Despite the current drought of hard facts on the matter, it is likely that the most important addition to the city of Atlanta’s boundaries in three generations will be approved around Labor Day, as planned.
City attorneys will then shift to the courthouse to defend it. And the “hybrid Atlantans” that it might create.
With the annexation of Emory University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several other entities, Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration is attempting something unprecedented.
As planned, Atlanta’s city limits would wrap themselves around 744 new acres to the east. But city officials intend to block the Atlanta Public School system from expanding in the same fashion. The limited number of students involved in the annexation – and we’re told that number is nine – will continue to attend DeKalb County schools.
“It’s the first time we’ve expressed our legislative intent to not expand the boundaries of the school system,” said Melissa Mullinax, a senior advisor to Reed.
Never mind the small number of students involved. This would set a precedent that could have vast implications for future expansion of the city.
Anticipation of a courtroom trajectory can be found within the annexation ordinance itself. There are places on the Internet where you can read it in the original Sanskrit. But allow me to offer a jackleg translation of the awkward insurance clause contained in the legislation:
“We, the Atlanta City Council and its mayor, think it’s best to annex the property of Emory University and adjoining properties without expanding the Atlanta school district, but even if a judge says otherwise, then we think annexation with the expanded school district is better than no annexation at all.”
I asked Mullinax why the city had decided to go this route.
One of the petitioners, whom Mullinax wouldn’t identify except to say it wasn’t Emory University, wanted an assurance that the DeKalb County school system wouldn’t be disrupted, she said.
Reason No. 2: “Frankly, we didn’t want this to have a huge impact on [DeKalb County]. We knew it would be a blow to the county. It’s the loss of prestige along with everything else,” she said. “We thought that the least we could interrupt, the better.”
Three years ago, residents in a swath of neighborhoods in the Druid Hills High School district, whose request to start a cluster of charter schools had been spurned by the DeKalb school district, attempted to have themselves annexed into the city of Atlanta.
Things got complicated fast, on both sides of the border. A redrawing of school attendance lines would have been forced in both Atlanta and DeKalb. In the end, the annexation didn’t happen.
City officials now think it best not to pick another fight. Which itself is worth noting when you have a mayor who has often been described as an eager pugilist.
“It’s clear that the DeKalb County school board doesn’t want to be impacted,” Mullinax said.
Also keep in mind that the primary object of this annexation is to extend MARTA rail into an area rich with high-income workers with few transportation alternatives.
To do that, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond must be kept happy. And if the DeKalb school system is unhappy, then so is Thurmond.
That said, Thurmond isn’t dancing a jig. Like many others, the DeKalb CEO has complained that the basic facts of the annexation have yet to be communicated to his people. He’s called for state arbitration to force out the facts.
Buried in an 11-page memo of complaint from the DeKalb county attorney is this observation: “It’s unclear whether the city and the owners of the Emory parcels have the legal authority to decide the boundaries of an independent school system,” he wrote a week ago.
The issue was immediately picked up by state Rep. Beth Beskin in a letter she addressed to Mayor Reed and the Atlanta City Council the next day.
Her House district lies entirely within Atlanta. Beskin, an attorney, is well-versed in the doings of the Atlanta public school system. Back in 2011, before Beskin was in the Legislature, Atlanta high schools were threatened with the loss of accreditation. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Beskin, as a private citizen, and state Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, to act as his liaisons to APS.
But in her Aug. 4 letter, Beskin had her attorney hat on. She cited “well-settled” law that city school district lines should have the same footprint as the city itself.
Like many others, Beskin is very much in favor of the annexation of the Emory campus and its environs.
“Who the heck wouldn’t want them? I’m just trying to be rational about what’s going on here. There is currently no parcel of property that is an Atlanta parcel of property that is not zoned for APS,” Beskin said in an interview this week.
I neglected to graduate from law school last week, and so I lack authority on the question. Mullinax says the city has found the permission it seeks in the bowels of the Georgia code. But Beskin thinks the decision to expand — or not — lies with the Atlanta school system.
And APS, a potential litigant, isn’t saying. Here’s the keeping-our-powder-dry statement I wrangled from a spokeswoman late Wednesday: “Atlanta Public Schools is monitoring the potential for annexation of the Emory/CDC area into the City of Atlanta, including the implications for student enrollment.”
There is another point in Beskin’s letter that also bears discussion. “[I]t would be unprecedented for there to be ‘hybrid Atlantans,’ i.e., an Atlanta citizen who pays Atlanta city taxes yet not Atlanta Public School taxes,” she wrote. “It would create dissension and division among Atlanta citizens for certain areas of Atlanta to be excepted from the rights, benefits and obligations of inclusion in the Atlanta Public School system.”
The thing is, most counties in metro Atlanta do sanction “hybrid” citizenship. It is done by age rather than geography. In DeKalb, if you’re 70 or older, and your household income is below $84,140, you’re exempt from paying school taxes.
I live in Cobb and have turned 62. Next year, I will be exempt from paying school property taxes. I will be a “hybrid” citizen. As a homeowner, I’ll enjoy the savings – which may amount to $2,000 or so a year. As a policy, I have my doubts about the practice.
My school system will lose $101 million this fiscal year alone because of exemptions granted 51,000 homeowners. I will be allowed to vote for school board members, who will levy property taxes on many people – but not on me. And yet I benefit from a well-funded, well-run school system. A nifty elementary school near the house keeps my property values high.
I mentioned this to Beskin, who told me that she has been an advocate for age-related exemptions from school taxes within the city of Atlanta – as a means of keeping older residents in the city. Her latest bill on the topic would put the age of exemption at 70, matching DeKalb.
But Beskin said that’s not why she’s objecting to the way the city of Atlanta is handling this annexation. Her concern is a legal one.
That said, she has been to neighborhood meetings at which the annexation has been discussed — albeit in unsatisfactory, highly skeletal terms. But she said one hard promise made during these meetings is that no further annexations are under consideration.
She was happy to hear that.
Because if more expansions like this happen, and the city of Atlanta becomes a mish-mash of tax structures, passing that school tax exemption for older residents becomes much harder, Beskin said.