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DeKalb Schools: We invest in students, not pet projects

The refusal of the DeKalb County School District to participate in a tax allocation district proposal to finance redevelopment of the GM site in Doraville has provoked criticism of Superintendent Steve Green and the school board for blocking progress and job growth. That criticism has intensified as the deadline for the TAD grows near.

In an essay today, Green responds to that criticism.

First some background from the AJC on the TAD, which has become a controversy in the county:

Atlanta-based Integral Group, Doraville leaders and other supporters are ratcheting up pressure on the DeKalb County school board to take part in an infrastructure program, called a tax allocation district, to help fund critical road, sewer and park projects on the site.

Doraville and the DeKalb county commission have pledged expected future tax dollars to support public improvements through a TAD. But the school board, which controls a majority of the tax pie, has thus far declined a request for a formal presentation by the developers and the city, according to project supporters. Superintendent Steve Green has said the district isn't in the business of funding private projects, and a majority of the school board opposes the TAD.

The GM site, just northwest of the I-285/I-85 interchange, is prominent but also has challenges. Doraville's development hasn't kept pace with other major nodes along I-285 such as Dun-woody, Sandy Springs and Cumberland in Cobb County. The plant closure wiped out thousands of jobs and dented Doraville's tax base.

The AJC reported last week hopes are dwindling for "financial support from the DeKalb school system to help rejuvenate the abandoned Doraville General Motors site, developers could seek other avenues to tap tax money for the project. If DeKalb school leaders don't change course by June, developers have warned that business realities will force them to move on with scaled-down plans. Instead of a mini-city with office towers, mixed-use housing and parks, the area could be used for strip retail stores, car dealerships and suburban housing."

Here is Green's essay:

By Steve Green

Parents and other welcome guests to early education classrooms in DeKalb County find an old friend on bookshelves – the classic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could.”

You know the tale. A determined little steam engine faces the task of pulling a long train of cars over a high mountain. Bigger engines turn down the job, believing it too difficult. Undaunted, the little engine chugs to the summit with its load, motivated by a phrase that perfectly captures a can-do attitude: I-Think-I-Can, I-Think-I-Can.

We think of the DeKalb County School District as the same kind of engine … for education, of course but also, importantly, for our regional economy.

That’s right. Our school district is an educational engine, carrying 102,000 kids every year toward their peak potential in careers and accomplishments. But we’re also a huge contributor to the economic health of DeKalb County and surrounding areas.

Let’s be clear. First and foremost, our school district offers children a safe, stable setting for their schoolwork and social life … and we offer parents and families the assurance that every child will be respected and taught in a healthy, holistic environment.

But we also create the economy of tomorrow in our classrooms. We prepare students for college and careers, so they become future job-creators, wage-earners, tax-payers, and responsible citizens.

To make this happen, we employ 15,407 worthy employees – 6,543 are our talented and dedicated teachers. This makes the district the second largest employer in the county right behind the Emory University complex.  Most of the $634 million these good people make annually in competitive salaries goes straight back into our Atlanta-area economy … not into the coffers of corporations in other states or into the pockets of realty speculators.

The fact is that our little economic engine turns out not to be so little after all. Since 2013, the school district has spent $128,322,288 in E-SPLOST monies with local businesses in the metro Atlanta area. If we include a multiplier effect for local sub-contractors and other services, we’ve infused between $210 million and $255 million into the local economy in the last three years.

The quality of our schools plays an economic role, too, attracting new residents and businesses.

When Daimler Benz North America recently announced the relocation of its headquarters to the area, it partly based the decision on the quality of local education. And Ray Gilley, president of the Decide DeKalb Development Authority, recently said DeKalb County is entering a period where we will “continue seeing growth.” One reason Gilley cited? Our “very much improving school district” and a large, quality workforce (thank you, DeKalb schools).

The sparks thrown off by the school district’s economic engine glow all around us. Some examples may surprise – we deliver economic value, without pavement or pollution, in unexpected, non-traditional ways:

For starters, we’ve increased the district high school graduation rate by 11 percent, preparing more students for careers and college. These ‘can-do’ young people can be the developers and designers of DeKalb’s economic future.

With DeKalb Workforce Development, part of DeKalb County Government, we’ve sponsored workshops for unemployed or underemployed parents. The job application training gave scores of school parents professional tips on fully engaging with our local economy through interview preparation, appropriate dress, and resume writing.

We’ll sponsor a job fair Thursday for parents, partnering with the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, DeKalb Workforce Development, and DeKalb Perimeter College. We’ve already conducted a career fair at Towers High School. (Some 250 students were hired for summer jobs.)

We’re sponsoring an innovative dual-degree program at DeKalb Early College Academy. Students graduate with a high school degree and a two-year associate degree, putting them two years ahead when they enter college. It’s a clear win-win. Parents and students avoid two years of skyrocketing college costs. The economy of DeKalb and local communities gets capable, educated graduates that may not otherwise have been able to afford college.

We expanded Advanced Placement classes to get students into colleges free of remediation delays. Finally, with our eyes on the globe, we’ve expanded our international baccalaureate classes to prepare students to work anywhere … especially in an increasingly international Atlanta area.

Few question the fact that education drives economic development. The skills and knowledge of the work force have a huge influence on local job and wage growth. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said it best: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

It’s why we ask businesses and the state government to be ultra-involved in the support of our school district … instead of at odds with it. Every business in DeKalb, new or old, has an enlightened self-interest in supporting schools … and putting this long-term growth engine ahead of single projects that compromise them.

Schools ultimately exist to support the prosperity of every business and every person who does business … not just a few people with one pet project. Schools should be an investment in skills and scholars, not bright lights.

Like the Little Engine That Could, the DeKalb County School District thinks we can, with the right community support, do more in the long haul for the economy of our region than other resource.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.