The Georgia Board of Education is responsible for code enforcement of DeKalb schools construction projects and trailer installations, according to an opinion by Dunwoody’s city attorney.
City Attorney Bill Riley told the council at the May 8 meeting that it is up to DeKalb schools to follow state law and submit all its plans for building construction and trailer installation to the Georgia Board of Education for review and approval – but no one currently knows if the school district is doing so.
“It’s like the school system is trying to fly under the radar … and is certainly breaking the state board rules,” Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Riley said.
Since perhaps 2009, the DeKalb County School District has apparently failed to obtain certificates of occupancy for its buildings and trailers from the city. That date was revealed when resident Bob Lundsten stated during public comment that he conducted an open records request with the city and found the city had not issued certificates of occupancy for DeKalb schools facilities for the past eight years. City Manager Eric Linton said that time frame appeared correct.
“This may have been done with intention,” Deutsch said of the school district not apparently getting certificates of occupancy for its facilities from the city. “I do not understand … how in the world that this step in the process the school system chose to ignore. It’s inexcusable.”
Riley explained that the DCSD is supposed to get all the construction and installation plans for school facilities approved by the state board and then come to the city for a certificate of occupancy. However, if the school system does not do that — as it appears has happened in Dunwoody — the city has no recourse to make the school system abide by city policy to obtain a certificate of occupancy.
“It is the utter failure of the school system to do what they know is required,” Deutsch said.
“[A]nd we’re pretty powerless, from your take, to penalize them?” she asked.
“The power to penalize [DeKalb schools] goes to the state board,” Riley answered.
In an email on May 5, Eileen Houston-Stewart, spokesperson for DCSD, said the school district inspects the trailers to ensure safety and each city handles their own certificates of occupancy.
“DeKalb County issues certificates of occupancy in the unincorporated portions of the county. The cities in the county handle certificates within their own jurisdiction,” she stated.
“We work with the Fire Marshal’s office in DeKalb County and with the respective city governments where applicable. When portables are installed, they must be inspected and certified before the structures can be utilized,” she added.
The issue of who should be permitting school trailers came up recently after DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester accused the city of shirking its duty by not issuing permits in blog posts and on social media. Her husband, Stan Jester, who is on the DeKalb County Board of Education, also blasted the City Council in his blog.
Riley told the council the city does not have any authority to impose any kind of enforcement on the school district because it is a “sovereign government entity.”
“An allegation was made by our local county commissioner Nancy Jester and local school board representative Stan Jester that the city of Dunwoody shirked its responsibilities with respect to the school district,” Councilmember Terry Nall said.
“As you’ve been very close to this issue, are you aware of any shirking or negligence by our staff as it relates to the school district?” Nall asked Riley.
No, Riley answered. The city of Dunwoody has fully fulfilled its obligations, he added.
Riley also told the council the school district should be complying with city codes that conform with state codes, however. A five-year memorandum of understanding approved at the May 8 meeting by the council is intended to clear up any confusion on the process of the city issuing certificates of occupancy for DeKalb Board of Education buildings.
Deutsch said the recent arguments by the Jesters and others over what the city should be doing when it comes to code enforcement of DeKalb schools buildings actually buries the bigger picture issue of the school district not abiding by state law.
“The argument has gotten framed in such a way that the important point has been lost, that the school system is not doing what they’re supposed to do … and I think there are a lot of reasons for that,” Deutsch added. She did not elaborate further.
“The school board is purposefully evading what supposed to do according to state law — and we cant enforce state law,” Deutsch said.
Kevin McOmber, senior vice president of Clark Patterson Lee, the company Dunwoody contracts with for its Community Development Department, told council members that in the nine years his company has been with the city the school district has sometimes come to them in the past for review of construction plans.
In recent days, however, the school district has come to Community Development seeking review of 17 trailers that previously did not have certificates of occupancy, McOmber said.
Councilmember Doug Thompson asked if the city was able to charge fees to the school district for issuing certain permits or reviewing construction plans. Riley said school boards across the state would fight any action to try to impose such fees and recommended not raising the issue.
The MOU does not give the city or the school board any new power but rather outlines the specific process to be used going forward with new construction or installation of trailers, Nall explained.
“Just as it’s been all along, it is up to the school district to follow through, as the city is without city code enforcement authority against another government entity,” he said.
“If we desire the city to have more city code enforcement authority over another government entity, we must ask our state legislators to enact a state statute to provide the cross-jurisdiction authority,” Nall added.
That process reiterated in the MOU states the DeKalb Fire Department will inspect and certify fire code compliance; the city will review land disturbance permits; an engineer hired by DeKalb schools will design, inspect and certify construction permitting compliance; and the city will issue certificates of occupancy after all steps are successfully completed.
Mayor Denis Shortal said as the new Austin Elementary School is preparing to be built, it is important to establish a standard operating procedure. He added that no one in the city likes students being taught in trailers due to overcrowding.
“Basically it all boils down to … you call them manufactured buildings, I call them trailers. That’s where this [debate] all festers up from,” Shortal said. “And that’s one of the big reasons I keep pushing for local control of schools.”
Shortal also chastised people taking for complaints about the city and school system public via social media, although he did not name names.
“If we’ve got some issue we need to talk about, we need to talk about it. But just going out on social media and blasting it out there … make sure everybody’s got the facts before you do that,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
Robert Miller, a Dunwoody parent and also a developer, raised concerns about the permitting process of trailers with the council during the public comment portion of the meeting. In an interview after the MOU vote, he expressed his disappointment with the council’s leadership.
“According to them, the MOU doesn’t really change anything … it’s not enforceable, so what was the point of the MOU? We didn’t do anything here tonight,” he said.
Miller agreed with Deutsch’s comments about DeKalb schools not doing what it is supposed to do by following state law, but wondered why the city has not questioned the process before now.
“At the core of this whole issue is the city cannot get fees for permits and cannot get fees for fines,” he said.
“But they can still make proclamation the school doesn’t have a CO,” he said. “Everybody is quietly sweeping this under the rug.”