful people who respect each other can, and often do, disagree on issues. Such is the case for Mr. Bodnar and those who are part of the “Together in Atlanta” annexation effort.

It’s tempting to accept wholesale Mr. Bodnar’s position that “a small but vocal minority has perpetuated this course of action largely because original proposals to create an autonomous charter cluster … was denied by the school board in November 2013.  As a result, other courses of action were pursued to gain independence from DeKalb County Schools.”

But his position is simply not true and dramatically misrepresents and sells short the many reasons for annexation.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The push for annexation is not a response to either the denial of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition or the myriad difficulties that continue to grow within the DeKalb County School District.  It is a thoughtful and reasoned response to the complex challenges facing DeKalb County as a whole.

As far back as August of 2013, as incorporation efforts were aggressively ramping up across the county – well before the charter cluster petition was rejected by the DeKalb Board of Education – concerned Druid Hills residents collected and disseminated information about all the various incorporation and annexation options.  At a town hall meeting attended by nearly 700, many were impressed by the value proposition offered by the City of Atlanta.

Residents – including those without children as well as those with children who are grown, enrolled in private school, or attending DeKalb public schools – formed Together In Atlanta (“TIA”) to advocate for annexation as Druid Hills’ best option to incorporation.  The prioritize joining a city that’s racially and economically diverse, offers better services, and is financially strong.

To be clear, TIA believes:

· Remaining part of unincorporated DeKalb is simply not a viable option. DeKalb County will incorporate. Politicians, from the DeKalb CEO to the statehouse, have recognized that DeKalb's rebirth and sustainable strength depend on incorporation. Economically, administratively, and operationally, the county can function better with incorporation.

  • Annexation presents an opportunity to join a city on the ascent. Millennials and baby boomers alike are moving back into the City. Kirkwood, Old Fourth Ward, and Cabbagetown have been revitalized. Regional transportation initiatives and MARTA's renaissance re-invigorate communities and investment in quality infrastructure. Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Morehouse and Spellman have catalyzed change and innovation. There are billion dollar public/private partnerships in the Beltline, Ponce City Market, and surrounding areas.
  • Annexation provides Druid Hills with an opportunity to unite under one local jurisdiction for service delivery. When a neighborhood has split jurisdictions, it creates "Border Zones" that become problematic for emergency response times and other public services.
  • Atlanta offers better services for the money. Atlanta's fire and police are nationally recognized.  At similar cost to DeKalb County, Atlanta provides over double the police and fire personnel.  Crime in Atlanta is down 20 percent over the past 5 years.
  • The Atlanta City Council offers better representation than the DeKalb County Commission. This is an opportunity to have better representation through Atlanta's NPU system and a Councilperson who would represent 40,000 rather than a DeKalb Commissioner who represents 140,000.
  • Atlanta has a global brand, as do Emory and the CDC located in the heart of Druid Hills. It is reasonable and productive for the three of them to be together. Geographically, geopolitically and economically, these three entities have more in common and more to gain together than apart. And parts of our community already lie within City of Atlanta lines.

The question of Atlanta Public Schools versus DeKalb County Schools has not been and will not be the driving force behind our annexation efforts.  But our local schools have served as the organizing principle for the proposed annexed territory, which is that neighborhoods and communities are defined most directly by elementary schools – in terms of property value, identities, voluntarism, and childhood friendships.  More importantly, we believe minimizing student disruptions is most important at these early learning stages.

The reality regarding the schools is quite different than that portrayed by Mr. Bodnar:

  • The proposed annexation area prioritizes keeping those elementary school communities directly impacted (Briar Vista and Fernbank) intact. TIA sought a plan that would preserve its elementary school zones rather than divide them, while not violating those of other elementary school zones.  There has been no conversation whatsoever seeking to extend the grade levels served by Briar Vista and Fernbank through 8th
  • We agree with Mr. Bodnar that our schools' diversity is a tremendous asset that should be respected and maintained. In the short run, communities inside the TIA map lose a Middle School, and those outside the map lose a High School.  But we are committed  to advocating for the solution the law provides for; namely, that the 7 schools within the Druid Hills High School cluster can continue to operate together even if Atlanta annexes Druid Hills.
  • Atlanta Public Schools offers considerable advantages to DeKalb County Schools that make annexation a compelling opportunity. Specifically, they pay their teachers more, they spend more on their students, and they maintain lower teacher-student ratios.

Drawing the lines and providing a transparent process and time period for education on all the facts, followed by a vote according to the annexation/new city formation statutes is a healthy method to assess the will of the people. These issues should be decided on the ballot, not in the back rooms, on blogs, or in chat rooms.