Druid Hills High School could be taken from DeKalb County as part of an city annexation of the Druid Hills area by Atlanta, an idea some Druid Hills parents are pushing. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Unease about schools fuels drive to ditch DeKalb

Some complain about slow police or missing sidewalks. Others say it’s the whiff, or actual stench, of government corruption that bothers them.

Many though, especially parents, say it’s the sorry state of the schools that inspires them to carve up DeKalb County.

However they do it, through incorporations or annexations, the map of Atlanta’s aging suburban bedroom community may soon be creased with a lot more lines.

The threatened dismemberment of a once-great county promises to dominate local politics when the next session of the General Assembly rumbles to a start in January. Incorporation requires legislative authorization, as do some of the more common types of annexations.

The possibility of historic and permanent change is stoking anxiety — and tension between neighbors with differing needs and means.

» INTERACTIVE MAP: Proposed annexation areas and proposed / existing DeKalb cities

Older residents on fixed incomes worry about rising tax rates. Younger people fret about schools and the future of their children. Decatur school board member Julie Rhame wonders if the cost of services in annexed areas will exceed any tax revenue gained.

“It’s scary times because there are so many unknowns,” said Rhame. The city government is proposing to expand her little city by more than a third, in both land and people.

The city school system is already swamped with kids, and the proposed annexations would bring more students. Rhame and others fear a development boom in annexed areas will swell the student population well beyond the city’s estimates.

“We have no idea how the population growth is going to affect these areas,” Rhame said.

Amy Marti, a Decatur resident of a dozen years, spoke against annexation at a recent city hearing. Her twin daughters are in third grade, and one attends school in a trailer because her school is already too crowded. “I have come to terms with the fact that she will probably be in a trailer for the rest of her educational career here,” Marti said.

Decatur’s proposed annexation is pushed by city officials who say they must act before other cities, or potential cities, grab the plum properties forever.

To the north, the proponents who failed to get a city of Briarcliff or a city of Lakeside onto the ballot in the last legislative session, are back again, arms linked this time with a joint proposal. Lawmakers, who would have to authorize new city limits, have pushed them to produce a map of their boundaries by Saturday — or have it written for them. It’s unclear whether their newly combined city plan will push far enough south to mess with Decatur, but the proponents are reportedly scrapping over territory to the north with the new city of Brookhaven and with the would-be city of Tucker.

Meanwhile, some parents in Druid Hills, wedged between Decatur and Atlanta, are pushing for annexation to Atlanta. Their rallying cry could be summed up in four words: “Remember the charter cluster!”

The DeKalb County School District denied their petition for control of Druid Hills High School and the schools within its feeder pattern, or cluster. State law allows independent management of such school clusters through charter contracts. While DeKalb was denying that petition, Atlanta Public Schools became the first in the state to approve one. Late last year, the Atlanta Board of Education unanimously voted to organize six KIPP charter schools into a cluster.

The proposed annexation to Atlanta would take only three of the seven schools in the Druid Hills cluster: Druid Hills High and Fernbank and Briar Vista elementary schools.

It’s anybody’s guess whether any of the annexations or incorporations will become a reality in the next legislative session, but the political positioning has begun.

Matt Lewis, the leader of the unsuccessful charter effort, turned up at an emergency meeting last week of the Laurel Ridge Elementary PTA. The school is within the cluster but would be left behind by annexation.

Anxious parents wondered what would become of their children. Lewis blamed DeKalb’s denial of the petition for their predicament.

“This is about an entire entrenched bureaucracy that, for whatever reason, didn’t want to try this,” he said.

Janel Green, a Laurel Ridge PTA officer who led the meeting, summed up the questions she was getting from her members: “I think people really want to understand: Where is the place for these children, and what will that do to our community?”

The lawmakers and school officials present didn’t have a clear answer. Lobby the Gold Dome for what you want, the parents were told.

The area could become part of a city of Briarcliff and Lakeside, but would still be part of the DeKalb school system. That’s because the Georgia constitution prohibits creation of new school districts, although cityhood proponents have been pushing to change that.

“We’re all very frustrated and dissatisfied with DeKalb County schools,” said Mary Kay Woodworth, a leader of the Lakeside cityhood movement. She and her husband raised four children in the system but it had deteriorated so much by the time their last child reached high school, she said, that they put her in private school. The cityhood movements gained momentum when the DeKalb County School District was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2012. Also, poverty rates were rising but test scores, graduation rates and other measures were lackluster.

Recently, when Woodworth’s son bought a house, he did so in Roswell because he plans on having children.

Woodworth is a realist. She doesn’t expect a constitutional change for schools to come on the heels of incorporation, but she thinks a city would wield political clout with the school system, which might help until the constitution can be changed.

Michael Devoto, who was shopping at the Oak Grove Market last week in the heart of Lakeside territory, summed up the shared frustration with a nod out the store window. DeKalb workers were remodeling the street with a new design that prohibits left turns out of the parking lot, surprising and frustrating some, including Devoto. Had this been a smaller city, he said, he might have had a say-so in the design.

Devoto, who grew up here, would like to see the schools restored to their former glory. But, like Woodworth, he’s a realist.

“I’d just like a little bit of local control,” he said.

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