Scrambling for lifeboats as DeKalb sinks

Back in 2012, the president of the Druid Hills Civic Association voiced concerns about the growing cityhood movements in DeKalb County. He called it a “cynical” process.

“You peel away affluent areas, get enough commercial, and the heck with people left behind,” said Bruce MacGregor.

Dunwoody had incorporated four years before, and in 2012 Brookhaven laid claim to enough commercial area to make a go of it. At the time, many in north-central DeKalb County were starting to look for a lifeboat. The options then, MacGregor said, were: Do nothing; try to be annexed by Atlanta or Decatur; or join up with other communities to create a new city.

Today, MacGregor is no longer president, but it’s clear that a good portion of the organization he once led is leaning toward Atlanta. One indication is a chart the civic association put together handicapping its choices. Key phrases associated with each option give a good sense of which way the wind is blowing.

Remaining unincorporated: “Recent DeKalb County corruption scandals and mismanagement … ”

Creating another city: “New cities boast enthusiasm and purpose, but the inexperience … ”

Joining Atlanta: “Financially stable with AA bond rating. Growing budget surplus … ”

Last summer, civic association president Justin Critz wrote, “As new cities form around us, the portion of Druid Hills in unincorporated DeKalb County could become isolated and face higher taxes and a disproportionately lower share of HOST funds because we will be left to fund mandated County services.”

Lifeboat, please.

Critz now is on the steering committee of Together in Atlanta, the group that popped up last year and, according to its website, is “hoping to become part of the robust growth and direction of the City of Atlanta.” Critz, who lives in the small portion of Druid Hills already in Atlanta, regrets how divisive it has all gotten, but he believes the future looks brighter for Atlanta than its neighbor to the east.

MacGregor, who is unincorporated DeKalb, still sits on the fence, wavering between guilt and self interest. “I deplore the balkanizing (of DeKalb), but at the same time, I don’t want to be the last man standing.”

That’s increasingly the feeling elsewhere. Up the road in the proposed city of Lavista Hills, the yard signs are urgent: “It’s too late to wait.” City movements and annexations are now forming everywhere, even in South DeKalb, as state legislators cogitate on which plans should get a go.

The drive to annex the well-to-do Druid Hills neighborhood to Atlanta picked up momentum in 2013 when the Druid Hills charter cluster effort was shot down by the DeKalb school board. The idea was to grant autonomy to seven schools, complete with a $40 million budget.

DeKalb school Superintendent Michael Thurmond opposed the plan, saying it would hurt the 100,000-student system as a whole. The board voted 5-4 to defeat it.

Charter movement leaders were set to move on, but they still wanted to get a reckoning from Thurmond. So they met with him last month. They asked what, if anything, would overcome the board’s resistance.

Nothing, said Thurmond, according to notes of the meeting that leaked out.

“If they wanted their petition approved, they should have approached him more respectfully,” the notes recount. “When asked if the basis for denial boiled down to the desire to maintain power over the schools, MT said yes. He said he would never grant full autonomy to the charter cluster.”

Additionally, and this is the part that has folks buzzing, Thurmond reportedly said that “he knows the difference between right and wrong. He likened it to the hard fight for change in Selma.”

Those comments have drawn outrage, especially since the charter cluster movement was often viewed as an effort by white residents to gain control, and the three white board members were on the losing side of the vote. (The cluster’s student population would have been mostly minority, however.)

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat who represents the area, said Thurmond lobbing Selma into the discussion “was either a political strategy or an honest feeling. But it was the strongest possible way to say he wasn’t going to work with them.”

What would the political strategy be? Oliver speculated that Thurmond might be angling to run for DeKalb CEO.

Thurmond, whose contract expires June 30, laughed heartily at that idea. The former politician, who served three terms as Georgia labor commissioner, said trying to become CEO of the snake-bitten county “is the last thing I would do, period, paragraph, close the book.”

Thurmond also disputed the picture the notes paint of his meeting with the charter cluster folks.

“Those notes are a misstatement,” he said. “The superintendent cannot grant a charter cluster. I encouraged them to resubmit the petition and told them I looked forward to working with them.”

As for the idea that he was playing the race card, Thurmond said the shoe is on the other foot. “They have done this to me since day one,” he said. “They’re trying to put me in a racial box. They continually try to distort my words.”

But Dave Roberts, one of the three cluster leaders who met with Thurmond, said the superintendent was clear their plan never had a shot at passing. He said the Selma comment came at the end of the meeting, and “we were all taken aback.” He added, “Yes. I think there was a racial undertone.”

Days after the meeting, the charter cluster leadership disbanded the organization for good.

Now charter cluster folks are split. A successful annexation into Atlanta would put Druid Hills High School and two of the cluster’s other six schools into the city of Atlanta school system, a system that is currently on trial for cheating, whose leaders have promised reform.

There is no way of knowing where the Druid Hills students would attend school in the Atlanta system or what kind of autonomy there might be. In essence, the annexation folks are going for the devil they don’t know to get away from the devil they know.

And then there are the students and their families who were in the proposed cluster but won’t be in Atlanta. In central DeKalb, there is a doughnut of neighborhoods being left behind. Atlanta apparently doesn’t want them, nor does Decatur or Lavista Hills.

Their kids would be cast adrift, and many would probably get redistricted into schools that are lower achieving. Roberts, whose neighborhood near Decatur would be one of them, has already sent his child to private school after not winning the lottery to get into a high-achieving DeKalb school.

“It’s frustrating, there’s so many rumors and misconceptions,” he said. He figures an Atlanta annexation will hurt DeKalb schools even further, because of the loss of tax money and high-achieving students.

As MacGregor said, “the heck with people left behind.”

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