Meeting Minutes, January 15, 2014

Emory LaVista Parent Council
Legislative Update
Briarlake Elementary School

Senator Fran Millar
Senator Mary Margaret Oliver
Representative Scott Holcomb
Representative Michelle Hinson
Commissioner Jeff Rader

Elected Officials and Candidates Present:
Jim McMahan, School Board
Marshall Orson, School Board
Kyle Williams and Elena Parent—Candidates for State Senate
Brad Bryant
Vernon Jones—Candidate for Sherriff

Scott Holcomb—The message is optimistic. Things are much better today than they were one year ago. There have been dramatic changes in DeKalb. The new school board is moving in a positive trajectory. There are several issues in the state legislature that will impact schools. There is likely to be a strong education focus by the governor. Pay raises for teachers are possible. There is legislation on guns in schools, both k-12 and college campuses. There is interest in new school systems. Tom Taylor has a bill to amend the State Constitution to allow cities to establish independent school districts. Representative Holcomb has heard mixed views from his constituents. Older cities (i.e., Chamblee and Doraville) are not in favor of new school districts. Georgia tends to tinker on the edges of issues and not get to the core problems. The core issues are that we need the best teachers in the classroom. Representative Holcomb supports raising teacher pay. Rep. Holcomb also supports universal pre-K.

Mary Margaret Oliver—In Georgia, 29% of children live in poverty. Parents in Senator Oliver’s district tend to be happy with education, but they are aware of serious gaps in opportunities system wide. We need to be concerned about the population of children in poverty. The claim that this is a short legislative session is a message for saying that the legislature won’t do much this session. The length of the session is the same. The hard issues will come at the end of the session. Senator Oliver is curious about the Governor’s budget and whether austerity cuts will be reduced or pay will be raised or a combination. What people really care about are the little things: the state archives, state parks, etc. Senator Oliver supports the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.

Fran Millar—The biggest determination of success in education is family income. Senator Millar wishes money was the answer, but it’s not. DCSD is still on probation. Senator Millar is disappointed in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster vote. The state can’t force a local system to adopt a charter cluster. Senator Millar supports expanding internet bandwidth so that the whole state can be wireless in schools. Rural Georgia needs the ability to conduct distance learning. Foster Care—applying for waiver from Federal rules. Sixty percent of children involved in child sex trafficking have been through foster care. What happens to children in foster care who turn 18 and age out of the system?
Budget issues—Medicaid expansion affects the budget so it effects the schools. Governor Deal adds money to the education budget every year. Fifty-six percent of the state budget is education. Sixteen percent is Medicaid and is not expanding. The justice system takes a huge chunk of the budget. We have to have a balanced budget. Transportation will be an issue in 2015, but not in 2014. We need funding for Grady Hospital. DeKalb residents make up 35% of Grady patients. The longer you work in the Capitol, the more problems you realize we have.

Michelle Henson—Representative Henson’s district is diverse and includes Towers, Lakeside, Clarkston and Tucker high schools. There are many refugees who need not just to learn English, but our whole culture. We need to try to get extra money for refugees in school. Representative Hinson does not support guns on campus. She serves on the Health Committee which deals with Medicaid. Untreated dental pain is one of the reasons children miss school. We need to keep medical care for kids. Dental vans visiting schools is very important. We also need to cover the costs of hearing aids and glasses. SATs are tied to income level. Representative Hinson is concerned about schools breaking off and lower income kids being separated from affluent kids. Children are aging out of foster care and lose their health care. We want to make it possible for these kids to finish high school and go to college. State employees need raises as well as teachers. But we need more money going in. Need smaller classes.

Questions and Answers
Q: Is there a change in the feeling about the proposed amendment to the constitution allowing for new school districts?
A: Senator Oliver—It is still not going to happen. Outside of metro Atlanta they are focused on consolidating. She doesn’t perceive a groundswell of support for the amendment. Rep. Holcomb—Agrees with Senator Oliver. It is unlikely but not sure how it plays out because it’s not on the radar of most legislators. He is not convinced that having hundreds of different school systems and administrators is smart. It may be too much duplication of effort in administration. Money alone won’t solve problems. Senator Millar—The Druid Hills Charter Cluster rejection by DCSD helped the amendment because now people can claim they don’t have options other than the amendment. Conversion charters are a sham—they are still under DCSD’s thumb. He thinks Superintendent Thurmond will push for charter status for the system.
Q: Cityhood?
A: Senator Millar—There will be a one year moratorium on cityhood movements. Lakeside and Tucker are the two best possibilities. He supports cities. Senator Oliver—We can’t have new cities until we work out the boarders. The DeKalb delegation needs to sort this out. Municipalizing of DeKalb may be inevitable. There is going to be change, but how we do it is a big problem. We are not doing it well right now. Rep. Henson—has constituents in all three proposed cities. We need to sit down and look at a comprehensive plan to move forward. We need to look at the unincorporated parts of the county. There are issues for the whole county. Rep. Holcomb—it would be much easier if there were only one proposal, not three. Northlake is ground zero. If the three groups could work together there will be a lot more support. Rep. Holcomb is listening to his constituents. Some favor each of the three cities. Some are against each. Some want status quo. He wishes we could do broad planning regarding cities rather than a piece meal approach. The current approach makes it hard for DeKalb to do long range planning. Rep. Holcomb is against the moratorium because the moratorium supports the status quo.

Jeff Rader—Legislators are cooks, and the county is potatoes. The County is completely in the hands of the State. The history of incorporation is instructive. In the past, incorporation didn’t happen often because the model was for a large scale county government to deliver services along the freeway system. New development was pushed by the county. Cities couldn’t handle the large scale of services. In 2005, Sandy Springs made a persuasive case to incorporate. Then north Fulton communities worked together to create several new cities. South Fulton tried and failed to create a new city. Their taxes went up and they are now looking at other options. In DeKalb, feasibility studies show new cities could work because they have higher tax bases than the county as a whole. The question of overlapping boundaries creates new issues the State Legislature hasn’t seen. In Fulton, each city had distinct boundaries. DeKalb has a lot more demand for services from areas without a high tax base. Will there be sufficient tax in the remaining unincorporated DeKalb to support the community? Most services the county funds would remain unaltered: jail, courts, sanitation, water. But the things people care about most could change: police, parks. People are not happy with the county. County government needs to be accountable to its citizens. DeKalb doesn’t have an external independent auditor the way the federal government and Fulton County do. Three years ago, DeKalb created the office of internal auditor, but it never hired anyone to do the job. Purchasing procedures are defined by policy, not law. So the chief administrator can change the policy at will. The party alignment system in county government makes it possible to manipulate partisan elections in the primaries. County elections should be non-partisan so decision are made at November elections, not at primary elections.
Land use—cell towers. School systems are exempt from land use rules. School systems could be the biggest supplier of undesirable commercial offerings—cell towers, dry cleaners, etc. T-Mobile sued DeKalb County in Federal Court. DeKalb is taking the position that exempt use of land should be substantially related to schools. Schools are not subject to county rules when it comes to building and renovating. Quality of government is related to the quality of people you elect. If you’re not satisfied with government, work to change who runs it across the county, not just in your district. Apathy outside your district is just as bad as apathy inside your district.