Dunwoody’s advocates of smaller school systems are gearing up to take their cause to state lawmakers again before and during next year’s legislative session.
“I think this is our year,” State Rep. Tom Taylor told about 20 people attending at public meeting on the subject at the Dunwoody library branch on Oct. 12. “We’ve got this thing teed up.”
Taylor, a Dunwoody Republican, and members of Georgians for Local Area School Systems, or GLASS, admit they face an uphill fight to convince legislators to call for a constitutional amendment to allow the creation of smaller school districts. “It’s a change of about three words [in the Constitution],” Taylor said, “but it’s a massive seismic shift.”
Taylor’s legislation allowing a public vote on the amendment has repeatedly stalled over the past several years. Still, supporters aren’t giving up. Taylor and GLASS leaders recently hosted a pair of community meetings to try to stir renewed interest in the proposal.
They encouraged people who attended the first of the two meetings to contact friends and family members across Georgia by phone and social media to campaign for approval of the legislation.
“We need to reach out to all parts of the state,” GLASS member Allegra Johnson said. She said proponents of the change need the backing of residents of areas other than Dunwoody in order to get the attention of lawmakers from other communities. She said she’d discovered that some state lawmakers care only about the interests of residents of their districts. “It has been an eye-opener to me to go down to the Capitol and be told, ‘You don’t matter.’”
Johnson and fellow GLASS members Erika Harris and Evan Wetstone argued the change to allow smaller school districts was needed to improve education in the state. Smaller districts, they said, would allow more local control of the schools and better accountability.
“It’s so much harder to hide things in a smaller district,” Wetstone said. “The possibility is still there, but it’s a lot harder to hide.”
Several members of their audience seemed to agree. “I think a smaller system is better for everybody, not just for Dunwoody, but everywhere,” Cheryl Christensen said.
As for DeKalb County’s school system, she said: “It’s too big.”
Georgia law now limits the number of school districts in the state to 180, Taylor said, which has created districts in metro Atlanta with tens of thousands of students. Gwinnett County schools enroll 179,000 students and DeKalb County enrolls nearly another 100,000, he said.
“What we have are large districts that are incapable of meeting the needs of students,” Harris said.
But not everyone was convinced. “I just don’t know that independent school systems are the solution,” said Rebekah Morris, an English teacher at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven, asked how creating a school system in Dunwoody would affect other students, especially poorer students, in the rest of DeKalb County.
“If you’re not a part of DeKalb, you’ll just worry about Dunwoody,” she said. “Could there be a way for the bill to require that independent school systems include some low-income kids?”
And Paul Maner predicted Taylor’s bill would never win approval in the state Legislature. “I see pigs flying first,” he said. “It’s Republicans who have problems with this bill.”
Robert Wittenstein, president of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association and a former Dunwoody City Councilman, said proponents of the amendment should think how best to sell the idea in other parts of the state. He said the backers of small school systems need to show their communities could pull out of larger school systems without hurting them financially.
“I think a better answer,” Wittenstein said, “might be legislation that puts a burden on the [new] school system to help cushion the blow, so folks in other parts of the county and other parts of the state will be comfortable that we’re looking out for everybody.”
Taylor said lawmakers were looking at how a new school system should be created. That legislation, he said, “is not about education policy, it’s about the transfer of assets.”
Taylor also argued that changes need to be made to improve Georgia’s schools for economic development reasons. Companies had located elsewhere because of the school troubles, he said. And, in DeKalb, residents pay high school taxes, but end up with poorly performing schools.
“At the end of the day, we have a broken system here,” he said.