9 students and $2.3M stand in the way of Emory’s annexation to Atlanta

The city of Atlanta’s eastward expansion to Emory University is on hold until after next month’s election as elected officials debate whether the city’s growth should also alter school district boundaries.

The dispute over schools means that 2,500 registered voters in the area won’t be able to participate in next month’s city elections or a Dec. 5 runoff for mayor and city council.

The fate of the annexation proposal might come down to school district boundaries for just nine public school students who live in the area, along with $2.3 million in property tax revenue for education.

The incorporation of Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta would be the largest addition to the city since it annexed Buckhead 65 years ago.

The Atlanta City Council could vote on the 744-acre Emory annexation as soon as Nov. 6 — the day before the election. If passed next month, the annexation would take effect Dec. 1. The Council voted 13-0 on Monday to approve a settlement with DeKalb County that resolves objections over fire services and zoning.

But disagreements between city and county school systems remain.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said the school system should expand along with the city, saying she wants “to ensure that the students and families served by APS also get to participate in that growth.”

The city’s annexation proposal currently limits its expansion to city government borders, and it wouldn’t alter school attendance zones.

DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green said Carstarphen’s request to change the school system overlooked the impact on students and their families who live at Villa International, which primarily houses foreign researchers working at Emory and the CDC.

“Though limited to a handful of children, you have suggested these children be switched to APS schools without regard to whether this is the best solution,” Green wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Carstarphen.

Emory’s annexation would change the demographics of the city’s voting population. The city’s voting-age population was 49 percent black and 44 percent white in 2015, and the annexation area is about 63 percent white, 22 percent Asian and 11 percent black.

About 180,000 voters participated in last November’s Atlanta referendums to increase sales taxes for transportation.

Though Emory-area voters won’t be able to cast ballots for Atlanta candidates, they’ll still be eligible to decide on a sales tax increase to 8 percent in unincorporated DeKalb.

Aisha Jeffries, an Atlanta voter from Inman Park, said Emory-area voters could have influenced Atlanta’s elections if the annexation had been completed in time and they had been allowed to participate.

“My eyebrows did raise as to the timing of it,” she said. “We do have this important election. It would have serious implications for candidates.”

The annexation could come to a vote of the Atlanta City Council after it’s reviewed by the Finance/Executive Committee, said Melissa Mullinax, a senior adviser to Mayor Kasim Reed. Then the annexation petition and related zoning ordinances would be considered all at once.

“The city believes we have the authority to expand or not expand a school district in an annexation,” she said. “DeKalb County is happy with that decision. APS is very unhappy with that decision.”

The annexation area is in City Council District 6, which is currently represented by Councilman Alex Wan, who is running for president of the City Council. He’s an Emory employee and has declined commenting on the annexation. Wan recused from Monday’s vote on the annexation settlement between the city and county.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that we couldn’t have expedited that so these residents could have a voice,” said Kirk Rich, one of two candidates seeking the District 6 seat. “It is exciting news that they’re going to be a part of the city and especially District 6. If I’m elected, I’m excited about representing them.”

Jennifer Ide, who is also running in the District 6 race, said the annexation should be handled carefully.

“Annexations change the city permanently. … If there are still unresolved issues, I do not think the process should be rushed,” Ide said.

The settlement passed by the Atlanta City Council on Monday gives several concessions negotiated with DeKalb County. It includes $1 million annual payments to the county government for fire service, preservation of building height limits and zoning conditions meant to curtail over-development.

Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong said she supports the annexation proposal.

“My posture is that if you want to come into the city, we welcome you,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “It’s not my belief we should do land grabs, but if people want to come, we certainly want to accommodate them.”


The AJC's Mark Niesse keeps you updated on the latest happenings in DeKalb County government and politics. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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