Marshall Orson speaks up on the Druid Hills annexation issue

From the FactChecker >> In the wake of the Druid Hills Cluster vote denying them their charter cluster, a subset of the cluster known as Together in Atlanta (TIA) has put together a petition to annex Druid Hills into Atlanta with the purpose of “more responsive and locally-controlled schools, zoning, and other governmental services.”

Marshall Orson is the District 2 Representative on the DeKalb County Board of Education. While living in the proposed annexed Druid Hills area, Mr. Orson has remained, in his own words, “matter of fact” about his views and released this statement about annexation and the Druid Hills Cluster.

Druid Hills Annexation Into APS
By Marshall Orson, DeKalb County Board of Education

Back in November I promised to write a series of posts on annexation and city-hood but things have moved so rapidly, and some issues have become so contentious, that I thought it best to wait. However, I realize that things I have said in public and private may be given their own meaning unless I put them in context. Some have defined my observations as advocacy. Others ascribe a more sinister view to such observations. Perhaps it would have been better to just say nothing but I think an informed public is critical to any decisions that may be made. So, here goes:

1. I favor an outcome that keeps the Druid Hills Cluster intact. If annexation is not approved, that will occur on its own. We will all lose if we lose the Druid Hills Cluster as we know it. However, I worry that the tone and temperament of comments made now pose the very real risk of leaving the DH community divided even if annexation does not occur. We are entering a chaotic period with great uncertainty and growing levels of anxiety and we should all strive to minimize these potential consequences.

2. I have shared in various quarters that, if an annexation were to occur, organizing along school attendance zones makes sense and that there Is a logic behind utilizing elementary attendance zones since they are aligned with neighborhoods. When in conversations with those who favor or are involved in annexation efforts, I have made the point that the potential success of their efforts are intertwined with how the boundaries are defined. However, I appreciate that one set of logical divisions (i.e. elementary attendance zones) ignores other logical and compelling organizing principles (e.g. the middle and high school attendance zones). Thus, I have come to realize that what was intended to reduce chaos (i.e. identifying pathways to minimize the division of neighborhoods) may in fact be interpreted differently by some.

3. I have made the point that the law appears to provide that the control of school buildings shift when an annexation involves a city that has its own school system. Quite frankly, I was surprised that the case law and other authority appear to provide this outcome. Some have interpreted my statements as advocating such an outcome. I am simply reporting what I know and I welcome other authority that would enable us to re-frame the narrative about the buildings. However, I think, at a certain level, the buildings are a distraction given there are only a few possible outcomes—the buildings do not shift, the buildings shift and payments are made, or the buildings shift for free. None of these outcomes directly address what I believe is the underlying critical issue for our Druid Hills community– how we keep the DH Cluster intact.

4. Annexation is a big if. The Legislature might not approve an annexation plan or it might defer consideration to another session. The Legislature could approve a plan but the voters could reject it. But, if the Legislature and the voters approve such a plan, I believe there is a pathway to keep the Druid Hills Cluster intact. Article IX, Section 3 of the Georgia Constitution provides that governmental entities, including school districts, may contract with each other for a period up to fifty years for the joint provision of services and shared use of facilities. I am not suggesting this would be easy nor is this statement intended as a straw man to dampen opposition to annexation. Rather, I think it is critical that we look for solutions consistent with our stated intentions and goals—in this case to keep the DH Cluster intact, and what I hope is our larger shared goal to ensure that all our children have the opportunity to receive a great education.

I tend to be matter of fact—a big downside of my training as a lawyer! So, I speak in terms of success or failure, what I believe to be factually correct, and what I hope is objective but I now realize may not sound that way to all who hear what I say. These issues are incredibly emotional and personal—those on either “side” (and there may be more than two sides) have compelling arguments for their point of view. We are talking about our children and grandchildren, our communities, and our shared history. I promise to be mindful and respectful of this as we proceed through these issues and challenging times.

MarshallOrsonMarshall Orson is a graduate of the Duke University School of Law and took office in January 2013. He has two children who attend public school in the Druid Hills cluster.

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12 Responses to Marshall Orson speaks up on the Druid Hills annexation issue

  1. Suzanne B. says:

    Thanks for your comments, Marshall. I too have found it very hard to be perceived as neutral around an issue that is so heated. We currently live in “uncontested” property within the LaVista Hills proposed area. If given the chance to vote on cityhood, I should be weighing the cost/benefit of the proposal itself for my current, permanent home and neighborhood. But I am very concerned that my old neighborhood (zoned for McLendon Elementary and where we still own a home) is left out of every single cityhood proposal. Evergreen Forest has been unwanted by Lakeside, Briarcliff, LaVista Hills, Atlanta, Decatur, Clarkston, Avondale, and City of South DeKalb. At present, it would be an unincorporated island bordered by LaVista Hills, Atlanta (Together in Atlanta’s proposal), Decatur, Avondale, Clarkston, and City of South DeKalb. Yes, all but one of the cities being proposed! The only reason I can discern why our neighborhood is unwanted is because it is a mix of residential properties–modest single-family homes and apartment buildings. The proposals would annex almost all businesses bordering our old neighborhood, and the “island” is much too small to incorporate alone. From what I can tell, all efforts to be included in one of–truly, any single one of–the proposed cities has been met with “No thank you.” And it appears that these property owners will not get a chance to vote on the proposed cities, even though the cities are being carving out of the county to which they have paid property taxes for 50+ years. Talk about being the lonely kid on the playground!

  2. Disheartened in DeKalb says:

    Thank you for remaining objective Marshall, when your home and children are also affected. It was very disheartening to me to read that only Druid Hills HS, Fernbank and Briar Vista Elementary would be incorporated. Regardless what happens to the buildings, as you say, our DeKalb community would lose three plum schools. The Druid Hills cluster wanted to remain part of DeKalb County Schools, and was willing to take responsibility for the success of the strong as well as the struggling schools in their cluster. The City would be taking the best and leaving the rest to struggle on their own. And DeKalb is requesting two and a half million dollars in legal fees to stop the annexation. Why would DeKalb taxpayers allow this money to be taken away from teacher and student needs and spent on lawyers when an easy, free solution would be for DCSD to approve the Druid Hills Cluster Charter. If it doesn’t prove to be in the students’ best interests it can certainly be revoked and should be. But as the adults responsible for the education of all the children in our community how can we spend years disrupting their schools and huge sums of money going to court to fight something that can be resolved respectfully in two hours for no cost?

  3. Clarification: The superintendent asked the Board to set aside $2.5 million for legal fees to fight the Druid Hills annexation. (Please note: Superintendent Thurmond is also a lawyer, and has already been paying a law firm $50,000 a month for over a year, for Board training – with Board approval. This is in addition to the legal fees we incur in the lawsuit against the teachers and their annuity contributions that were halted as a budget cut, against Board policy. In addition, we spend millions on our regular, retained law firm for ordinary work as well as millions outsourced to area law firms for all kinds of other, mostly HR issues.)

    Also, when asked if he had met with the Druid Hills group working on annexation, he quipped, “No.” So, he’s not amenable to discussion, obviously. He goes straight to the courts.

  4. howdy1942 says:

    We should note that Marshall Orson did support and vote for the Druid Hills petition. He was joined in his vote by school board members McMahan, Mayfield, and Coleman. Thad Mayfield was defeated in his bid for re-election largely because of his vote on this issue.

    I listened to the debate on this issue and there were never any specific reasons given by any of the majority voting for their decision – it was very arbitrary. Thurmond was bitterly opposed and remains bitterly opposed. He clearly sees this petition as a threat to his power – he was “elected to supervise 100,000 students and not 95,000”. Moreover, Thurmond made an emotional pitch for this $2.5 million to, as State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver stated, “lawyer-up to litigate”. He was joined by three administrators who likewise were very emotional and, in the case of Beasley, condescending toward the Druid Hills community.

    At his last meeting as member of the school board, Thad Mayfield made an excellent suggestion – that the school board negotiate this matter with Druid Hills. Rep. Oliver agrees. This new school board needs to put Mr. Thurmond in his place as being subordinate to the school board. Mr. Thurmond was wrong when he argued that the school board chaired by Eugene Walker remain in place. Mr. Thurmond was wrong when he tried to impose a charter system on the entire county. And Mr. Thurmond is very wrong on Druid Hills.

    For one, I think that there is some middle ground that can be reached between the school board and Druid Hills. That cannot happen if Mr. Thurmond or any of his administrators are allowed to be involved in the negotiations. Perhaps the State Board of Education ought to negotiate a solution. Perhaps even the legislature should get involved and, if an amicable solution cannot be reached, impose a solution as it did in the case of the Lavista Hills – Tucker boundary issue.

    Something has got to be done to stop this squabbling. At some point, the “adults” who currently lead and administer our school system must put their “adult” priorities aside. I feared that the Governor’s removal of the previous school board would do little to resolve issues in the Dekalb County School System. Much more was needed and that is now very evident. Decatur High School is a very short distance from the Dekalb County Courthouse, yet it stands head and shoulders above any other high school located in Dekalb County. Why? Is it because it is part of a smaller school system? Is it because it simply has better students? Or is it better managed and/or better governed? One thing is clear, we will never be able to steady this ship with the same management in place.

  5. All this indicates is that too many students who don’t live in the physical bounds of the school are in the school. When that happens you loose Parent participation unless you can make it mandatory via a Charter school or private school. At private schools parents know you do not get the invite back unless you participate and your child behaves. The same thing at a Charter school.

    This is what made Catholic schools great, up North when they charged $100 per family tuition. I had 40 students in my first grade class. No one dared act out in Catholic school. Everyone’s mama participated in the bake sale or the Christmas rummage sales. Who can’t make a cake for a couple of dollars for the cake walk, or cookies for sale. My mother hand sewed Christmas ornaments and made advent wreaths for sale. She got even my Aunties without children to volunteer for the Christmas Bazarre since we had 4 kids and another aunt had 4 and one had 3, so 5 of them volunteered for the 11 kids, since tuition was $100. Then the older people came out in droves for Wed. Night Bingo that supported the School. My mother ( the high school drop out ) also sold the most $50 raffle tickets for the $2,000 cash prize ( it started as a car in the 1960’s), but they never raised the $50, so they capped the $2,000 payout.

    Punishment was doled out evenly. The richest kid and two of his friends were caught stealing a cassette tape recorder from the library in 1970. Their parents couldn’t pay it off. Sentence by the Priest was for the three boys to spend the summer break painting the exterior of the rectory ( they were 12-13). The warning was if anyone else did anything like this again the punishment would be painting the 100 year old two story Victorian Nun’s house.

  6. D says:

    “Decatur High School is a very short distance from the Dekalb County Courthouse, yet it stands head and shoulders above any other high school located in Dekalb County”
    Not to nitpick, but, though it is a good school, schooldigger has Decatur High(40th) ranked behind Chamblee High(2nd), Dekalb School of the Arts(10th), and Dekalb Early College Academy(15th). Decatur would be the 8th best in Fulton and 7th best in Cobb.

  7. D says:

    I should also say that I wholeheartedly agree with your comments and appreciate those you’ve made generally.Just kind of tired of this Decatur is so excellent stuff so I apologize.

  8. @D: Remember when ranking schools – schools like Chamblee and Decatur are quite large and serve a cross-section of students. Schools like DSA and Early College Academy are very, very small (DSA is about 300 for 8th-12th grades and Early College is about 100 students). These schools also have admission requirements, whereas schools like Chamblee and Decatur have to take whoever walks in the doors… So, schools like DSA have a huge leg up in ‘performance’ and in fact, should be expected to perform quite well, as their students are hand-selected, have a high per-pupil cost and enjoy lots of attention and small class sizes – things ALL students would benefit from and respond to. You can’t really compare these schools in any way.

  9. I am very concerned about my neighborhood. Scottdale,aka. No Man’s Land. I thought no islands would be created. My children went to McLendon, still failing schhol. I would welcome a better education for my grandaughter ,who resides with me. She deserves as good an education as all these children who are in higher income schools. I feel like this has all been a big land grab by the “Haves”. I hope people will remember that some of us have lived in Dekalb County for a very long time.(Since 1969. ) Why can’t we try to be respectful of all of our needs, and property values, schools, etc. I hope we can keep Dekalb strong, and continue to improve, without more government.

  10. @forbicidecatur: We understand your frustration and want to let you know that this is exactly our issue as well. You see, in DeKalb, the powers that be in DeKalb schools do not set individualized learning environments or high standards for schools – the school communities do. Therefore, it is up to your own board rep to fight for your schools needs and it is up to the parents to get in there and provide hands-on support to teachers and staff. It really has nothing to do with ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ even though DCSS leaders would have you believe so. Don’t fall for their ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ mentality – the funding formulas for schools are exactly the same. It’s the parents and PTAs that add to what the district provides. Which, in our opinion, is not fair. DCSS leaders should figure out what individual schools need for improvement and work to provide whatever they can to support that improvement. They should not be under-funding all schoolhouses and leaving those schools to flounder and fend for themselves.

    In fact, most likely, your local school is a Title 1 school and gets a substantial amount of extra money for that from the federal government. However, DCSS administrators take that money into the central office and use most of it to hire more central office administrators. Pressure them to use that money to hire reading and math specialists to work one on one or in small groups with struggling students. Pressure them to severely cut class sizes, which in low-income situations is even more critical than in environments where most students come from homes with more income. Pressure them to allow for a grandparent/parent mentoring program to help and work with students who do not have two-parent homes or extra family support outside of school. (Most high-performing students come from stable, two-parent families who take them on learning excursions and vacations, and pay for extra tutorials, camps and other programs to enhance learning outside the classroom. They are not getting all of their education in the classroom in any way.) Pressure the superintendent to sit down and talk with grandparents like you who are doing the most respectable, wonderful thing: raising your grandchildren.

    We try our best to point out the inequities in DeKalb schools, which we find in the magnet programs mostly. Some of the charters are well-run too. But you are right: Your school should be just as good – you should not have to cart your grandchild all over the county looking for a decent school. Demand that the leadership work to improve your school by whatever means, or go directly to the Governor and ask to be one of the first to be taken over by the state.

    BTW – Dr. Morcease Beaseley is the director in charge of teaching and learning as well as federal funds. See if you can get a face to face meeting with him to express your dissatisfaction. Enlighten him as to how his top-down management style is harming your school and your grandchild’s future. Inform him that all your child really needs is good teachers and small group learning environments. Let him know that is where you expect him to place his time, talent and budgets. In your grandchild’s classroom.

  11. We need to know — Did you vote in the last DeKalb Board of Education election? Who did you vote for? Why did you vote for that person? Who is your current Board of Education representative?

  12. Pingback: Lawmaker: Board member appears to support ‘decimating’ DeKalb County School District | dekalb school watch two

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