DeKalb County, GA, February 24, 2016 – Commentary by DeKalb Schools Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green – Last year, when I became Superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, I assumed the responsibility … and privilege … of continuing to improve classroom instruction and learning. One of my major duties includes good stewardship of our financial resources.
We face an ongoing challenge. Our district is just three years removed from the devastating impact of the Great Recession. Until 2013, we operated at a deficit. At one point, our district was placed on probation, one step before losing accreditation – a devastating blow for any educational system, but certainly hard for a system that serves 102,000 students in 135 schools. Those students come from 180 different countries and speak 144 different languages.
Today, after much work, we have finances under control with fiscal integrity … but our system remains at a crucial stage of recovery. We still need resources to address aging classrooms, teacher pay, safety, and support services.
We have a plan and a commitment … and a laser focus on classroom instruction and learning. We’ve made progress with a 103-point increase in SAT scores, an 11-point increase in graduation rates, a return to full accreditation, and pay raises for teachers and principals. We’re competitive again for talent at the front of the classroom.
Now, we face a new – apparently politically motivated – obstacle.
I recognize the call of some who want our school system to financially assist with the redevelopment of the former General Motors factory and the downtown area in Doraville.
To secure $247 million in infrastructure bonds, our school district, along with local city and county governments, has been asked to approve creation of a Doraville Tax Allocation District, or TAD. The debt service for this project will exceed $600 million over the life of the bonds.
Unfortunately, our district is being asked to pay more than half of the public funding for this project.
I have met more than half a dozen times with officials from Doraville and DeKalb county governments to discuss the proposed TAD and its impact to the district.
After listening with an open mind, I remain convinced that our core business should be teaching and learning and the direction of the financial resources to our students.
DeKalb schools have never before participated in tax allocation districts. Schools are our business.
Our research of past TADS in DeKalb County yielded a history that concerns us.
Two of three current TADs in DeKalb County have never met tax revenue projections. The Kensington and Briarcliff TADs have decreased in tax value since their start, Kensington’s by more than 20 percent. And recent headlines have documented the inability of the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools to fulfill their agreement based on a TAD for financing the Beltline project. That impasse showcases how unforeseen pitfalls can cost a school system time, money, and focus.
For the Doraville TAD, the school tax digest would be fixed for 25 years … with a best-case scenario of nine more years before DeKalb would recoup lost taxes. What advantage does a 25-year commitment to freezing the school tax digest give students and schools?
We face growing pressure from powerful parties that would put politics ahead of pupils.
House Bill 969, newly introduced in the Georgia General Assembly, proposes to eliminate $63 million a year from state funding of education in DeKalb County by reducing our allotment from the Quality Basic Education program. The law would only apply to DeKalb County schools. It wouldn’t reduce one penny of property taxes paid by county residents and businesses. It would take $63 million each year from DeKalb students … and give nothing at all back to DeKalb taxpayers.
We recognize our role in economic development. A good school system is one of the top reasons for private investment. We believe our school system can invest $63 million more wisely. How? By contributing to Georgia’s economic development at the most basic levels:
- We’ll prepare students for college and careers, so they become future job-creators, wage-earners, tax-payers, and responsible citizens.
- We’ll reinvest resources directly into our communities (not into developers’ pockets) by building new schools and facilities.
- We’ll play an important role in attracting new residents and businesses. (The Daimler Benz North American headquarters recently announced its relocation here, basing its decision, in part, on the quality of local education.)
Here’s the truth: Georgia can come up with better ways to redevelop the GM site – ways that don’t do it on the backs of students and schools for the next quarter century.
Let’s be clear: Removing critical resources now would disrupt and damage efforts to get DeKalb schools back on their feet. Instead, with $63 million annually, we could:
- Give three more pay raises to all teachers (similar to the raise teachers received last month), keeping and drawing top talent to classrooms. Or …
- Build three new, state-of-the-art, 900-student schoolhouses like those at Peachcrest and Fernbank elementary schools. (Our school buildings now average 20 years of age.) Or …
- Buy more than 800 new, safe, comfortable, fuel-efficient school buses (Our buses average 10 years of age.)
Most reasonable people would agree that a smart, efficient redevelopment of the Doraville GM site has every chance to stimulate the area’s long-term economy.
Most reasonable people would also agree that … it would be self-defeating to raid resources from a public school system focused on educating young people to graduate with ideas and initiatives to make the GM site a long-term success.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
We strongly believe our schools should be in the business of developing students.
Given the choice between the educational well-being of our students and politically motivated land deals, we’ll choose our students every time.