Thread the needle: School Board member offers solution to keep Druid Hills cluster intact

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt January 8, 2015
Jan. 8: Representatives from DeKalb County Schools, the DeKalb Legislative Delegation and the city of Atlanta meet at Druid Hills High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Jan. 8: Representatives from DeKalb County Schools, the DeKalb Legislative Delegation and the city of Atlanta meet at Druid Hills High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Compromises are rare birds in the woods of the annexation and cityhood debate in DeKalb County.

But there may have been a sighting during an annexation meeting held at Druid Hills High School on Thursday, Jan. 8.

Numerous proposals would make most of unincorporated DeKalb County part of some city. There are proposals for allowing residents to vote on creating new cities like LaVista Hills, Tucker, the City of South DeKalb and Stonecrest. Annexation proposals from existing cities add another layer complexity. Some of the annexation maps overlap with each other and with the cityhood proposals.

Thursday’s discussion focused on one annexation proposal from a group called Together in Atlanta. This proposal would annex Briar Vista and Fernbank Elementary Schools, as well as Druid Hills High, into the city of Atlanta. Legal precedent suggests that those schools, currently in the DeKalb County School system, would become part of Atlanta Public Schools. Parents with kids in the other elementary schools – Avondale, McLendon, and Laurel Ridge – are worried about where their children will attend high school if that happens.

Representatives from DeKalb County Schools, the city of Atlanta and the DeKalb County legislative delegation attended the meeting. DeKalb County School Board Member Marshall Orson told the audience he’s been reading the state constitution recently. As it turns out, it allows for intergovernmental agreements between school districts. It would be an exchange of tax money and services that would leave attendance zones unchanged.

“The short answer, if annexation occurs, is that there are mechanisms to maintain the status quo with regard to the schools,” Orson said. “From an operational standpoint, it’s not impossible.”

There are no certainties in the annexation and cityhood process. All of these ideas need sponsors in the state legislature.  Assuming it finds a sponsor, passes the House and Senate and the governor signs it, the voters have to approve it. If a heated Jan. 7 meeting held at Young Israel about Together in Atlanta proposal is any gauge, the voters aren’t in the mood.

But there was no talk of an intergovernmental agreement at that meeting.

The crowd was more civil and listening intently on Jan. 8. Orson’s suggestion sounded similar to the sentiments of Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. She sat on the committee that settled one of the boundary disputes between the proposed cities of LaVista Hills and Tucker.

Oliver hinted that there’s a way to thread the needle to keep the Druid Hills cluster intact while allowing the Atlanta annexation to move forward.

“I have been supporting the Druid Hills charter cluster from the beginning and I am supporting a solution for the Druid hills Charter Cluster,” Oliver said. “Together in Atlanta offers a partial solution, not a complete solution, and I’m still working on a complete solution to achieve the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.”

Oliver used the phrase “charter cluster” throughout the evening, but that’s a different concept than simply keeping the feeder pattern intact. Parents in the schools that feed into Druid Hills High wanted to create a charter cluster. The Together in Atlanta group formed after the charter cluster proposal failed.

Orson spoke only about the status quo of the schools that feed into Druid Hills High. So are there any other school districts with an intergovernmental agreement?

“I think that Hall County and the city of Gainesville have an agreement,” Orson told Decaturish after the meeting.

Yes indeed they do. According to, “Any student attending Hall County Schools but living in an area annexed by Gainesville will continue attending Hall Schools until voluntarily choosing to transfer, withdrawing or graduating.” In return, Gainesville gives Hall County the school taxes it collects on the annexed property. The way the article describes it, it’s an arrangement that works well for both school systems. To read it, click here.

The intergovernmental agreement concept sounds plausible, but with the General Assembly convening on Jan. 12, is there enough time? No representatives from Atlanta Public Schools attended the Jan. 8 meeting, so APS’ position on the idea isn’t known.

Rep. Oliver believes there is enough time.

“I think that solutions to keeping the Druid Hills charter cluster and all the feeder schools together is absolutely achievable before the end of the session,” she said.

Orson said the idea should be discussed no matter what happens in the legislature this year.

“We need to be looking ahead at what might happen,” he said. “This is a pathway that would allow the two school districts to engage the conversation about how they could work together.”

It’s less contentious and cheaper than DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond’s suggestion that the county schools spend millions fighting the Atlanta annexation in court. Rep. Oliver, an attorney, didn’t hide her disgust with that threat.

“I’m really confused about why somebody is already choosing to litigate something that hasn’t happened instead of sitting down in a fair-minded way,” Oliver said.

Confusion is more plentiful bird than compromise in these woods. Even if there is an intergovernmental agreement, and Atlanta annexation moves forward, there will still be issues to sift through. Decatur’s recently approved annexation master plan overlaps with Together in Atlanta’s. Another portion of the TIA map overlaps with LaVista Hills.

Conflicts remain and there’s a seemingly limitless potential for more.

But after months of circular arguing and studying the contradictions in state law, any sign of a possible solution that doesn’t leave one side empty handed is noteworthy. So take note.

See more: Here are the closing statements from the Jan. 8 meeting at Druid Hills High. 

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Concerned Parent

    I hated missing this meeting. Was there any further discussion about how this idea of keeping the cluster together would work? Would we be part of APS, DCSS or both? While I would like to keep our cluster intact, I don’t think APS or DCSS are effective independently and can’t imagine how they could effectively work together to continue to run this cluster as is.

    • I think the idea is in the very preliminary stages. It appears, from my vantage point, to be a solution that has some promise. Depends on the details of course.

      • Concerned Parent

        It would be great if someone could post all the legislators involved to voice our opinion of annexation. (Personally I am against). Then a list of everyone we should contact involved that we can contact to have our voices heard regarding keeping the Charter Cluster intact, should annexation become a reality. (APS,DCCS,TIA, etc.) I want to have my voice heard, but I feel like I am caught in a giant maze, but don’t know which way to turn. I will say Decaturish has done a fantastic job reporting on this entire topic!

        • DH

          We live in interesting times.

        • notapunk

          Yes, kudos to Decaturish. A list
          of legislators would help. I know mine, but this is a big area.

        • CMR

          The Medlock Area Neighborhood Association has a well organized list of legislators with email addresses listed on their website.

          • SusanInNoMansLand

            Thank you, MANA. I’m sorry that those of us in the Greater Valley Brook Neighborhood as not as organized as y’all, but I think many of us would love to join forces.

  • angel

    A compromise sounds nice, but it still is left in the hands of TIA to negotiate. They’ve never approached any of the outside the map area neighborhoods (as far as I know, and I’m fairly involved) about collaborating on something like this. In fact, the only time things like this come up is when Marshall Orsen is speaking. If he isn’t at the meeting, things tend to be more black and white.

    All people really want right now is transparency. Don’t say “maybe” say “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. And again, there may be people in the larger part of the cluster that would be willing to talk about compromise but they’ve never been approached.

    • Last night was the first I’d heard of it. Don’t know if that’s come up with the TIA folks, but I’ll certainly ask them. I know lots of entities use intergovernmental agreements. Locally, you see it with emergency response services. I’d never thought about the possibility of it applying to schools before, but apparently it’s possible. It doesn’t resolve all the issues with annexation/cityhood. That may not be possible. But this is the most rational thought I’ve heard on the topic. Of course, rational and workable are two different things.

      • SusanInNoMansLand

        City Schools of Decatur for years contracted their Special Ed. services to DeKalb County Schools. I recall that issue coming up in budget talks during DeKalb’s austerity cuts a few years back. I don’t know if Decatur is still contracting with DeKalb for Special Ed. services today.

      • notapunk

        Take a closer look at the Gainesville agreement. It’s temporary. .. No guarantees for future students.

  • notapunk

    Schools are only one hurdle in this TiA movement, as parents of school age children are a fraction of the population. Much of this area skews old… to the point of elderly. Higher taxes, including the immediate increase in the sales tax (especially on groceries), from annexation will play heavily with older voters.

    • DH

      Do you live in neighborhood? There are kids all over the place. Over 65’s are about 9% of the population. See Wikipedia Druid Hills.

      • DHer

        And families with school age children are about 20%. Both groups are important voter groups that show up for special elections. There are many more issues to be considered. For example the fiscal trajectory of both jurisdictions and their ability to fund improvements. The City is about to issue $250 million in bonds without a tax increase. The bonds will pay for a huge list of street, intersection, bike and building improvements. Atl ability to attract business and jobs; Lee Mays insistence on building an I-20 rail line versus the Clifton Marta line; Atlanta’s NPU and historic preservation record versus the DeKalb experience. DeKalb’s ethically challenged leadership. Atl’s police and fire services and the likely increased costs within DeKalb.

        • DH

          The situation is kind of screwed up. As the circumstances present themselves, those who live in unincorporated druid hills – like myself, have a choice between Atlanta or Dekalb. Dekalb’s tax base, thanks to city hood, is shrinking. Meanwhile, Atlanta is on an upward trajectory – it’s far from perfect – but a least it has a tax base. I wish the county were better run, but reform is not something those in power are interested in.

          • notapunk

            We all wish the county were better run. I’ve lived in the area for 30 years. It used to be much, much better. I hope we the people can regain control and fix things. This cut-and-run attitude some have is counterproductive. It will come back to bite.

          • Susan

            Agreed. And I see positive change occurring right now. Why not stay & fight it out instead of making an irrevocable change. The grass is NOT always greener!

          • DH

            How do we reform the county when the votes are not there?

          • notapunk

            Except for the big layoffs by big Atlanta employers like Turner Broadcasting and Coke. Not a good sign.

      • notapunk

        You don’t have to be over 65 to be concerned about these issues. There are many people in the next demographic down (46 to 64 = 16.5%) who look forward to aging in place. And the numbers we’re talking are ONLY in Druid Hills neighborhood, not the many others who make up the two elementary school attendance zones.

    • DHH

      I don’t see the tax issue on the groceries as being a big driver of sentiment. The only grocery stores that might annex are the Sage Hill Kroger and the Publix on N. Decatur. The Publix might go to Decatur too and that would change the sales tax there as well. Shopping in Atlanta is an extra 1% for sales tax, but the annexed area is so small that one could still easily travel outside it (eg. Toco Hills). I agree that property taxes in general will play a role in the minds of some voters and may prevent annexation in CY 2015, but if other DeKalb communities become cities this year, the change in county taxes may make Atlanta more beneficial from a tax standpoint for even the elderly in subsequent years.

      • notapunk

        Toco Hill Publix is also in TiA sights, unless LaVista Hills can negotiate it away. So is the Target on NDH. This area is much broader than you realize.

        • DHH

          I know how big it is. There is an awesome map on Decaturish that shows all the proposals.

          • notapunk

            Then why did you leave out Toco Hill? It’s in play.

          • DHH

            Alex, I’ll take “Arcane Dekalb retail details” for $200.

      • notapunk

        Decatur’s sales tax is the same as DeKalb’s– 7%.

  • Justin

    According to Mayor Reed there is a 900 million dollar backlog in repairs in Atlanta. In April published an article exposing major issues in Atlanta’s watershed management department. The annals of Atlanta history are full of inefficiency, incompetence, and mismanagement. Going into Atlanta is a bad idea!

    • DHer

      Atl seems to be moving past the problems of yesterday. The city is able to draw from a much better leadership pool. The business community – they actually have one – is involved and holds the politicians accountable. Atl is not the same place as when we decided to move into DeKalb. We should give it a second look.

      • SusanInNoMansLand

        In which case maybe YOU should move to Atlanta, not ruin it for the rest of us in the process. They way y’all are giving the middle finger to the rest of us in the Druid Hills feeder pattern on the wrong side of the tracks is just rude.

  • Save Tucker!

    Why does Decaturish and other groups continue to include the City of South DeKalb on their maps? It is misleading. The proposed city of Stonecrest, which originally had portions of what is now called the City of South DeKalb on its map, was proven in a Carl Vinson study to NOT be feasible. So, they changed their map to a smaller area in hopes that they could have something viable. So, why would anyone believe that the parts the Non-viable Stonecrest left out would make a viable city by itself or when added to other portions of the county that have even less commercial? Neither the revised map of Stonecrest nor the odd map for South DeKalb have ever been proven viable, do not have legislative sponsors or a large base of residents saying that they want any of this either. The committee on boundaries also stated that the map that was approved for Lavista Hills is the only map they will consider as an exception to this session’s rules. So, if Lavista Hills does not have to go forward under this map, then Tucker should not be forced to move ahead either. We can just drag out this nightmare for another two years until all of our land is completely worthless, none of our schools will be accredited and Dunwoody will have effectively been able to squash most of their competition in the county for any commercial or retail business and Sandy Springs or Atlanta will gain every new headquarters relocation headed this way while we all fight with each other and ruin the very thing that most of us loved – the nice, friendly and unpretentious, interconnected neighborhoods and the collective efforts of volunteers working to make our area better for everyone, not just for themselves. One easy way to stop all of this… stop fighting and just make a collective agreement that no matter where you live, no matter what city these politicians try to put you in, we’ve all heard and seen enough to know that none of this originated “by the people,” or “for the people,” and for that simple reason, we all agree to vote no. By that simple agreement, all of this mess could go away tomorrow. We can wait and see how the already formed cities fare in their tax collection and providing of services, how safe they are and how their already considered to be better schools will come up with some unique way of bringing up the graduation rates and test scores for the entire system, attracting new business start ups or relocations, offering jobs at higher than minimum wage and sharing what they know so that everyone can benefit and traffic might not have to be so bad with everyone having to come to THEM to work and play regardless of where we live. The stress can easily go away if you realize that without your vote and your support, none of these plans to divide our county further will ever come to reality.

    • RAJ

      Under your “plan” DeKalb County still goes down hill…you, like most people present NO solution.

  • jo

    Has TIA forgotten that Atlanta and APS are in a fight over money and what about the cheating scandal. The dust has not settled there. History says don’t trust CofA or APS. What we need is less of CofA in DeKalb!

  • An American Patriot

    And we’re going to trust the APS and the DCSS. You gotta be kidding.

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