Should New Cities Be Allowed To Form Independent School Districts?

An independent Dunwoody school system would run a surplus of $30 million according to a feasibility study paid for by the city and a local parents group.

“The revenues available to operate Dunwoody’s schools and a new Dunwoody district office will be more than sufficient to support the cost of current educational operations,” the report concludes.

The transmission of the report came on the same day the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Gov. Nathan Deal’s removal of six members of the former DeKalb County Board of Education. And it comes in the same month the current board voted down the effort by parents in the Druid Hill High School cluster to form a self-governing charter cluster.

“Hopefully this decision will give impetus to the independent school district movement,” said state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody).

The study is part of an effort led by state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) to pass a resolution in the next session of the General Assembly allowing a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to allow new cities to create their own school districts. Support will soon be forthcoming from the Sandy Springs and Brookhaven city councils.

Taylor’s resolution is narrowly tailored to the new cities to reassure county school systems around the state that they would not be balkanized.

Taylor’s resolution is HR486 and has been assigned to the House Education Committee. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a co-sponsor of the bill.

John Heneghan, a Dunwoody city councilman, has more details of the report on his blog including a link to the full report. Of note is this passage:

The report is specifically designed to assess whether educational services provided to the recently founded City of Dunwoody by the DeKalb County School District could be provided more efficiently with a leaner organizational form. The question is whether a Dunwoody Independent School District (DISD) can potentially manage a single ‘cluster’ of Dunwoody schools (one high school, and ‘feeder’ middle school and elementary schools) and deliver the same or better district educational and management services at lower cost.

Such organizational reform may be not only financially prudent but would facilitate the classroom-centered and child-centered operations without the organizational encumbrances of a district organized to serve 98,000 children. Significant changes in information technology have substantially altered the economies of scale arguments that previously argued for larger school districts. Smaller districts are consistent with educational reform that emphasizes child-centered education.

There’s no doubt this proposal will set off a firestorm in DeKalb and in the educational establishment around the state, and as one of our Front Page Posters said to me, this could attract the attention of the Justice Department.

The Dunwoody Crier article points out why:

A Dunwoody school system of some 6000 students would be 51 percent white, 17 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 12 percent Asian-American. Some 2 percent in the city system’s seven schools would qualify for free or reduced lunch.

A bit different than DeKalb County Schools as a whole.

It should also be pointed out that forming an independent school district is no small undertaking. Dunwoody and other cities may decide they don’t want to be in the school system business and would rather keep things as they are.

And of course, all of this assumes Rep. Taylor can convince super-majorities in the House and Senate to put this on the ballot next fall and that voters approve it.

Nevertheless the wave of new cities shows no signs of slowing down, especially in DeKalb. Three such DeKalb county proposals sit in the House and four in the Senate, though one is a duplicate of a House bill.

The debate over city-hood and now independent school systems appears to be just heating up.

25 comments

  1. South Fulton Guy says:

    Yes I think we should form townships based on individual subdivisions and then allow them to form their own school districts, then they would not need buses because the kids could walk to school.

  2. George Chidi says:

    Well, here we go. I find this issue fascinating, and would find it more so if I weren’t in the middle of it.

    I have to acknowledge the local advantages for Dunwoody residents to having a separate school system. Transportation becomes cheaper, administrative costs go down because there are fewer inherent administrative issues to manage with a wealthier student body, the power distance and responsiveness increases between parent and teacher and between teacher and administrator.

    And, as a leader in an incorporated city in DeKalb — I take a seat on the Pine Lake city council in a few weeks — I recognize that there are some potential advantages for my city, if the new law were extended beyond Dunwoody to other incorporated areas of the county. We’d love to start something in Pine Lake to attract families.

    That said, this will never survive a court challenge. Nor should it. Education wouldn’t be equal. But it would certainly be separate. And there, friends, is the problem.

    DeKalb County made a conscious decision decades ago to concentrate its industrial and office development along the northern arc. That decision was financially successful. The Dunwoody area benefited from those zoning choices. Had there been a reasonable expectation that the concentration of wealth in one part of the county would eventually be removed from the county tax base, I strongly suspect different decisions would have been made around how that development occurred.

    But here we are. Dunwoody is a city. And this is the other shoe dropping.

    It’s not about the money. People will scream and yell about the money, of course, but beyond cases of gross disparity, the difference in financial resources between school systems have only marginal predictive value on educational attainment.

    It’s about proximity to wealth and social interaction. Harvard and Stanford released a study earlier this year looking at every metropolitan statistical area in the country, to see where someone born in poverty has the best and worst chances of rising to the top quintile of income. Atlanta placed dead last out of 300-odd MSAs.

    The key correlation wasn’t race. It was how much mixture people in poverty had with the middle class and wealthy families, how much time they spent working together, playing together, going to church together … or to school together. We live in one of the most economically segregated places in the country, with more concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty than almost any other metro area in America.

    A separate Dunwoody school system reinforces that problem, when we should be fighting it.

    This isn’t exactly a black-white thing for me. Wealthy black families have exactly the same opportunities to educate their children that wealthy white families have. The evidence right now is that poor white families in metro Atlanta are just as screwed as poor black families in terms of being able to move up the economic ladder.

    But most of the poor in DeKalb are black and Latino. And this move is going to have a disproportionate effect on people of color. I suspect that’s what it will come down to in court. As a city, Dunwoody can zone to keep low-income families from being able to move in. The net effect will be to push poorer (read: black) families over time into the now-further-weakened DeKalb County school system.

    I understand why Dunwoody wants it. The majority of the DeKalb County Board of Education was useless and potentially corrupt. The county should be taking much more visible steps to fight corruption and to win back the public trust. And it’s not. Too many county leaders appear to be in a state of denial, ready to denounce accusers as simply racist.

    But the new board is very strong. Kicking the legs out from under it now would be an unforgivable blow to the majority of the system’s students, just when things are looking up.

    • bgsmallz says:

      Appreciate the well thought out argument…certainly disagree with some of the premises…the ultimate counter argument is Druid Hills. This was a cluster that was going to include a broad spectrum of income and race…and yet…denied.

      If your argument is, ‘no Dunwoody school district,’ you have to put forth an alternative for parents in Dunwoody and Brookhaven and Chamblee and Druid Hills (“Lakeside” “Briarcliff”) that will actually work. The status quo isn’t it….the school board has built trust that it can get the system off probation…but that’s a long way from fixing many of the problems that have nothing to do with administrative garbage and have everything to do with the classroom.

      I really can’t imagine a court challenge going anywhere. The same arguments that have been thrown out against the new cities will be used…and they’ve all lost.

      • George Chidi says:

        The arguments against the new cities lost because incorporation alone didn’t affect the school system. Brown vs. Board of Education wasn’t at play, meaningfully. The U.S. Supreme Court would have to throw out Brown for this to fly.

        • bgsmallz says:

          So are the city of Decatur schools unconstitutional?

          1) Dunwoody schools would be 51% white and 49% minority according to the study…in what way is that segregation?
          2) The school districts in Brown were split with race as the factor. The only barrier to a minority being part of Dunwoody schools is the ability to move, which isn’t really a barrier at all.

          • George Chidi says:

            Ah … but Decatur schools already exist. Decatur’s system predates Brown. And at the time of Brown, Decatur’s schools were mostly white. A wave of white flight in the ’60s and ’70s cratered property values and changed the demographics. A HUD program for homesteading radically reversed this starting in the ’70s, after Decatur began annexing the newly-revitalized areas of Oakhurst.

            I get your point, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable. Why creating a new district should be held to a different standard than an existing district is a bit of angels-on-pinheads dancing.

            But I would argue, strongly, that the ability to move is a big factor right now. I don’t know about you, but I’m deeply underwater on my home. I don’t think I can sell it, and renting it isn’t realistic. Some people can move. Many, many can’t. And even if they could … affordable housing in Dunwoody is scarce, just like Decatur. If the law passes, expect it to get a whole lot scarcer, fast.

  3. bgsmallz says:

    Yes.

    The reason independent school systems were discouraged was because of an argument that too many small districts is inefficient. There is certainly some merit in that argument, but what wasn’t contemplated so many years ago was behemoth districts, inefficient and bloated on administration overhead.

    The denial of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster should only fan the flame…http://www.reporternewspapers.net/2013/11/27/advocates-new-school-system-see-opportunity-defeat/

    What irks me is that we had an amendment to the Constitution on the ballot last year about ‘school choice’…and despite calls to expand the amendment to include the creation of independent school districts, the response was ‘make a charter cluster.’ I heard it from Rep. Lindsey, Dan Weber, etc. etc. Druid Hills shows the folly of that thinking.

    I’m concerned the same folks who were trumpeting school choice on charters are going to have second thoughts about another statewide campaign with no deep pocket private interest groups and in the face of local school board voting blocks who see this as an encroachment.

  4. Will Durant says:

    “… this could attract the attention of the Justice Department.”

    This WILL attract the attention of the Justice Department. The potential for circumventing their rules on integration with a newly carved out city also carving out a more homogenous racial makeup will not be ignored. It doesn’t matter if this only takes Dunwoody to half-white, they will not want the precedent.

    That being said I am pretty familiar with some of the problems Dunwoody High School has faced in the past having a couple of friends that taught there. The reverse-racism, for lack of a better term, they faced was overt and oppressive. We all know about the problems in the DeKalb system in recent years so I am sympathetic but they better prepare for a fight.

      • Will Durant says:

        It doesn’t matter if this only takes Dunwoody to half-white, they will not want the precedent.

        Reading comprehension problem?

          • Will Durant says:

            I admit to a comprehension problem with your name calling and had to look it up. I found South Park as juvenile as this discourse though.

            • bgsmallz says:

              Milliken v. Bradley. Read it before making false assumptions and typing in *bold*

              It helps to understand the ‘rules on integration’ before claiming there is potential that they will be circumvented. Is that less juvenile?

      • George Chidi says:

        It’s not that the Dunwoody district is homogeneous. It’s that it makes the DeKalb district even more so.

        Think of it this way. The current DeKalb district of 97,000 or so is roughly 11 percent white, which is to say it has about 10,600 white students. The Dunwoody district would be 51 percent white and have about 6000 students — or about 3000 white students. Which means it would take roughly one-third of all the white students in DeKalb out of the system.

        That’s to start, just looking at DeKalb. Now, extend it to the new systems that the cities of Brookhaven and possibly Lakeside and Tucker would be allowed to create under the law. The schools each of these communities use are all about 50 percent white and Asian demographically. Together they’re probably another 4000 white students.

        Add it up, and DeKalb schools go from about 11 percent white and six percent Asian to something closer to 2 percent for each.

        • Will Durant says:

          I really didn’t know that the entire DeKalb system was down to 11% white. I just knew that several years ago the feds had no problem when the quotas were exceeded for minorities going to Dunwoody as long as they provided their own transportation. My friends both retired and one of them is now double dipping in Gwinnett. Some of the past administration issues lost DeKalb some mighty fine educators.

          I think we are in agreement that this bill, if passed, has little chance of flying by the feds.

  5. TPNoGa says:

    Why just new cities. I live in an area annexed by Chamblee. If Btookhaven and Dunwoody get new school districts, but we have to languish in DeKalb, our property values will plummet. Already families with children about to start school, sell their houses and move. Hopefully Fran Millar won’t leave us out.

  6. George Chidi says:

    By the way, there’s a very, very interesting side-effect in the independent school district bill. Think about the implications of this language, which would authorize “any municipality created on or after January 1, 2005, and any municipality which is contiguous to a municipality created on or after January 1, 2005, irrespective of whether such municipalities may be in different counties, to establish individually or collectively by local law an independent school system; to provide for related matters; to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection; and for other purposes.”

    Suppose Lakeside incorporates next year. Suppose Tucker does, too. I’m staring at a copy of the annexation plans for Clarkston, Stone Mountain, and Avondale Estates. It is entirely possible that each of these cities would be able to start their own school systems, if their annexations are approved, this law passes and the incorporations continue apace.

    The net effect would be like rolling the annexation interests of the county’s smaller cities ( like mine ) in crystal meth. Because the remaining county system if all of that goes away, too, will be a disaster for those who remain.

  7. Nick Chester says:

    At some point someone may need to show some leadership and reform the education code. I understand tweaking it for all of the issues that arise out of Dekalb County but if financial flexibility is so desirable why can’t local systems be given the same deal?

    “Such organizational reform may be not only financially prudent but would facilitate the classroom-centered and child-centered operations without the organizational encumbrances of a district organized to serve 98,000 children”

    Lets be clear about where education stands in GA. The ultimate authority for education is in the hands of the State. Some school systems have organizational encumbrances because of State policy that forces systems (some not all) to hire and retain grant monitors/academic coaches, etc. If/when the State is ready to roll back some of its own rules and regulations you could and should see more streamlined operations. But I guess it’s so much easier to try and keep tweaking the GA Constitution and the law.

  8. Ellynn says:

    The section in the report on page 11 that starts to include capital improvements and school buildings is going to be the set of details the devil is going to turn into a battle ground.

    Detail No. 1 Publically held assets are always under assessed in value. Ask anyone in a county tax assessors office this and if it is an off the record conversation, they will agree. Those buiuldings are going to cost much more then $18,274,500

    Detail No. 2 “The most logical funding stream for the purchase of these assets is the existing SPLOST, which will also require negotiation”. Logic has nothing to do with this. First which type of splost is this? is it a true SPLOSTA, which an only be used to fund muniple governemnet projects, or an ESPLOST which can only be used by a public school system? Any SPLOST vote is written in a very legal matter to include exact items, possible items or estimated cost alotments. If this is an Esplost and the wording includes cost elotments based on esimates of revenue and lists possible school replacements, the system is not legally required to build anything in Dunwoody. more can they legal hand over any of the collected funds, even if you voted for them – without have the ESPLOST voided or amended by either a second county wide vote or by a court ruling.

    Detail No. 3. Who thinks DeKalb will actual sell the schools in question? Even if they do, what is to say they have to sell them to the new school system? The buildings are owned by Dekalb County Schools. Their names are on the property titles. Just because Dunwoody is leaving the system doesn’t mean they get to take along the toys they had before they moved on. This is not a divorce where you split up the assets.

    I see a whole set of other issues this report paints in the “best light”.

  9. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “Should New Cities Be Allowed To Form Independent School Districts?”

    Yes, yes, and yes!…With Clayton and DeKalb counties being prime examples of why new (and existing) cities should be allowed to breakaway from highly-dysfunctional county school districts and form Independent School Districts.

    This is an idea whose time is way past due that the Georgia Legislature should not hesitate to act on at the first available opportunity.

    Dunwoody is a prime example of an area whose high-quality local schools are being held back by an intensely-dysfunctional (and borderline incompetent) county school system in DeKalb.

    The Independent School District model (city, township, borough, etc) is a model which works well in many states (including in Texas, the Great Lakes, and the Northeast) and can and will work well in Georgia if and when it is implemented.

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