Will Atlanta and DeKalb end up feuding over annexation and schools?

With Emory and the CDC about to be annexed into the city of Atlanta, a debate is erupting over the fate of the school attendance lines.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

With Emory and the CDC about to be annexed into the city of Atlanta, a debate is erupting over the fate of the school attendance lines.

The proposed annexation of Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into the city of Atlanta will leave 9 or 10 public school students in limbo. Will those students remain in DeKalb County schools or move to Atlanta Public Schools?

Despite the small number of schoolchildren impacted by the annexation, there is a great of angst over the resolution of school attendance. That's because some in DeKalb worry larger ambitions may be at play here. While Emory and the CDC are the focus today, could the entire Druid Hills neighborhood be the next annexation candidate? If so, how would that affect the well-regarded DeKalb schools within the Druid Hills neighborhood and the children who attend them?

The city of Atlanta has favored expansion of its borders without a concomitant expansion of the Atlanta school district.

As the AJC's Mark Niesse reported last week:

The incorporation of Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta would be the largest addition to the city since it annexed Buckhead 65 years ago.

The Atlanta City Council could vote on the 744-acre Emory annexation as soon as Nov. 6 — the day before the election. If passed next month, the annexation would take effect Dec. 1. The Council voted 13-0 on Monday to approve a settlement with DeKalb County that resolves objections over fire services and zoning.

But disagreements between city and county school systems remain. Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said the school system should expand along with the city, saying she wants "to ensure that the students and families served by APS also get to participate in that growth."

DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green said Carstarphen's request to change the school system overlooked the impact on students and their families who live at Villa International, which primarily houses foreign researchers working at Emory and the CDC.

"Though limited to a handful of children, you have suggested these children be switched to APS schools without regard to whether this is the best solution," Green wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Carstarphen.

Carstarphen has fueled even more discussion with her statements a few days ago on annexation. As AJC reporter Vanessa McCray wrote:

Carstarphen dismissed the notion that APS' stance has held up the annexation vote by city council.  "I don't think it has anything to do with APS. They have their process. I respect it, but we've made it clear we have charter rights to grow in a coterminous fashion with the city," she said.

DeKalb school board member Marshall Orson has been wary of annexation and its possible impact on DeKalb schools. He's been voicing those concerns on Facebook, especially in light of Carstarphen's comments:

No mention of what is in the best interests of the children directly affected. No concern about the ongoing impact on the 102,000 students of DeKalb if these annexations continue and follow her approach. No remorse that she elevates politics and power over the welfare of children.

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum (and I put myself squarely in the progressive camp), I hope that we all find her comment chilling — when a government official elevates the "rights" of a government over the interests of its people, we should all be concerned. I hope that my colleagues on the APS Board of Education quickly and loudly denounce this assertion by Supt. Carstarphen. I hope that the Atlanta City Council continues to be judicious in its decision about the Emory annexation and the long-term implications for children in DeKalb — by passing the ordinance as proposed so that the children directly affected now, and the multitudes of others who may be caught up in future annexations, are allowed to maintain their relationships with their schools. I hope that the APS Supt. does not intend to continue to use DeKalb's children as pawns in a political battle of her own making and that wisdom prevails over her short-term political agenda that does not place front and center the interests of our most valuable resource - our children.

Orson’s comments sparked debate over whether it was fair to fault Carstarphen for what seems a natural conclusion: If the city of Atlanta grows through annexation, shouldn't the school district that serves the city grow with it?

Does Carstarphen’s contention that the school system must grow with the city undermine annexation? Consider the potential annexation of the Druid Hills neighborhood. Residents may see benefits to joining the city but not the school system. (Those residents now send their kids to high-performing DeKalb schools. The nearby APS schools are also strong, but overcrowded even now.)

The question that Carstarphen's position prompts: If the Emory annexation veers from the approach originally represented --  school district boundaries would not be changed  --  will that cause residents who want their kids to continue in their current districts and schools to oppose future annexations?

This issue is complex, emotional and political. Any thoughts on it?