Sunday Morning Meditation – Checkmate

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt February 15, 2015
Checkmate photo by Alan Light. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Checkmate photo by Alan Light. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This story has been updated. 

Somewhere along the way, our country gave up on education.

I don’t mean people stopped caring about it. There are people who have made careers out of caring about it.

But to date, no one seems to have gotten anything meaningful done about it, aside from making some schools better while failing others. We keep changing the educational models, even keeping the ones that aren’t proven to be effective across the board. We mix and match. We have traditional schools, and arts schools and charter schools.

The point of all this juxtaposition is giving parents a choice in the way their children are educated. The problem is that it isn’t a choice that’s available to everyone. Whether it’s lack of means, lack of mobility or, frankly, parents that just don’t give a damn, there are some kids who are stuck going to one particular school.

The system has a sort of built-in inferiority, mediocrity by unintentional design. We end up inadvertently punishing the kids stuck in these terrible schools.

I’m not saying anything new here. But why hasn’t anyone really done anything about it?

A decent public education inside and around the Perimeter is a rare thing these days. City Schools of Decatur, which now resides in the appropriately-named Beacon Municipal Center, lures in parents who are looking for a way out of the cheating scandals and accreditation debacles of neighboring school systems.

The Decatur school system has increased the value of the city’s property. I’m going to repeat that one more time because I swear some people don’t ever connect the two: the quality of our schools made our property values rise. Good schools can transform a community.

They can also cost a community an arm and a leg. I take some special delight in hearing the state representatives for Dunwoody talk about the need for an independent school system like it’s the solution for everything. Setting aside that it would create a majority white school system in a region of the country that, historically, hasn’t done well with that sort of thing, it’s not the solution for everything.

Gather round and listen Dunwoody, for I shall tell you a tale.

It’s the tale of a city with an independent school system called Decatur. Its schools don’t just meet arbitrary state expectations. They exceed them and then run laps around them. As it turns out, parents don’t want their kids to become morons. So they’re all rushing to buy houses here. But the houses are too small and they have growing families, so they are knocking them down, building bigger houses and … oh my god we’re gentrifying, aren’t we?

And how. There’s are at least five houses on the market for – I kid you not – $1 million. They’re very nice houses, I’m sure. Still, let’s take it as a given that the average parent in some of these areas that have awful schools isn’t going to be able to afford to live Decatur.

Now Decatur has a unique dilemma, one that I’m sure Dunwoody will avoid. Dunwoody’s school system feasibility study shows a $30.7 million surplus. The city of Dunwoody also has more than twice the population of Decatur, spread out over 13 square miles compared with Decatur’s four.

As enrollment increases, Decatur is struggling to find more space for school buildings. But it isn’t just space that’s an issue. It’s also about the amount of money the system can borrow to build on the space it has.

I reported this story the other day, but I still don’t think it has quite sunk in yet. City Schools of Decatur wants an $82 million bond referendum. Raising the millage will cost taxpayers an arm and a leg, but the best part? It won’t be enough. That’s because school debts and city debts are joined at the hip. Collectively, Decatur’s debt has about reached its limit.

But its school system will soon reach its limit on the number of students it can hold. Current CSD enrollment is more than 4,300 students. Enrollment projections show the city adding somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 students by 2020, depending on the growth scenario.

The city has also reached a limit on the amount of space available for schools. Decatur’s City Commission has prioritized the development of commercial real estate because it generates more tax revenue. The city’s current residential to commercial ratio is 86 percent to 14 percent. New cities being proposed in DeKalb County are starting with at least a 30 percent commercial tax base.

That means potential places to put schools in Decatur, like the Callaway Building, are off the table. City Schools of Decatur will have to cannibalize some of its own buildings. One idea floating out there is turning the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, the place President Obama visited when he was in town, into a K-3 school.

The city of Decatur has checkmated itself. It’s not clear where it all goes from here.

This isn’t a promise that what happened in Decatur will happen in Dunwoody or any other city that wants its own school system. It’s a caution. As Saint Teresa of Avila once put it, “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.”

Meanwhile, there are still kids stuck in these terrible schools. What happens to them when independent school systems and better schools within school systems leave them behind?

I see very little sense of urgency in our elected leadership about this issue. I’ve seen a lot of dilly dallying and destructive behavior. Exhibit A: The other day, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed used his state of the city breakfast to throw Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen under the bus. Speaking before the city’s elected and business leadership, Reed publicly upbraided the new super over a dispute regarding the sale of APS property.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution recounted it, the mayor said, “She’s new, she’s inexperienced in this city and doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

She’s also got the unenviable task of restoring the public’s faith in a system that’s been rocked by a cheating scandal. I think even Dr. Carstarphen would recognize she is not perfect. Still, it would be nice, given the recent history of APS, if the city’s mayor would at least attempt some pretense of showing the city’s business community that the leadership of Atlanta’s city and its schools are on the same page.

But not to be outdone, even DeKalb County Schools has proven lately that in spite of intervention by Gov. Nathan Deal two years ago, not much has changed. Politics, not students, drives the actions of the school system. Parents pursuing a Druid Hills Charter Cluster found this out the hard way when they tried one last time to convince Superintendent Michael Thurmond to reconsider his opposition to their idea.

It did not go well, the charter cluster parents reported. The superintendent compared their petition to Civil Rights struggles in Selma, Ala. and reportedly said, “That just because it is in the law doesn’t mean that he has to agree to it.”

It’s widely believed that Thurmond, a former state legislator, wants to run for CEO of the DeKalb County Commission.  Sticking it to parents in Druid Hills can’t hurt his chances.

Now Druid Hills parents are doing what has been the ongoing trend in education in Atlanta and around the country. They are climbing into the escape pod and headed to the educational Mecca known as … Atlanta Public Schools. Somehow in all of this, APS has emerged as the better educational option.

Education has become a merry-go-round of BS, thanks in large measure to the failings of our political leadership. They’ve all managed to avoid making the hard decisions necessary to ensure the future of our school systems.

As long as nothing changes, parents will always leave bad schools for better ones every decade or so.

The way I see it, the only real way forward is the one no one wants to take because it’s too difficult. We need a consolidated metro-wide school system in the Atlanta area. We need one school board and one superintendent, not three or four of each. We need one central office and fewer bureaucrats. We need one voice, not a chorus of people singing from different sheets of music. We need one vision, not systems where the leaders are always looking for the next job and the parents are looking for an exit.

I mentioned this to a state legislator the other day. “It’ll never happen,” was the response.

Maybe. But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that it will be any less complex than handing over three DeKalb County Schools to Atlanta or changing the state constitution so Dunwoody can have its own system.

It’s not about how complex it is. It’s about the will of our elected officials.

It’ll never happen because the political leadership either doesn’t want it or doesn’t have the guts to make it happen.

But it needs to happen. Until we recognize that all of these kids are our collective responsibility, we will be in a region-wide checkmate for the foreseeable future.

Our kids will remain pawns, when they should be the kings.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Tom Doolittle

    Dunwoody thinks it has the qnswers to raising taxes. Form the system on the basis of flawed economic studies. The vote is Year 1 economics it devolves from there.

    Just as cityhood is based on flawed economics–it has a police force with no specialized services like SWAT–and simply pays a fee (no doubt undercharges ) for DeKalb to provide the services.
    Likewise the school study makes assumptions about the cost of special education.

    Special Ed is mistakenly considered what it was in 1970’s before it expanded to “treat” learning disabled–in other words, take over institutionalization of admittedly misunderstood “mentally retarded”. These include nearly dysfunctional kids (dysfunctional for mainstreaming) which had been defined as “mongoloid”. Regardless of the appropriateness of classification, the bottom line is the bottom line–here are kids that require ONE TEACHER each. No matter the teacher ratios reported–I have seen this.
    Is that in the frickin’ so-called “study?
    Do all city school systems handle special education on equal terms (regardless of state standards)–and cost?

    The notion of running school systems devolves from there. Has anyone looked at the performance of ALL city school systems accross the state–rather than just Decatur, whos schools were nothing to crow about when gentricicatio (white, affluent) started 25 years ago? It got more affluent, it got better performing. Has anyone looked at the dwindling % of poor (Afican American) in Decatur as a problem rather than a benefit?

  • T70

    Wow, you had me until the One System thing. I can’t see how changing from one DeKalb system that, in my opinion, is too big, and combining it with other metro Atlanta area systems would make it better. It has been my experience that it would result in a One Size Fits All situation, and that is definitely not the way to help all the kids.

    Could you explain to me a little more about your idea? It’s unfortunate that the rep you spoke with shot your idea down immediately instead of asking you for more information. I think that seems to be the trend – Say “no” to change, and that won’t work.

    I definitely agree that we need Change, with a capital “C”, I just don’t see how combining into one big system would work better than what we have now.

    • I think the legislator was dismissive because of the reaction it’s getting here. For years, everyone has been told that smaller is better in education. Smaller class sizes, smaller systems, etc. That might work in an area with a small population, but Atlanta is not small. Here’s how I would see my idea playing out:

      – It would have to be approved by a vote, which might be a hurdle too high, but a necessary one for it to have validity.

      – School Board members would be elected in at-large, non-partisan races. There would be no districts, only at-large seats.

      – There would be some more stringent requirements to serve as board members. I would like to see that there be a requirement that all board members have at least an associate’s degree or higher, and that they haven’t filed for bankruptcy and don’t have any liens on their property. (The AJC published an excellent article on the qualifications of board members back in 2010:

      – There would be a limit of two terms for board members, but a board member could run again after a four year hiatus. In other words, a board member could serve multiple terms but they could not be consecutive.

      – The school system would be required to have its own in-house auditing department and legal counsel.

      – There could be cluster-level governance and input in the form of parent committees pulled from local PTA/PTSA members. They would be approved by school board member, much in the same way that city councils appoint members of zoning boards.

      – There should be a fair-housing component to it as well. I would like to see schools in under-served areas adopt a model similar to Drew Charter School with a school being the heart of a community.

      These are just some ideas that spring to mind. Personally, I don’t think School Boards should be elected at all, but should be appointed by other governing authorities. I think the state constitution forbids this. (For that matter, I think the State School Superintendent should be appointed by the governor, not elected, but that’s a different discussion.)

      There are issues that no school system is equipped to deal with. If the state decides to change the enrollment age for kindergarten, the school system can’t change that. If it implements a new scoring system that penalizes one group of kids and rewards another, that’s also out of the school system’s hands.

      What I think this idea accomplishes is it saves us money by consolidating bureaucracies, hopefully passing the savings to the taxpayer in the form of smaller class sizes. It also forces us to think about education as a region instead of as individual systems.

      Also, there’s an outside chance that some of this is inevitable. There’s a general consensus that the path Decatur’s on IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. That means Decatur will have to shrink or consider combining with another school system. The bubble will burst eventually. The only real question is how well we prepared we’ll be for it when it happens.

  • Anonymous

    There is so much wrong here that I don’t know where to start. I can agree on the general premise: the schools are terrible. But, the holy DHCC was terrible too. Sure there were some great concepts there, but it’s governance plan was unacceptable. Matt Lewis was too arrogant to change it. A board that is self appointed and then appoints its successors is a recipe for corruption worse than what we currently live with. The best thing to happen as of late was the dissolution of their board allowing for more reasonable plans to develop.
    As for a one system concept, yikes! Seriously? Rather than having several, poorly functioning, overly large beuracracies, let’s create one giant one? What on earth will that solve? Smaller districts, smaller classes, smaller beuracracies. That would be a recipe for success.

    • I think it would save money that could be used to hire more teachers to create smaller class sizes. Less government is cheaper than more government.

      • Anonymous

        I can’t think of a single, large metro city school system that is flourishing. Are there any success models you can point to?

        • Fulton County Schools seems to have itself together. APS has individual clusters that are flourishing, hence the interest from Druid Hills. DeKalb also has individual schools that are doing well. I’m not promoting this as a panacea. There will still be issues. But in addition to efficiency, it also would give the region a single voice in promoting our interests.

  • Anonymous

    I guess I would argue that Futon is suburban while APS and Dekalb are primarily urban. Fulton is smaller than either of the ITP districts we are discussing. The highest performing ITP district: City of Decatur. Instead of tens of thousands of students they are well under 5,000. Sure, they need to figure out their space and funding issues, but at least their issue is due to being a good school system rather than corruption and mismanagement like APS and Dekalb.

    • Most of Fulton County exists in a city. I would consider them more urban than suburban. It’s not Marietta. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        But Fulton County schools are suburban. Roswell, Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton? That is the north side of Fulton Schools. That is not urban. More affluent than Marietta.

        • I feel like it’s close enough to an urban core to make for a valid comparison. They also serve a similar number of students.

          Approximate enrollment:

          Fulton Schools enrollment – 94,000
          DeKalb Schools enrollment – 100,000
          Atlanta Public Schools – 54,000

          I feel like whether it’s in the city of Atlanta or not, it functions with similar conditions and is of a similar enough size that I think it’s apples to apples.

          • DecaturNotDecatur

            I’m not sure anyone would say Roswell, Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton are urban – regardless of the proximity to Atlanta. Those locales are the suburbs, which is some of the reason people live there.

            The areas mentioned all seem to have good schools. It would be interesting to note the % of minorities enrolled in those schools as well as the average income of families with student enrolled.

            Affluence seems to be a factor in better performing schools. Also, of the locales listed, it would be interesting in knowing how their teachers are paid compared with the other areas.

  • Stacey

    I was educated in PA schools. The schools up there are all small and many don’t have bloated central office staff. I grew up in a very blue collar area and received free/reduced lunch as a kid. Most of the kids in my hometown are still very low middle class/poor. My high school currently has a graduation rate of 90% (this has decreased since I was a student). The teachers are respected and paid well. Schools are small and most staff hired have a direct impact on student’s learning. The last thing we need is a bigger more bloated school system. We need local schools. There is no busing kids 30 miles to other schools where I grew up. You move to a town and go to school where you are zoned. There is school pride even if you are lower income/poor. The school systems down here are too big. City of Decatur is a perfect example of how to run a system.

  • Guest

    The problem with this issue is that everyone who has ever attended a school feels qualified to offer an opinion. The teachers – those in the classroom actually teaching kids and not the “teachers” in the central office – know how to get schools to succeed. The big systems, and the Dekalb County school District is a prime example, do nothing but take the flexibility and innovation away from teachers in the classroom. In some areas where parents demand, the central office influences are reduced. That’s what you see in the success of druid Hills high school, The success of Decatur high school which is under an efficient micro administration. Where kids and parents don’t have actual influence, parental involvement, to fend off the bureaucracy and the stifling of innovation, education suffers. Like most government entities, there’s an optimal size for a school district. It’s somewhere smaller than the dekalb County school District, and larger than an individual cluster of which there are about 18 in dekalb. There’s not enough room in this blog for me to post the reasons why the mega district Dan proposes is a terrible idea. One reason would be lack of responsiveness to the needs of individual communities in a one-size-fits-all approach. Another would be the well-known governmental notion of “capture” where special interests or financial insurance since we took over the policy of a government entity. This is rampant in Dekalb County today. Another reason would be the emphasis on standardization which is killing education today. Before throwing ideas out we all need to spend our time attending school board meetings, poring over educational curricula and finance, learn about title I special Ed ESL and refugee programs, attend PTSA, sit down and find out what support your teachers need to be successful. We have far too many uninformed ‘ideas’ which are great, but let’s listen to those who have lived through this and spent the time with the schools and boards and have actually helped make the schools better. The involved parents of DHHS, DHMS, Fernbank, Laurel Ridge and Briar Vista are perfect examples. Working closely with their teachers they have made schools work in what might be the worst of possible scenarios with a spiteful central office and superintendent who refuses to set foot in the cluster. It’s a model to be studied.

    • While I don’t mind you calling my idea terrible, I should point out that I’ve been to a fair number of school board meetings in my 10 years as a journalist and my mom has been a public school teacher for well over 30 years now. I ran this one by here and she said it’s a terrible idea, too. But I mentioned Decatur’s situation and she said, “Hmm. Well, that system is probably too small.” Maybe there’s a size that works well that’s in between Decatur and a mega district. But I can’t escape the conclusion that the cost savings we could achieve by consolidating one or more districts would be substantial. Personnel is a school system’s biggest cost, aside from buildings. If you can shed some of that and redirect it to the classroom, it seems like a no-brainer.

      • Guest

        Since building construction is usually a SPLOST matter it’s maintenance and upkeep that makes up the budget hit on buildings at least in DeKalb. It’s the friends and family nepotism program in Dekalb that eats up the budget and results in insular poor decision making as well as exclusion of parental involvement. Gov. Deal wasn’t able to crack through that issue even when he boldly replaced most of the board and the reason was that Michael Thurmond tucked neatly within the power structure. Now he wants to run for CEO and is using school funds to keep communities from annexation. No one wants to move to Dekalb anymore not business not residents. That in turn keeps our commercial tax base low and puts our local funding share for schools very low (compare Atlanta public schools and city schools of Decatur both of which have between 50-80 percent higher per pupil funding BEFORE subtracting central office waste)

        • DH

          Do you live in Dekalb? I see businesses opening up around here as well as established businesses expanding. Moreover, people are moving to Dekalb and in a lot of cases spending 500,000 plus for the privilege, in some areas 1,000,000 plus. The decrease in commercial tax revenue for the county is the direct result of new cities. If Lavista Hills, Tucker and Greenhaven go through the situation will only be that much worse.

          • Guest

            DH you live in a different DeKalb. I live in the one where the Lou sohb ford place has been empty since the last decade, the grocery store near the bowling alley closed so long ago I forgot its name north Dekalb mall is so bad that a chick filet actually closed in the mall which is basically a half closed Chinese sweatshop furniture store. Name one other location a chick filet actually closed? pep boys was empty for years until a fine thrift shop moved in ( why pay more than three dollars for a pair of jeans right?). There is another empty plaza right before Home Depot kitty corner from the mall. Tens of thousands if empty square feet, I live in the Dekalb where our biggest employer is the guv’mnt with the most advanced nepotism network in the nation and they don’t pay taxes number two is Emory God bless them for staying they pay no taxes our largest housing segment is section 8. I guess if you live in Dunwoody brookhaven Decatur or Atlanta in DeKalb (all cities notice) or …. Druid hills (something different about druid hills? Are they in a city?) then maybe you see million dollar homes and maybe if you continue west into Atlanta you see many more but Dekalb – my Dekalb- we are fighting over every crumb of tax revenue (right Decatur!) fighting so hard and money so scarce otherwise smart and accomplished men and women elected and of high political office have seen the need to fight oppress and steal from the public. That’s my Dekalb.

          • DH

            My coment stands. People and businesses are not leaving Dekalb. If you have evidence otherwise, please demonstrate.

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