Decatur considers leasing space from other school systems

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt February 10, 2015
City Schools of Decatur Board of Education during its July 8 meeting. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

City Schools of Decatur Board of Education during its July 8 meeting. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Superintendent Phyllis Edwards knows City Schools of Decatur is running out of room.

One of her ideas for creating more space is leasing it from neighboring school districts.

Edwards recently told Decaturish that she has reached out to Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools to ask if they have any school buildings nearby that they aren’t using.

“I’m talking to (DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond), ” Edwards said. “I’m asking him, ‘Do you have any properties you’re not going to be using? I’m also going to the Atlanta superintendent.”

While adding on to existing schools or building a new one would be a more obvious solution for most systems, Decatur is landlocked. One of the goals of a recent annexation master plan approved by the Decatur City Commission is providing space for the school system to grow. It could increase Decatur’s size from 4.2 square miles to 5.2 square miles. It would also add between 4,000 and 5,000 people to Decatur’s population, currently about 20,000 residents.

But a recent consultant’s report found that the majority of the school system’s growth will come from within the city’s current borders.  The report on enrollment estimates that the city’s school system will grow to 7,398 students by 2020 without annexation in a high-growth scenario. Annexation will add an additional 747 students to the city’s borders. Decatur is currently pursuing an expansion of its high school and middle school. The cost of completing both plans would be more than $90 million.

The system is adding about 400 children each year, Edwards said.

CSD’s recent budget draft also shows signs of the amount of strain the growth is placing on the school system. The budget is a $4 million increase over the current budget. The bulk of that expense will be $1.9 million to hire about 25 more teachers. The school system will also spend $850,000 on portables to hold students during construction and ease crowding at schools. Edwards said there will be 10 portables at Renfroe and six to eight at the High School and another six spread across the city’s elementary schools.

Last month the School Board held a closed door executive session concerning real estate matters. While the specific topic could not be disclosed, CSD’s space issues are no secret.

“I’m having to be as creative as I can possibly be,” Edwards said.

One possibility she has explored is leasing the former East Lake Elementary building on 4th Avenue, about 1 mile from Oakhurst Elementary. That school closed due to redistricting by Atlanta Public Schools and was merged with Toomer Elementary in Kirkwood.

APS spokesperson Kimberly Willis Green sent over a spreadsheet showing that APS has about 14 vacant buildings, some of which are up for sale. East Lake isn’t on the list because it is being used for administrative purposes, Green said.

“Atlanta Public Schools is open to having a conversation with City of Decatur Schools about leasing empty buildings,” she said.

Quinn Hudson, spokesperson for DeKalb County Schools, did not respond to a direct question about whether DeKalb County Schools officials had spoken to Decatur officials about leasing space or whether it was something the DeKalb school system would consider. He instead treated the question as an Open Records Request – we didn’t file one – and sent two links to relevant school system policies on the subject.

Edwards said there are other alternatives if the rental idea doesn’t pan out, but they probably won’t be popular.

One idea is implementing split shifts, meaning that the system will educate one group of students in the morning and another group in the afternoon. The system could also add even more portables. Or it could explore becoming a year-round school system where a portion of the student body is out of school at any given time during the year.

The bottom line is that enrollment won’t slow down, even without annexation. An enrollment report attached to the agenda for the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting shows that the system is at 99.3 percent of its projected enrollment of 4,364 students.

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  • Homer

    Doh! We should have nabbed the DeVry property or the museum school when we had the chance! Could we buy part of the old DeVry property to use for a school? It was a pretty big campus. Also, the corner of that property is used for tv antennas and towers now, and I think I saw a for sale sign there.

    • An American Patriot

      Yeah, I was the first to suggest this several years ago and it was shot down in a heartbeat as being too expensive. I said then that this property would more than suit CSD’s needs for years and years to come. And now we’re talking about a $90M issue. There was definitely some short sightedness on this or something else was going on. I think there would not have been a need to build the nice administrative facility on trinity which, i’m sure cost a bundle and we could have had a running track facility we have needed forever. C’mon leaders, start thinking “outside the box” and don’t use annexation as an excuse for poor decisions, please.

  • RAJ

    I think annexation is off the table for Decatur this year. A nose count of yes votes for annexation at last Monday’s DeKalb Delegation meeting showed only about 4-5 possible yes votes to get a bill to the House floor.

  • Amy

    I said the same thing about the Devry property! I’ve not been on the campus but I’m sure it would suffice. Heard a rumor a while back that it was a possibility at some point but negotiations fell through? Hearsay, and I have no evidence that it actually happened. You know how rumors fly around here 🙂 If it is true, CSD missed the boat on that on that one……

  • Tom Doolittle

    Consider this–DeKalb’s poor performance and poor people’s underperforming kids cause buildings to empty out–then Decatur’s presumably fantastic school system swoops in and uses the empty seats. No wonder city schools and soon-to-be new city school systems have the flexibility to perform–not incumbered by new construction.

    DeKalb taxpayers should think about this one. Revenue is not the only consideration. Assets are. If they are underutilized? Sell them as assets already paid for.

    Think about it–why not use ALL of DeKalb’s bonding capacity to build for ALL of Decatur’s needs? How about Rockdale’s? Why be exercised about this–because we already do this with our water bonds for Gwinnett and Rockdale–very fishy. Does anyone know if Decatur, Rockdale and Gwinnett pay ENUF?

  • An American Patriot

    Mrs. Edwards, please, please don’t even consider this. We are the City Schools of Decatur and have always, since the beginning one hundred years ago, been independent and have not needed anyone else’s facilities. We can do it ourselves. Start with the Callaway Building property…’s an ideal location for a new middle school being it’s next door to the high school and the old MS could be used for a new elementary school. There, i’ve solved the biggest part of your problem…..the rest is up to you.

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