Wednesday, November 4, 2015

DeKalb Superintendent Travels to Dunwoody in Helicopter

Having no use for simple automobiles, DeKalb County School District superintendent flies to Dunwoody High School in a helicopter, landing on the well-worn grass field. The quiet Dunwoody neighborhood enveloping Dunwoody HS and Vanderlyn Elem. was brought alive as rotating blades chopped the damp air as students watched this flying machine defy Dunwoody's Creationism logic.

Above is video of DeKalb school officials airlifting in much-needed supplies of #2 pencils, copy paper, and invisible textbooks.

Was Superintendent Green doing a fly-over of Dunwoody, searching for a new site for Austin Elementary School?  Was the flight a nod of approval to newly elected mayor Denny Shortal, a retired pilot?

Well, the superintendent is using the helicopter to visit schools with the highly acclaimed shop class STEM program. No word yet on the cost to fly the helicopter, but we are sure it's enough for Chromebooks for every kid at McNair.

No comment yet on this expense from school board member Joyce Morley.  Morley has been on a rant lately claiming the south DeKalb area schools need more money.  See more detail on Joyce Morley here.  Dr. Joyce is also known as The Love Doctor.  The good news is that Superintendent Green did first fly to McNair, because kids in S DeKalb deserve to see a helicopter as well.  In regards to north DeKalb and The Love Doctor - Either You Want Me or You Don't.  If you despise north DeKalb so much, please support HR4 so Dunwoody and other ares in the north can have their own district.  You can keep the helicopter.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Austin and the Dunwoody Mayor Race

The rebuild / relocation of Austin Elementary School has become a hot button issue in the mayoral race. Where and how large of a new Austin affects all of Dunwoody.


Every five years voters in DeKalb approve a one penny tax (e-SPLOST).  The current SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Tax) is expected to bring in at least $475 million.  This $475 million is spent on new schools, school additions, school improvements, school buses, cars for employees, and other projects.  The school board and superintendent decide how this money will be spent, then puts those details on a referendum, and DeKalb always votes YES to approve.  How does the school board make sure the one penny tax passes? It creates projects all over the district.  The $475 million is divided in a way so that every school board member gets about the same amount of money spent in their respective districts.  This means we are building new schools in areas of DeKalb where enrollment has been declining for over a decade (and continues to decline), but you have to buy the votes. Prior to voting on the current SPLOST, a 'study' was done and the study said Austin was the school most in need of repair / replacement in all of Dunwoody. That meant Austin was specified in the SPLOST to be replaced / rebuilt once voters approved the $475 million tax.  Here is a link to the SPLOST schedule ( )

Now What?
Okay, the Dunwoody cluster gets a new school.  There are several options, and nearly every homeowner in Dunwoody is affected when a new school is built.  The size and location of a new school will determine new attendance zones.

October 2014 official enrollment data

The size of the school is important.  Folks are saying we need more seats, and some schools are over capacity.  

Above we see two letters, one from Dunwoody Elementary and one from Kingsley.  Kingsley is concerned about the number of seats in Dunwoody, hinting they want Austin to be as large as DES.  Fair enough.  Kingsley parents seem concerned about capacity and school size. Most parents would like to see the trailers hauled away.  Kingsley, based on the enrollment chart above, has too many kids and five trailers. Chesnut, the school just down the road from Kingsley, has room for 100+ more kids, based on DeKalb's numbers.  Is Kingsley okay with changing the lines and shifting the attendance zone, moving Kingsley kids to Chesnut? That would fix their issue and the under-capacity issue at Chesnut is resolved. We haven't seen that letter sent to the school board. The truth is, if we continue to see student growth and build the 900-kid schools, Kingsley won't exist in 20 years. Kingsley could be merged with Chesnut, into a new 900+ seat school, after the next SPLOST.  Is the 900-seat model the preference at Kingsley?

Dunwoody Elementary parents also sent a letter to the school board, expressing concern about the size of the new school.  Same tone.  But DES, based on DeKalb numbers, is at 100%, and new housing units won't be built/occupied at High Street (the big development by Perimeter Mall) for a few years.  One would look at the DES 2014 numbers (to be fair, we do not yet have 2015 official numbers) and say that DES's attendance zone was drawn perfectly for that size school for at least the next three years.  One issue I've heard from DES folks is that, if they have a 973 capacity school, then so should everyone else. Point taken. I understand the DES viewpoint 100%. I wish DES was a 750-seat school.  I'd like to see Austin at 750, DES at 750, and a new Chesnut at 750.

A Vanderlyn letter?  No way.  No chance.  Vanderlyn, at 124% capacity, is not going to enter this debate.  They want things to stay as they are now.  Vandy could grow to 450% of capacity with 8-story trailer towers and students in an 80-foot grain silo, and they'd be happy (as long as those kids from the Jefferson keep boosting the test scores).  

If Austin is built to hold 750, the additional seats would logically be filled with kids from Vanderlyn, not Kingsley or DES or Chesnut, based on simple geography and current school capacities. If Austin is built to 900, perhaps Austin would pick up 75 kids from DES and 75 more from Vandy.  

When DeKalb builds big new schools, they fill them.  Look in S DeKalb.  They build a 900 seat school, and close the smaller neighborhood schools. Is that what we want all over Dunwoody? If Dunwoody levels out at 3400 kids in grades K-5, we need only four elementary schools, using the 900 seat model. 

It took me a couple of years to understand, but the elementary school rivalries are short-sighted.  The hard-core elementary parents eventually send their kids to private school for middle school and high school.  The biggest issue we should focus on is our middle and high school.  Most communities in America rally around the high school.  The 'Friday Night Lights', the pep rallies, the homecoming (I've attended the past four or five DHS homecoming parades up Vermack Road, and the spectators along the entire route number less than 100 people), the sports, the band, and more.  But with Dunwoody lacking its own stadium and other facilities, and so many high school kids attending private school, our city often lacks that hometown high school fever.  

A City of Dunwoody school system would change that.  It would also allow a Dunwoody school board to determine where schools are built, and how large WE want those schools.  I highly suggest all you readers visit GLASS web site and send them $50 or $100. What else can you do?  Are you friends with a GA state rep or senator from anywhere in the state?  If yes, talk to them about HR4 and ask them to contact Tom Taylor or Fran Millar.  This issue is more important than who wins the mayoral race, where the tree and menorah are placed, and even more important than bike lanes. Speak to friends in Cobb, Cherokee, Forsyth, and other areas about this issue.  Your friends in Acworth may not be thinking about their own school system now, but they will in 10 years. The HR4 movement has recently gained momentum in other metro Atlanta counties and hopefully we can continue forward.

Why All This Austin Chatter?
Like it or not, the most active political junkies, and the first two mayors (and the 3rd) of Dunwoody live in the Austin district.  Austin has a lot of voters, and they they show up to vote in large numbers.  It wouldn't surprise me if every mayor of Dunwoody for the next 16 years (when we expect King John runs for mayor) is from the Austin area. But it was the DeKalb school board's inspectors that named Austin as the new school, not the Dunwoody folks.  If Austin is moved to available land (a 17 acre tract is for sale now) near 285 in Georgeown, then you'll see home values decrease across the city.  This 17-acre spot may be suitable for a school, but not one that serves neighborhoods miles away, through some of the worst traffic in the region.

Mike Davis and Austin
I first spoke to Mike about a new Austin right before he was elected mayor the first time. Mike has always been perfectly clear to me (and others) that he believes it's important for Austin to stay on Roberts.  He recently made a video for Facebook stating this.  I didn't think the video was necessary as I thought everyone in the Austin district knew Mike Davis supported Austin staying in the current neighborhood.  He believes every elementary school in Dunwoody should be built as close as possible to the kids it serves.  He was clear from day one that the more kids that can walk to school, the better for everyone.

I asked him specifically about neighbors living near the baseball fields on Roberts and their opposition to moving Austin to the current site of the baseball fields. Yes, I have spoken to a few people in that neighborhood over the past four years that have told me directly that in no way do they want a school built in "their" backyard. This is similar to the few homeowners living beside Brook Run objecting to a trail in the park.  Davis said that it is important to keep the school on Roberts, even if a handful of homeowners object. In my opinion, Mike doesn't need to post videos on Facebook or host last-minute meetings on Austin, catering to Austin area voters, explaining his position. Mike has been very clear, for four plus years, to anyone who has asked, that he will do what he can to keep Austin on Roberts. I asked him about the size of the school.  He didn't give me a number, but he did say that overcrowding needs addressed and that he preferred that none of the schools had trailers.

Side note: If you buy a house neighboring a park or school, expect to hear kids playing and active adults coming and going.  

Denny Shortal and Austin
Denny Shortal has always had the position that he wants Austin to stay at the current site.  What was/is unknown or unclear, is Shortal's stance on moving the school to the current site of the baseball fields on Roberts, home to Dunwoody Senior Baseball.  Shortal is a supporter of Dunwoody Sr Baseball, and coached for six years.  That's great.  We need parents to volunteer and coach youth teams.  Davis voted for money for improvements to the baseball fields, so he should be considered a supporter of the program as well, to an extent.  For the record, I believe the Dunwoody Sr Baseball program is great.  It provides a place for boys age 13-18 to play baseball.  But in no way is that league and those fields more important than the Austin school. In regards to Dunwoody Sr Baseball, the City of Dunwoody is providing baseball fields mainly for metro Atlanta private schools, not for the kids in Dunwoody.  In fact, a large chunk of 'our' park space is either marketed to the entire greater Atlanta area (dog park, skate park, tree quest zip line) or off limits (farm and farmhouse on Vermack, baseball fields). 

Dunwoody Sr Baseball serves maybe 60 kids from Dunwoody, where Austin serves 600+.  If Austin needs to be built where the ball fields are now, then we need to work with DeKalb County Schools (or Sandy Springs) on finding a new home for Dunwoody Senior Baseball.  One option is Brook Run or the Peachtree Middle School land.  Peachtree and Dunwoody High have great baseball programs, and DeKalb County School can support that by building two fields at Peachtree. But fields at Brook Run is another battle.  You again have homeowners living near a park that oppose hearing and seeing children and active adults near their home.  You also have the theater issue. Mike Davis is very clear he opposes spending millions on a theater, and prefers multi-purpose fields, where Shortal is supported and surrounded by the group that favors spending millions of dollars on a theater. One interesting note on the ball fields - for most of our park amenities, you call city hall to make a reservation.  Want to host an event or rent a pavilion at Brook Run?  Call city hall.  Want to use the baseball fields on Roberts?  You'll have to get permission from Dunwoody Senior Baseball, not the city. Really.

I know a few people, including myself, have emailed Denny and asked him about the ball fields / Austin land swap.  After a few days I did receive a response. He was very clear that he wants it to stay exactly where it is now.  He did say, that if that does not happen, he would 'work with DeKalb County Schools to consider relocating Austin to the ball fields.' Facebook supporters of Shortal have some version of this statement.  Take a look and decide for yourself.  We like what Denny says, but would have liked to hear it earlier than a few days before the election.

I didn't ask Shortal about the size of the school, as DeKalb County will make that decision.  We as a city have no say on that issue.  We as a city do have a say on the location this time around because we have real estate on Roberts.

Regardless of anything else you hear, do know DeKalb's first choice is to build a new Austin at the ball field site.  The site is flat and close to Austin.  Students would not have to relocate to Chamblee, Doraville, or Brookhaven during a two-year build.  The school system could integrate the Nature Center, building a much-needed new facility there to partner with the school children. The site makes a lot of sense, but there is opposition.  I haven't heard from the majority of our city council.  Our 2016 council will have members from all around the city.  I did reach out to Springer and Nall (short notice, on Halloween) and Terry Nall said, "I support neighborhood schools and efforts to relieve overcrowding throughout Dunwoody". Springer told me she is strongly in favor of keeping the new school north of Mt Vernon Road (Roberts).

According to DeKalb, we were a bubble eight years ago, then another bubble, then another bubble.  Truth is we need a second or larger middle school, and a larger high school.  The freshman class at Dunwoody is the largest ever. Dunwoody High School welcomed 100 former private-school students this year (all grades). The game-changer is the independent school district.  If in 2018 there is a City of Dunwoody school system, young families will flock here in huge numbers and the old guard will cash out.

So, about that mayoral race.  My life won't change either way if Mike wins or if Denny wins. On a personal level, I like both of them and believe Mike and Denny have made decisions they felt would make Dunwoody a better place. Neither one has made any votes or policy changes for personal gain.

The key issues I see now are: the proposed multi-million dollar theater at Brook Run, the ability and willingness to balance the needs and growth of the business community (where most of our tax $$ come from) while protecting homeowners (voters), and the willingness to work with DeKalb Schools and DeKalb County on several issues.

No matter what happens Tuesday, we are all still neighbors on Wednesday morning. Go vote.

For those of you visiting for the first time, take a peak at previous posts (blog archive).  You can search terms such as Austin, Vanderlyn, Chesnut, MARTA, Hoegaarden, and more.  I've written many posts on schools in Dunwoody, so take a look.  Please keep in mind there is an attempt at humor in every post, so don't take anything personally. 

HERE is a link to Dunwoody High homecoming parade photos

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dunwoody's Austin Rebuild, Politics at its Best

A few years ago the DeKalb school system inspected, then rated and ranked, all the school buildings.  As with everything in DeKalb, the rankings were not consistent from school to school.  Dunwoody was due a new elementary school, and it turns out Austin won lost won lost the ranking, coming in as the worst facility among DES (new), Vanderlyn (the smartest trailer park in Georgia), Kingsley, and Chesnut.  Those in-the-know all thought Chesnut was the school to be rebuilt, and rebuilt to hold more kids.  But that's not the way the cookie crumbled. Based on inspections and rankings, Austin is to be torn down and rebuilt.

Sounds easy, but nothing is easy around these parts. 

How many students should the school hold?  Most, but not all, new elementary schools being built in DeKalb hold 900 students.  DES in Dunwoody is an example.  Many folks at DES are insistent that the new Austin be built to the 900 student size.  See letter below sent from DES to the DeKalb school board and other staff members.

There are issues building a 900-student Austin at the current Austin site.  The Austin site is smaller than DES and smaller than most other school footprints.  Austin also has a gas pipeline and some hefty power lines next door. Of course, Ryan Seacrest and a few thousand other kids survived the gas pipeline and power lines.  Traffic is also a concern for a larger school on Roberts Drive.  Some say we don't need to repeat the major errors of previous school boards (and Crawford Lewis) and build a large school on an already congested two lane road.  

So, why not make the Austin site larger?  DeKalb could purchase a few homes that border Austin, enlarging the school footprint.

DeKalb planners informed Austin folks (last week) that the current Austin site won't be the site of a new 900 student school.  Okay, where to find 15 acres nearby?

Well, just a couple hundred yards away, on the same road, is a large chunk of dirt.  Currently this land is used for a metro Atlanta baseball league. No problem. Have the DeKalb School District build two new baseball fields behind Peachtree, and have the metro Atlanta league and DeKalb work out a deal.  The fire station could be relocated.  The nature center would stay, and could easily partner with the new school.  Perhaps they could create their own version of a STEM program.  Note:  In the 60's, 70's, and 80's STEM was known as shop class or vocational school.  But those names are too hands-on for today's political class, who regulated factory jobs overseas, but that's another topic.

This plan will suffer the NIMBY treatment.  Those folks near this park already complain about lights and noise from, oh my, kids playing baseball.  They'll have a fit over a school.  And some powerful folks live in the neighborhood that backs up the the park and ball fields.  We need to protect a few homeowners from hearing kids all day, so expect to have this solution kicked to the curb. 

We will have many people not in favor of this plan.  But keep in mind, the current Austin site would be torn down and made into a park.  A deal could also involve buying the church beside Austin, and adding it to the park space (this property sold real cheap a couple years ago, not sure why the county or city didn't buy it)

If Dunwoody and DeKalb County School District do not make a deal and do a property swap, then the county could go in a new direction with Austin.  DeKalb says a new Austin would be built, on other property they have identified, within three miles of Austin.  Three miles is a long way.  Three miles gets you to Perimeter Mall.

And all this comes just in time for our local elections.  Ask candidates running for office what they would do in regards to a land swap with DeKalb.  Do you want Austin on Roberts, where the majority of kids walk and bike to school, or do you want it on Ashford Dunwoody Road?

One other option is a remodeling of what is now called Austin, and the SPLOST funds used to build a new Austin, a school that would take pressure off DES.