Measure would let new cities create school systems

Legislation to let cities like Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Brookhaven create school systems passed its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The measure would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing cities created after 2005 to forge their own school districts.

The legislation is seen as a bid to break away from big districts like the DeKalb County system, which only recently was taken off probation by an accrediting agency.

It passed a subcommittee Tuesday and is expected to be before the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

In recent years, there has been more talk of the need to reduce districts - combining small, rural districts - to save money than about expanding the number of systems.

The proposed constitutional amendment is being sponsored by Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, who said problems with big systems, such as the cheating scandal in the Atlanta system, have hurt the state’s reputation and economy. He said the new, smaller districts would increase local control of tax money and schooling.

“I am aware this is a sensitive issue,” Taylor said. “As a state, we spend over half of our budget on education but still have less-than-stellar outcomes.”

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, a member of the House Education Committee, expressed concern that new small districts would have trouble supporting themselves.

“It concerns me that we have 180 systems right now and we have a ton of them that are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

Taylor said a feasibility study for a possible Dunwoody system showed that, using the current school tax rate, the system would run a sizable surplus.

House Education Vice Chairman Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, pointed out that many school districts that have financial problems are small, rural systems. Systems in cities like Dunwoody or Sandy Springs would have mid-size student bodies and a strong property tax base.

Rebecca Chase Williams, a member of the Brookhaven city council, said a system with between 3,000 and 10,000 students “is better for taxpayers and better for kids.” She said, for instance, the city of Decatur system - with 4,200 students - has a much higher graduation rate than DeKalb County’s district, which is one of the state’s largest, with 99,000 students.

“We are all dedicated to improving education in this state,” she said “We all want the best school systems for our children. We are asking you to give us a chance to have the right size school system.”