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Pressure mounts on DeKalb Schools to support rehab of GM site in Doraville

DeKalb's new superintendent and its school board are feeling the heat for their unwillingness to join in the tax allocation district proposed to enable the redevelopment of the former General Motors site in Doraville.

As the AJC explained in a recent story:

The Doraville tax allocation district would work this way: Schools and local governments would agree to collect only the property taxes the 165-acre site now produces for the next 25 years. For schools, that is about $1 million yearly. The developers would start building on the site --- a proposed mix of housing, offices, retail and businesses. The increase in property taxes as values increased would not go to schools, DeKalb County and Doraville, but to pay off up to $247 million in bonds that would be issued to pay for the infrastructure the developers want before starting.

The city of Doraville, which contains the site, has agreed to the TAD. DeKalb County commissioners have also agreed, with the caveat that they would participate if the school district agreed to join. If the project were to continue without school board backing, developers would be forced to downsize --- or abandon --- their plans.

TADs have been successful funding mechanisms for infrastructure at Atlantic Station and for the Beltline, though the latter has been at the center of a dispute over missed payments from the city of Atlanta to Atlanta Public Schools, which concerns Green.

Here are two views on the issue, the first from state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody.

By Sen. Fran Millar

I have had a number of questions concerning the proposed tax allocation district for the GM site.

At this point, Doraville (6-1 vote), DeKalb County (7-0 vote), MARTA and the state of Georgia understand this project can shape the future of DeKalb County more than any other project.

The DeKalb County Board of Education needs to get to the table and negotiate NOW.

Private financing cannot be attracted to fund the extension public infrastructure ($180 million) needed to make the site developable into a mixed use, transit oriented job center. Atlantic Station is one familiar local example.

As I understand it the facts about the TAD are as follows:

- There is no reduction in the annual real estate taxes as a result of the TAD

- There is no financial exposure to city, county or school system as a result of the TAD

- If development progresses ahead of schedule, the funds are repaid faster. All taxes collected after the repayment of those funds are paid to the city, county and school system. Those funds cannot flow to the benefit of the developer.

- The maximum time that the tax collections can be used to repay the funds used for public infrastructure development is 25 years from the time that the first funds are borrowed to fund this public infrastructure.

- As a job center, Assembly is expected to produce a limited number of housing units for families, thereby minimizing the number of new students. Yet, a certain negotiated sum could be withheld to go to the school system for each student housed in the new development on the site.

Bottom line, if the DeKalb County school board allows this opportunity to be lost, then meaningful development in DeKalb outside Perimeter and Brookhaven will be nil for the foreseeable future.

If I was a DeKalb school board member, I would ask myself why are all these other entities wrong to support this initiative. Unfortunately, the governor can’t take action this time if the board fails to act in a responsible manner.

Here is the view of DeKalb school chief Steve Green: 

Is the Georgia General Assembly putting politics ahead of pupils?

Last year, when I became Superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, I assumed the responsibility … and privilege … of continuing to improve classroom instruction and learning. One of my major duties includes good stewardship of our financial resources.

We face an ongoing challenge. Our district is just three years removed from the devastating impact of the Great Recession. Until 2013, we operated at a deficit. At one point, our district was placed on probation, one step before losing accreditation – a devastating blow for any educational system, but certainly hard for a system that serves 102,000 students in 135 schools. Those students come from 180 different countries and speak 144 different languages.

Today, after much work, we have finances under control with fiscal integrity … but our system remains at a crucial stage of recovery. We still need resources to address aging classrooms, teacher pay, safety, and support services.

We have a plan and a commitment … and a laser focus on classroom instruction and learning. We’ve made progress with a 103-point increase in SAT scores, an 11-point increase in graduation rates, a return to full accreditation, and pay raises for teachers and principals. We’re competitive again for talent at the front of the classroom.

Now, we face a new – apparently politically motivated – obstacle.

I recognize the call of some who want our school system to financially assist with the redevelopment of the former General Motors factory and the downtown area in Doraville.

To secure $247 million in infrastructure bonds, our school district, along with local city and county governments, has been asked to approve creation of a Doraville Tax Allocation District, or TAD. The debt service for this project will exceed $600 million over the life of the bonds.

Unfortunately, our district is being asked to pay more than half of the public funding for this project. I have met more than half a dozen times with officials from Doraville and DeKalb county governments to discuss the proposed TAD and its impact to the district.

After listening with an open mind, I remain convinced that our core business should be teaching and learning and the direction of the financial resources to our students. DeKalb schools have never before participated in tax allocation districts. Schools are our business.

Our researched of past TADS in DeKalb County yielded a history that concerns us.

Two of three current TADs in DeKalb County have never met tax revenue projections. The Kensington and Briarcliff TADs have decreased in tax value since their start, Kensington’s by more than 20 percent. And recent headlines have documented the inability of the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools to fulfill their agreement based on a TAD for financing the Beltline project. That impasse showcases how unforeseen pitfalls can cost a school system time, money, and focus.

For the Doraville TAD, the school tax digest would be fixed for 25 years … with a best-case scenario of nine more years before DeKalb would recoup lost taxes. What advantage does a 25-year commitment to freezing the school tax digest give students and schools?

We face growing pressure from powerful parties that would put politics ahead of pupils.

House Bill 969, newly introduced in the Georgia General Assembly, proposes to eliminate $63 million a year from state funding of education in DeKalb County by reducing our allotment from the Quality Basic Education program. The law would only apply to DeKalb County schools. It wouldn’t reduce one penny of property taxes paid by county residents and businesses. It would take $63 million each year from DeKalb students … and give nothing at all back to DeKalb taxpayers.

We recognize our role in economic development. A good school system is one of the top reasons for private investment. We believe our school system can invest $63 million more wisely. How? By contributing to Georgia’s economic development at the most basic levels:

• We’ll prepare students for college and careers, so they become future job-creators, wage-earners, tax-payers, and responsible citizens.

• We’ll reinvest resources directly into our communities (not into developers’ pockets) by building new schools and facilities.

• We’ll play an important role in attracting new residents and businesses. (The Daimler Benz North American headquarters recently announced its relocation here, basing its decision, in part, on the quality of local education.)

Here’s the truth: Georgia can come up with better ways to redevelop the GM site – ways that don’t do it on the backs of students and schools for the next quarter century.

Let’s be clear: Removing critical resources now would disrupt and damage efforts to get DeKalb schools back on their feet. Instead, with $63 million annually, we could:

• Give three more pay raises to all teachers (similar to the raise teachers received last month), keeping and drawing top talent to classrooms. Or …

• Build three new, state-of-the-art, 900-student schoolhouses like those at Peachcrest and Fernbank elementary schools. (Our school buildings now average 20 years of age.) Or …

• Buy more than 800 new, safe, comfortable, fuel-efficient school buses (Our buses average 10 years of age.)

Most reasonable people would agree that a smart, efficient redevelopment of the Doraville GM site has every chance to stimulate the area’s long-term economy.

Most reasonable people would also agree that … it would be self-defeating to raid resources from a public school system focused on educating young people to graduate with ideas and initiatives to make the GM site a long-term success.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

We agree.

We strongly believe our schools should be in the business of developing students.

Given the choice between the educational well-being of our students and politically motivated land deals, we’ll choose our students every time.


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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.