Decatur High School in December 2015. Jonathan Phillips / Special to the AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: Decatur schools’ political power play in black & white

For decades, the city of Decatur has fostered a high-minded, if not a somewhat self-righteous, image as a caring, progressive oasis.

It is the personification of wokeness, of a population that cares for the little guy, even as its well-heeled urban professional residents continually nudge longtime working-class and minority neighbors out of that gentrifying refuge.

I’ve said before that the happy little village probably has more concentrated white guilt than any other Georgia burg. And after its latest move, it would seem that communal feeling might get even white-guiltier.

Last week, Democratic Decatur pulled a fast one, getting Republican Gov. Brian “Shotgun” Kemp to veto a bill that would have cramped any expansionist ambitions the city’s school system might have had. The district hired an experienced lobbyist — and maybe more importantly, a buddy of Kemp’s — to get the Guv to shoot down this bill.

The veto promises to hurt the majority black DeKalb County school district (61 percent of its students are African American) and benefit Decatur’s ascendant and majority white (64 percent) school district.

The legislation would have helped stave off annexations by Atlanta and Decatur school systems in DeKalb County, incursions that continually chip away DeKalb schools’ tax underpinnings. The bill was backed by all state legislators whose districts include Decatur.

The whole thing started two years ago when Atlanta pulled a sneaky move when annexing 744 acres of DeKalb that included Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan originally said the area being annexed would become part of Atlanta but any kids living there — only about 10 — would continue to attend DeKalb schools. That would let DeKalb keep the tax money for that swath, about $2.25 million a year.

Atlanta schools opposed this and the Atlanta City Council reneged on the deal. DeKalb schools lost the money.

That brought about this year’s legislation stating if Atlanta or Decatur were to annex land in unincorporated DeKalb, then a second effort would be required for that property to be taken from the DeKalb school system. (According to DeKalb records, Atlanta and Decatur have annexed property 60 times in the past five years, costing the district $4.5 million a year. Decatur says DeKalb is overestimating the cost in at least one large annexation.)

Decatur has become a victim of its own success. Young people continually move to the city to send their children to the top-flight and increasingly overcrowded schools. The city says there are now about 5,600 students in the schools, up 2,300 from 1996, but close to 1960s’ numbers.

Residents there pay through the nose to fund these schools and Decatur lusts after land north of the city — commercial land that if annexed would bring in lots of tax dollars but few students. Decatur schools don’t really want more students. They wouldn’t know where to put them.

Decatur schools to run out of space by 2018

In the past decade, the DeKalb district has struggled with test scores and accreditation. About 73 percent of DeKalb’s students are economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free and reduced lunch. About 11 percent of Decatur’s students qualify.

In 2017, DeKalb spent about $12,270 per student, according to the state, while Decatur spent $14,283. Atlanta spent $18,197.

So, hanging onto every last dollar is vital for the more challenged DeKalb district.

The bill to limit Atlanta’s and Decatur’s ambitions passed with very little debate and headed to the governor’s desk. Two weeks after the legislative session ended, the Decatur school system employed a fellow named Mark Middleton, a master of the dark art of lobbying.

Middleton has been a fixture at the Georgia Capitol for years. More importantly, he has long been a friend and supporter of Brian Kemp’s. He was Kemp’s legal adviser when Kemp ran for secretary of state. Later, in the 2018 governor’s race, Middleton was one of the first lobbyists to bet on Kemp when the safe money went with Lite Gov. Casey Cagle.

(A fun fact here: During that GOP primary election, Cagle tried to win conservative cred by beating up on liberal Decatur on the issue of immigration.)

As we all know, Kemp outdid Cagle in election stunts, pointing his shotgun toward a teen and winning the vote. Lobbyist Middleton, who was on Kemp’s transition team and is co-chair of the important Judicial Nominating Commission, suddenly became a very popular guy with businesses looking for Capitol clout. His client list now reads like a veritable who’s who of favor seekers: The Metro Atlanta Chamber, AT&T, Amazon Web Services, Georgia Power, the Georgia Railroad Association … and now Decatur.

The DeKalb bill, no doubt, barely registered on Kemp’s horizon and meant little to him. That means that a trusted colleague like Middleton could sway him with an argument about why it should be killed.

And kill it, Kemp did.

DeKalb County School Superintendent Steve Green (left), Democratic state Sen. Emanuel Jones of Decatur, and DeKalb school board member Marshall Orson try, unsuccessfully, to get an audience with Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday, May 13, 2019. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said he was “blindsided” by the veto. Jones contends the Decatur system said little during the legislative session concerning the bill.

“It seems the school system was intent on simply vetoing this legislation,” Jones said at a press conference Monday. “I’ve never seen in my 15 years here that kind of backhanded, under-the-table deal done.”

DeKalb County school officials and legislators speak during a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday, May 13, 2019. They said they were “blindsided” by a veto of a bill they supported. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lewis Jones, chairman of the Decatur School Board, said the district hired Middleton because the legislators would not listen to them. Jones said he didn’t know the bill even existed until it was passed in the Senate. Also, he said, Decatur’s objections fell on deaf legislative ears.

“The city of Decatur is a small community with a sense of identity bound up in the school system,” he told me. “It’s important that every child in Decatur attend Decatur schools, period.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat who represents part of Decatur, thinks the Atlanta district, which is being sued by DeKalb, “was in the weeds” in killing the bill but let Decatur take the front seat.

She added, “We live in the era of Trump politics where the haves don’t care about the have nots. I surely thought better of Decatur.”

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