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Opinion: Yes, DeKalb board member attended annexation meetings. Colleagues should have, too.


DeKalb County school board member Marshall Orson is facing complaints he advocated for annexation, an allegation he denies. Critics cite emails he sent on the issue.

The AJC reported Friday:

Some DeKalb County residents in the affected area are calling for Orson's resignation, saying he is not working in the best interests of the district. "What he wrote (in the emails) should concern any parent in this district," said DeKalb County resident Dawn Forman, an 18-year educator who now home-schools her 7-year-old son. "When he's been confronted (about advocating for annexation) he'd always say he wasn't orchestrating this.

Orson told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that he was not advocating annexation but was merely urging that proponents keep neighborhoods intact. Were they to take portions of DeKalb County into Atlanta, he said, he hoped they would take entire elementary school attendance zones or even the whole Druid Hills High School cluster.

"My goal was, if annexation were to ensue, we should try to find a way to keep the cluster together," he said. "I am recognizing that if annexation were to occur --- I've taken no position on annexation itself --- I want there to be an orderly process." He said that an email might not have been the best way to communicate that sentiment. "This is one of those things where you say, in retrospect, I shouldn't have sent it, " he said, adding that it was dashed off in haste on his cellphone.

A parent activist in DeKalb takes up Orson’s defense today, saying he attended community meetings other DeKalb officials chose to ignore.

DeKalb parent and education advocate Allyson Gevertz is co-founder of the countywide parent advocacy group Parent Councils United.

By Allyson Gevertz

The annexation of Druid Hills into Atlanta has been brewing for two years. The pro-annexation members of the Druid Hills Civic Association Board were pleasantly surprised by the swell of support after the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition was denied by the DeKalb Board of Education.

The annexation movement gained momentum last summer. In August, Emory LaVista Parent Council (which covers all of the schools in the Druid Hills High School and Lakeside High School footprints) hosted a meeting that focused on the issues impacting Druid Hills. Representatives from school district, the charter cluster, and the DeKalb legislative delegation were invited to speak.

Initially, Superintendent Michael Thurmond planned to send someone from the legal department, who could address the legalities of the annexation issue and the potential impact on the schools. However, the person who attended the meeting on behalf of DCSD was Dr. Linda Frazer who spoke about the charter process and said she was not sent to answer questions or discuss annexation.

All Board of Education members were invited to the meeting, but only two attended, Marshall Orson and Jim McMahan.

In September, one of the most frequently asked questions at the State of the District address was, “How is the DeKalb County School District going to handle the Druid Hills/Atlanta annexation issue?”

Superintendent Thurmond responded annexation was not going to happen. There were no plans to meet with disgruntled Druid Hills Charter Cluster petitioners, no plans to ask Atlanta Pubic Schools about their ideas regarding DeKalb’s schools, and no plans to lobby the DeKalb delegation on behalf of DeKalb’s public school students.

As the months passed, citizens organized meetings, contacted elected officials, and scoured online resources for information about what annexation would mean. Many parents, hoping to open communication between school district and Druid Hills, asked the school board and the superintendent to become engaged in the process.

The board member who consistently attended community meetings (even though all school board members were invited) was Marshall Orson. Residents across DeKalb began to view Mr. Orson as a resource. Parents were desperate for information, and Mr. Orson assured parents that he would try to find answers. He attended meetings, asked questions, and spoke publicly.

At times, his public comments referenced the Druid Hills charter cluster petition and the board's handling of the petition. In retrospect, I’m guessing Mr. Orson would agree some of those opinions would have been better suited for a private audience. However, at no time did Mr. Orson publicly voice support for annexation. In fact, on numerous occasions, he stated he would lose his board seat if annexation occurred.

Lately, media reports have questioned Mr. Orson’s suitability as a board member. In fact, some community members have asked that he step down as a Board of Education member. I am not in Mr. Orson’s district and I am not in favor of annexation.

However, I am acutely aware of the frantic parents who have been losing sleep for months over the annexation issue. I’m also aware information seeking often includes attending meetings and listening.

Just because someone attends a meeting doesn’t mean that he/she agrees with the premise of the meeting. Mr. Orson attended many meetings with Atlanta officials, DeKalb delegation members, and Together In Atlanta supporters, but that doesn’t mean he was pushing the annexation effort.

I believe he was trying to address the concerns of DeKalb parents, both in his district and beyond. When parents in the Druid Hills and surrounding areas were desperately seeking answers, they turned to their school district.

They asked for contingency plans, straight talk, and solution-based collaboration. The superintendent and most school board members did not attempt to address the concerns proactively. Instead, at the December 8th school board meeting, the superintendent gave an annexation presentation that ended with a request for $2.5 million to reserve for litigation.

We are now at the end of the 2015 legislative session, and the Druid Hills annexation is on the table. Citizens are continuing to ask what will happen to their neighborhoods and their schools.

I’m not suggesting Mr. Orson has handled his position perfectly, but I do believe his engagement and interest in the annexation issue were appropriate. I wish all the Board of Education members had been as tuned-in to the needs of the Druid Hills residents.

The school board members are elected to represent all of the students in DeKalb. Why weren’t they all seeking information and solutions to the annexation issue?

Why didn’t they all attend meetings with Atlanta officials, APS leaders, and DeKalb delegation members in an effort to seek solutions to the problems that sparked the movement in the first place?  If this annexation happens, it will impact students throughout DeKalb — shouldn’t our elected officials address this by proactive collaboration rather than reactive litigation?

I hope that as DeKalb citizens wrestle with the annexation issue, they will consider the role of school district and the entire DeKalb school board — not just the role of one board member who responded to citizens’ concerns.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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.