My Response to Town Hall Meeting with Marshall Orson, DeKalb County School Board Member

Matt Huey
Matt Huey

By Matt Huey – What I know about DeKalb Schools and our Board of Education stem from my involvement in Briar Vista Elementary, the school that will touch every student and tax payer who live along LaVista, Houston Mill, Mason Mill roads and much of Briarcliff Road. Since 2009 I have fought budget changes that threatened the school’s Montessori teaching program, ultimately losing the fight this school year. I spent 2 years as Parent Teacher Organization’s president advocating for better education for the children at our school.  Along the way I met many good people in the DeKalb School System and many that I wouldn’t offer a ride if they were standing in the pouring rain. What I learned about county educational politics can be summed up in 3 points:

  1. The DeKalb school system is more about money and property values than education.
  2. Your school either has influence or it does not.
  3. Your school is either on the inside or the outside of the DCSS and the DeKalb Board Of Education.

DCSSDeKalb schools have been so poorly run, so mismanaged that last week the state board recommended that every board member not serving their first term be removed citing a sustained “culture of poor governance”. This culture stems from misappropriation of tax funds, nepotism, favoritism, cronyism and politicking of an institution that has one function…providing a quality education for our children. While I cannot cite many of the past indiscretions I can raise awareness of one in the works: The planned replacement of Fernbank Elementary School.
Along with Avondale, Briar Vista, Laurel Ridge and McLendon Elementary schools, Fernbank is in the Druid Hills High School “cluster”. These elementary schools feel Druid Hills Middle which feeds Druid Hills High.  Since the entire cluster feeds the same middle and high school only elementary school districts exist within the cluster.  The entire county school system is composed of such clusters.
Currently the populations of the elementary schools in our cluster are as follows:

  • Avondale:  Capacity 686 seats, enrolment 525, 77% utilization (159 open seats)
  • Briar Vista:  Capacity 542, enrolment 439, 81% utilization  (103 open seats)
  • Fernbank:  Capacity 578, enrolment 675, 117% utilization (97 over capacity)
  • Laurel Ridge:  Capacity 443, enrolment 446, 101% utilization (3 over capacity)
  • McLendon:  Capacity 559, enrolment 490, 88% utilization (69 open seats)

We have a total of 331 open seats in our cluster, more than enough to accommodate all of our students now and in the future.  When the 900 seat Fernbank is built another 322 seats will be added bring the total open seats to over 653, the equivalent of a new, empty school. To justify this new school the county plans to redistrict 65 students from Laurel Ridge and 17 students from Briar Vista.  Below are the county’s own 2016-2017 utilization forecasts:

  • Avondale:  Capacity 686 seats, enrolment 527, 77% utilization (157 open seats)
  • Briar Vista:  Capacity 542, enrolment 423 , 78% utilization  (119 open seats)
  • Fernbank:  Capacity 900, enrolment 758 , 84% % utilization (142 open seats)
  • Laurel Ridge:  Capacity 443, enrolment 343 , 77% utilization (100 open seats)
  • McLendon:  Capacity 559, enrolment 491, 88% utilization (68 open seats)

Don’t believe me? Check the below link from the DCSS website.
http://www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/www/documents/splost-iv/proposed-organization-facilities-presentation-and-binder-(2012-12-10).pdf

Briar Vista Elementary School
Briar Vista Elementary School

In short we are spending tens of millions of tax payer dollars on new school that will decrease average facility utilization from the current 93% to 80%, all to accommodate 97 students in a school cluster with over 300 open seats.  Am I the only genius who sees the problem here? Wait…refer to the 3 points above. Who has influence? Who is on the inside? Who stands to gain financially?
Are there plans to close a school in the cluster to fill the new Fernbank? Not now and not likely.  Fernbank’ s stellar test scores are, in large part, due to the near absence of students with the Limited English skills and economic disadvantages, the two demographics that most negatively impact test scores. If a neighboring school were to close it would take some serious gerrymandering (like the Cross Keys cluster) to keep these demographics intact. Consider that the 82 students targeted for redistricting from Laurel Ridge and Briar Vista are all from single family residences, least likely to contain these demographics.
Conversely, will the county redistrict Fernbank students to relieve overcrowding and balance the cluster? History has shown that they will be in for the fight of their life if they try.
So why is county spending a large portion of the 2.2 billion tax payer dollars on a new school where it is clearly not justified? Who has influence? Who is on the inside? Who stands to gain financially?
And at whose expense? Around 60% of your county property taxes go to schools and the entire county will pay for SLPOST IV, the 1 cent tax that will be in place for the next 4 years. How much of this money will be spent in your neighborhood? Helping educate your children? Helping your property values?  For Briar Vista, our neighborhood school: no influence, no one on the inside, no one fighting for our interests.
If you are concerned you should be. Strike while the iron is hot!!  Write Governor Deal (http://gov.georgia.gov/contact-governor-domestic-form), representative Scott Holcomb (scott@repscottholcomb.com), interim school Superintendent Michael Thurmond (michael_l_thurmond@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us),Marshal Orson, our new Board of Education representative (marshall_orson@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us) and voice your concerns. Tell them to not only remove the board, but to begin repairing the damage they have done. Share this with anyone who will listen. Ask questions and carefully listen to the answers. There may still be time to do something that will benefit all our children, not just a chosen few.
Matt Huey
Past President
Briar Vista Parent Teacher Organization
Editor’s Note: The above piece is the expressed opinion of the author and not policy of LLCC.

State Board of Education Recommends Removal of Six DeKalb Members

ByTimothy Darnell – North Druid Hills / Briarcliff Patch (patch.com)
The State Board of Education voted late Thursday night to recommend the removal of six members of the DeKalb School Board to Gov. Nathan Deal.
The board voted unanimously to recommend that Sarah Copelin-Wood, Donna Edler, Eugene Walker, Jay Cunningham, Nancy Jester and Pamela Speaks be removed from the DeKalb school board.
If Gov. Deal follows the board’s recommendation, Jim McMahan, Marshall Orson and Melvin Johnson would remain on the board as newly elected members.
The recommendation came after a meeting that began at 8 am and ended at 10:15 pm.
The meeting was the latest in the DeKalb school system’s ongoing battle to avoid losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools, which has already placed the system on probation.
DeKalb’s school board had to convince the State Board of Education that it was making progress toward retaining its accreditation. The State Board has the authority to recommend that Gov. Deal remove the board.
The DeKalb school board had sought a temporary injunction of this morning’s meeting as it challenges the law that gives the governor the authority to remove an entire school board. A judge ruled denied the request early Wednesday afternoon.

Lakeside Cityhood Movement Announces Arrival

By Jonathan Cribbs – editor, North Druid Hills/Briarcliff Patch
Will the Lakeside High School area find itself part of a new city?
The Lakeside City Alliance wants to find out.
The non-profit, chaired by Northlake-area resident Mary Kay Woodworth, will hold its first public meeting at Lakeside High on Feb. 13. It released the following statement Wednesday:

Citizens Group Announces Cityhood Study Initiative for Northern DeKalb County
ATLANTA, GA — February 6, 2013— A group of DeKalb County citizens announced today the formation of the Lakeside City Alliance, a non-profit group created to study the possibility and feasibility of establishing a new city in northern DeKalb County.  The Alliance is chaired by Mary Kay Woodworth, a lifelong DeKalb County resident, who lives near the Northlake Mall area.  The Alliance released a draft map of the proposed parameters of the new city, which would be bounded roughly by Interstate 85 to the west, Clairmont Road to the south, Chamblee-Tucker Road to the east and Pleasantdale Road to the north.
In announcing the creation of the Alliance study group, Woodworth noted that the proposed boundaries represent the Alliance’s efforts to define the community of interest that encompasses the proposed city.  “After years of being 50,000 citizens without a voice, we are excited about the prospect of examining a form a government that is both closer and more responsive to the people it represents,” Woodworth said.  “The Alliance will study the type of government best-suited to our area with an emphasis on allowing for more local control of police services, parks and zoning.”
Woodworth noted that “members of the Alliance are all citizens of DeKalb County, and we look forward to assessing the feasibility of a local government that integrates efficiently with the current county government.  We will study ways to fund and sustain a new city that provides services best overseen locally, while ensuring that the County can continue to provide the services it delivers best for all residents of DeKalb.”
Woodworth explained that the group will host a series of public meetings to introduce the proposed map, discuss its plans with area residents and receive feedback from interested stakeholders.  The first meeting will be held at at Lakeside High School on Wednesday, February 13.
“Today begins a careful study of the best means to provide local control to taxpayers,” Woodworth declared, “who have felt for far too long that they were powerless to control their own destinies.  It is our hope that with the formation of the Lakeside City Alliance, help is finally on the way.”
Additional information can found regarding LCA by visiting LCA’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LakesideCityAllianceGa), website (www.lakesidealliance.org) and Yahoo! Group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/lakesidealliance/)

The alliance has released a map of its proposed boundaries. To become a city, the state legislature would need to approve the idea and then voters would have to vote in favor of it.
The alliance was featured in a WSB-TV news report as well.

DeKalb DA’s office looking into school board spending

Atlanta Business Chronicle by Carla Caldwell, Morning Call Editor
The DeKalb County Schools system was put on probation this week by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and now the DeKalb County district attorney’s office has asked for copies of the agency’s report that expresses concerns about school board spending.
The report includes allegations of mismanaged money and unethical behavior. SACS blames the school board for what it calls a financial crisis, reports Atlanta Business Chronicle broadcast partner WXIA-TV.
The SACS report says there are glaring examples where the board has failed to account for spending, including a loan for $25 million dollars to buy textbooks. SACS said half the money was used to fund books purchased in previous years, but it could find no evidence that books were purchased with the remaining $12 million, WXIA reports.
The DA’s office is looking at who spent the money and if there was any illegal activity, WXIA says.
Dr. Eugene Walker, DeKalb County School Board Chairman, insists there is nothing that would warrant a criminal investigation.
“We don’t manage the money. That’s done by the system,” Walker told WXIA. “We do have state audits and we just finished the KPMG audit. To my knowledge they did not find any wrongdoing or mismanagement.”

DeKalb school district in “conflict and crisis,” put on probation by accreditation agency

By Ty Tagami for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s third largest school district, DeKalb County, was placed on probation Monday after a six-month-investigation into scores of complaints of mismanagement.
In a scathing report, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accuses DeKalb officials of engaging in bickering and nepotism while letting district finances wither. Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of SACS parent company AdvancED, also said the district had allowed academic achievement to slip.
The decision by the accrediting agency could have wide-ranging effects on the local economy, observers say, from discouraging businesses from relocating to DeKalb to depressing housing values, which already have dropped precipitously.
The problems stem from a decade of “poor, ineffective governance” that has caused a decline in academic performance and pushed the nearly 100,000-student system to the financial brink, said Elgart. The district could finish the school year in a deficit should any unforeseen expense arise, he said during his morning announcement.
The next step, accreditation loss, is “imminent” if officials don’t respond appropriately, Elgart said.
In 2008, Clayton County lost its accreditation and suffered dire consequences. Thousands of students fled the system; it lost millions in state and federal funds; and home values in the area plummeted.
DeKalb school board Chairman Eugene Walker said at a later news conference that he hadn’t had time to “digest” the SACS report, but he promised school officials would work together to regain full accreditation. Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who attended the same press conference, did not speak.
“We’ve not lost our accreditation, and we’re not planning on losing our accreditation,” Walker said.
DeKalb was already accredited “on advisement,” having been dropped a notch from full accreditation by a prior SACS visit. The district will lose accreditation if it fails to address the concerns raised in a 20-page report by next December, Elgart said.
Among the allegations were nepotism.
The SACS report said it had “various forms of evidence” confirming that the school board interfered in hiring. In August, for instance, Walker sent Atkinson an e-mail recommending a candidate for Georgia’s Teacher Alternative Preparation Program.
“With his strong background and personal demeanor I feel that he would be a great candidate to work with our kids,” the e-mail reportedly said. “Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board. … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide.”
At his news conference Monday, Walker said, didn’t address any specific allegation, but said, “I know I’ve done something wrong; I just don’t know what it is.”
The report also questioned budgets that failed to predict recurring costs for utilities and legal work, and it raised concerns about $12 million in debt for new textbooks that no one interviewed by SACS had seen. “Numerous interviews revealed that no one could identify any school that had received new textbooks and it was reported that nearly all schools were struggling with ways to repair old textbooks,” the report said.
Board members routinely bypass the command chain, and make “harassing” calls and visits to schools, peppering staff with demands and causing “an incredible waste of staff time and resources that should be dedicated to improving student performance,” the report said.
SACS determined that the problems are rooted in a culture that predates the current board and is already sending shoots into the future.
A team that visited for three days of interviews noted that “it was widely reported” that board members-elect, who take office Jan. 1, were already visiting “their” schools, “thereby perpetuating the culture of interference and ignoring the autonomy of the staff.”
The probation decision stung parents such as Valrie Kong-Quee, whose daughter attends Arabia Mountain High School. It also confirmed deep suspicions.
“They’re guilty all the way,” Kong-Quee said. “Financial mismanagement: guilty, big time.” Her gripe: that the board agreed to pay for the legal defense of former Superintendent Crawford Lewis, and even removed a previously self-imposed $100,000 cap on the costs. Lewis is scheduled for trial next year on allegations that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the school system of construction money.
Kong-Quee is a real estate agent and said she fears DeKalb is becoming another Clayton, where 3,200 students fled after losing accreditation. Meanwhile, the population dropped and unemployment rate rose, from 6 percent before the recession to around 11 percent this year, though it’s unclear how much of that is due to the school system woes.
“I hope we don’t sit around and let our accreditation slip away,” Kong-Quee said. “Even the talk of suspension is not good,” she said. “It’s bad, it’s really bad, and I’m angry about it.”
Leonardo McClarty, president of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said the probationary status could hurt efforts to recruit companies and jobs. He also looked at the bright side: He has a kindergartner in an elementary school in Tucker, and said the teachers and administrators there are doing a good job; this is a governance matter, he said, and there is time to address it.
Parents need to get involved — in their PTAs, school councils and at school board meetings, but they should offer constructive ideas, he said. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but squeaky doesn’t have to mean bad,” he said.
Ultimately, McClarty added, its incumbent on voters to educate themselves to pick good school board candidates rather than names on the ballot that they happen to recognize.
While probation in itself carries no technical consequences for students or the district, it could mean the end of the road for the school board.
A new state law allows the governor to replace school boards in systems on probation.
The Georgia board of education must schedule a hearing within 30 days. DeKalb officials will be asked to give their side, and the state board will then determine whether the local board should be replaced. The recommendation is forwarded to the governor, who makes the actual decision.
There have been five probation cases since the new law was enacted in 2011. The state board has typically given systems six months to fix things before making its recommendation. In only one case, in Miller County earlier this year, did it conclude that the board had to go.
Gov. Nathan Deal got the recommendation in March, and removed the Miller school board in April.
For parent Rae Anne Harkness, removal of the board can’t come fast enough. This report was “long overdue,” she said. The “awful” anecdotes in the report confirmed what she’s heard about nepotism. She blames DeKalb officials for eroding academic quality, and says quality is one reason she sent her daughter to a charter school instead of her neighborhood school in central DeKalb. It wasn’t always like this, she said. She’s heard plenty of older residents talk of how the good old days, when strong DeKalb schools used to attract new residents.
“Now, people don’t move here because of the schools,” Harkness said, “or they move out because of them.”
Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article

Legislators To Discuss ‘City of DeKalb’

By Ralph Ellis for Virginia Highland/Druid Hills Patch
Some people want to create a city out of DeKalb County’s unincorporated communities.
State senators from DeKalb County will meet this week to talk about possibly forming a “City of DeKalb.”
The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 29 in room 450 at the State Capitol, CrossroadNews.com reported.
A City of DeKalb has been talked about for decades but the idea has gained new urgency because more cities are forming in DeKalb County, like Brookhaven. Those cities reduce the county government’s property tax revenue.
Here’s what some county officials said in the CrossRoads.com article:

  • County Commissioner Jeff Rader: “What  would be the main street and common interest. We won’t lose  the county government. We will gain another layer of government.”
  • Commissioner Lee May: “It  is not just about preserving revenue, but comprehensive planning for  the county as a whole.”
  • Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton: “The  entire county planned and put investments in infrastructure and then  for a small group to take it without compensation for the county is not  fair. … We can’t let a few people destroy one of the best counties.”

Most Residents at Meeting Unsure About Cityhood

By Jonathan Cribbs for North Druid Hills/Briarcliff Patch
About 100 people showed up at Oak Grove United Methodist Church on Monday to listen to several local politicos talk about what it would take to start a city in DeKalb County.
The vast majority of residents at a Monday meeting to learn about cityhood in northern DeKalb County said they were unsure they wanted to be part of a new city.
And everyone was even less sure about where another new city might be.
In what was billed as an information-only session hosted by the Briarcliff Woods East Neighborhood Association at Oak Grove United Methodist Church, the vast majority of 100 or so residents raised their hands to indicate they were unsure about cityhood. Only a small number showed they favored or disliked the idea.
Fran Millar, DeKalb County’s sole Republican state senator; Tom Taylor, a DeKalb state represenatative, and Dan Weber, a former state senator in DeKalb, spent roughly 90 minutes talking with residents about cityhood in the county. They spoke about everything from the necessary $30,000 cost of a study to determine a future city’s feasability to the different services a city can offer. (Peachtree Corners, for instance, is “city-light,” which means it exists almost solely to give its residents control over code enforcement and zoning and doesn’t offer much in the way of tangible services.)
No boundaries for a city were discussed. After the meeting it wasn’t clear who wanted a city, where that movement might start and what communities it might include. It was obvious that Monday’s meeting was the very beginning of a difficult process that might seek to organize swaths of residents and communities into a collective enterprise. But, this area, the North Druid Hills-Briarcliff area (or the Lakeside-Emory-Northlake area or whatever else you choose to call it), has existed for so long officially as unincorporated DeKalb County.
One resident, a marketing executive, said one of the most important questions that needs to be answered is, at its heart, about branding: “Where do we live right now?”
It’s a question that doesn’t appear to have vexed the many residents who have organized into nearby cities recently such as Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, areas that arguably had clearer identities before they became cities.
But Millar, of Dunwoody, said it was important to look at what residents could get out of cityhood.
“When I think of North Druid Hills, this area, I think of preservation. I think of zoning,” he said. “When something goes wrong, you’ve got someone down the street you can complain to.”
Millar, Taylor and Weber also sought to dispel assumptions about cityhood – things that might drive some residents to want it in the wrong way. For instance:

  • The chances of a city getting its own school district are almost nill, Taylor said. No matter what, most of your property taxes will still continue to go to the DeKalb County School System.
  • Starting a city doesn’t mean you’re seceding from the county. You will most likely continue to pay for some county services such as water and sewer and garbage collection. About 80 percent of tax revenues will continue to go to the county, Millar said: “When cities are created, people are still part of Dekalb County.”
  • It’s a difficult battle and a slog of a process. And if you can get cityhood approved by the legislature, the residents still have to vote in favor of it.

All of this is also separate from a movement to create a City of DeKalb, which is the subject of a study committee in the legislature. Millar said he thinks it’s nearly impossible that would happen, and no legislation proposing it would make it off the floor of the House or Senate.
A number of residents expressed frustration that the meeting had no one speaking against cityhood. Although Jeff Rader, DeKalb County’s District 2 commissioner who has spoken against cityhood before, was at the meeting, he left early before making any remarks.
“You have shown us quite simply that you’re all pro-city,” one  resident shouted as a woman explained that any new city needs a  significant amount of commercial or industrial property to finance a  city without over-taxing residents. “Let’s move on to another question.”
Kevin Levitas, a former DeKalb state represenative who represented Briarcliff Woods, said at the next meeting he organizes, speakers opposing cityhood would be invited to speak. He said he was shooting for Nov. 29 as a tentative date.
No packets or heavily detailed information about cityhood was handed out. Millar, Taylor and Weber offered mostly anecdotes and general reflections on what it took to get cities started in Dunwoody and Brookhaven. Millar, for instance, said Dunwoody had 90 days to organize a police force for the city, once voted approved it – a Georgia record, he said.
“Even when these cities are created, they still have warts, believe me,” he said.
Another resident said everyone in the room needed to consider the idea for themselves and not be pushed by state legislators.
“There’s a lot of great reasons to have a city. But if you want to start a city, the leadership needs to come from you, not from state legislators,” he said.
But that sort of leadership hasn’t emerged yet.
“We don’t need to know how to [become a city] until we know why to do it,” another resident said.
What is your take on this movement? Add your comment below.
For more information, check out these links:
http://northdruidhills.patch.com//articles/curious-residents-ponder-cityhood-in-oak-grove
http://northdekalbcity.blogspot.com/
http://theotherbrookhaven.blogspot.com/

Where It All Went Wrong: If only we could undo the MARTA Compromise of 1971

Doug Monroe for Atlanta Magazine
8/1/2012

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.
At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn’t just a one-time blunder—it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there’s no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl is key to the metro area’s potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future–type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we’d settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical “undo” key?
The transit compromise of 1971.
Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.
In 1971, given the lack of support for MARTA by the five core counties, then Mayor Sam Massell came back with a new plan: to provide an ongoing subsidy for MARTA through a sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and the City of Atlanta. No other jurisdiction in Georgia had a local option sales tax, so the General Assembly had to approve the idea. When the notoriously anti-Atlanta legislators gave the go-ahead, Massell called a press conference that featured a flatbed truck pulling up in front of city hall, facing the Capitol, with a large billboard that said, “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!” Massell then dug a hole in the city hall lawn and buried a hatchet to symbolize his appreciation for the state’s rare support of the city.
In a promotional stunt worthy of Mad Men, Massell sent a bevy of young women to the Capitol in pink hot pants with little keys to the city, a proclamation expressing the city’s gratitude, and invitations to city hall for a lunch featuring fried chicken (for Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox), peanuts (for Governor Jimmy Carter), and, of course, Coca-Cola. “We got a four-column picture—the biggest exposure we ever got from the Atlanta newspapers,” recalls Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition.
After getting the legislative approval for the sales-tax option, Massell had to persuade voters to pass the sales tax. “We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately,” Massell says. The daily fare would plunge from $1.30 to thirty cents. Not everyone believed him. City Councilman Henry Dodson cruised the city in a Volkswagen with a PA system that blared, “It’s a trick! If they can’t do it for sixty cents, how are they going to do it for fifteen?”
Massell countered the VW with higher visibility, chartering a helicopter to hover over the Downtown Connector, congested even then, while he called through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!”
“This being the Bible Belt, they thought God was telling them what to do,” Massell quips today. Still, to make sure Atlantans voted his way, he rode buses throughout the city, passing out brochures to riders, and he visited community groups with a blackboard and chalk to do the math on the sales tax. Voters approved the plan by just a few hundred votes.
Another of the blunders that crippled MARTA at the outset—and haunts it to this day—was engineered behind closed doors by the segregationist Lester Maddox, according to Massell, who believes Maddox’s intervention was even more devastating than the vote not to extend MARTA into the suburbs.
After the Georgia House of Representatives approved funding MARTA through the sales tax, Massell had to approach the Georgia State Senate, where Maddox held sway. Maddox told the mayor he would block the vote in the senate unless MARTA agreed that no more than 50 percent of the sales tax revenue would go to operating costs, Massell recalls. “He called me into his office and told me that was it. Either I swallowed that or he was going to kill it and it would not pass.”
That has meant that whenever MARTA needed more money for operating expenses, it had to cut elsewhere or raise fares. As a result, MARTA has raised the fare over the years to today’s $2.50, making it one of the priciest transit systems in the country.
Although the 50 percent limit has resulted in higher fares, few people realized the ramifications of the so-called “Maddox amendment” at the time, Massell says. In fact, it actually was viewed favorably by DeKalb legislators because they were afraid MARTA would spend all its money in Atlanta before extending rail service to DeKalb, according to a thirty-six-page history of MARTA written by former State Treasurer Thomas D. Hills.
Hills’s MARTA history also illuminates why the state never contributed funds for MARTA, despite that 1966 vote that would have allowed it to. One early plan was for the MARTA sales tax to be three-quarters of a penny, with the state chipping in up to 10 percent of the cost of the system as approved by Georgia voters. But early in his administration, according to Hills’s history, then Governor Carter called MARTA attorney Stell Huie—who was on a quail-hunting trip—and said the state couldn’t afford its $25 million share for MARTA. Carter offered to raise the sales tax to a full penny if the state didn’t have to pay, and Huie agreed. The lawyer said the 1 percent sales tax plan came out of the House Committee on Ways and Means and “there was a tag end, not even part of the act, that just said the state won’t put any money in.”
Hills wrote that the events help to “explain why some representatives of state government and others in the community understand that the state’s support in allowing the local option sales tax for MARTA was a bargain in exchange for a reprieve for the state from future funding for MARTA.”
The 1965 and 1971 votes against MARTA by residents of Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett weren’t votes about transportation. They were referendums on race. Specifically, they were believed to be about keeping the races apart. Consider the suburbanites voting back then. The formerly rural, outlying counties had exploded with an astonishing exodus of white people fleeing the city as the black population swelled during the civil rights era. This mass migration came at a time when Atlanta was known through its public relations bluster as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
The 1960 census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city—Atlanta’s white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton professor who wrote White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta’s slogan should have been “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.” “Racial concerns trumped everything else,” Kruse says. “The more you think about it, Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together.”
In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham Davis observed, “The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood.”
The votes against MARTA were not the only evidence of the role of race in Atlanta’s transportation plans. The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods. Georgia Tech history professor Ronald H. Bayor, author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, says the failure of the 1971 MARTA referendum in Gwinnett and Clayton was the beginning of the region’s transportation problems because of the lack of mass transit in the suburbs. Yet his research goes back to the racial reckoning behind the route of the interstate highway system that began construction in the 1950s.
The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district. It could have been worse. The highway was first designed to run smack through the headquarters of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the city’s major black-owned business. “The original intention was to destroy that black business,” Bayor says. A protest by the black community saved the structure and moved the highway route a few blocks east, where it still managed to cut through the black community’s main street, Auburn Avenue.
Interstate 20 on the west side of town is a particularly egregious example of race-based road-building. Bayor wrote: “In a 1960 report on the transitional westside neighborhood of Adamsville . . . the Atlanta Bureau of Planning noted that ‘approximately two to three years ago, there was an “understanding” that the proposed route of the West Expressway [I-20 West] would be the boundary between the white and Negro communities.’”
The strategy didn’t work, of course, as whites fled by the tens of thousands. One of the unintended consequences of the race-based road-building is today’s traffic jams. “What happened didn’t change the racial makeup of the metro area but led to congestion within the metro area,” Bayor says.
Aside from political vengeance and racial politics, another enormous factor was at play in transportation policies of the 1960s and 1970s: Atlanta’s love affair with the automobile. The great migration out of the city started in the late 1950s—just as workers at General Motors’ vast Lakewood assembly plant in southeast Atlanta put the finishing touches on one of the most iconic cars in history: the 1957 Chevy.
The allure of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA started running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and fill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn’t afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working-class blacks. Racist suburbanites brayed that the system’s acronym stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
While MARTA was struggling to crank up the bus and rail system, the State of Georgia and its powerful highway department had other, bigger ideas.
David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the road-building binge that led to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta—some of the widest in the world—diminished MARTA’s potential. “It’s not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one big mistake—the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways,” says Goldberg, now communications director for Washington-based Transportation for America. “We were too damn successful—it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it.”
As metro Atlanta’s geographic expansion grew white-hot, developers had to move homebuyers—those fleeing the city and others moving South from the Rust Belt—in and out of the new subdivisions they were carving from the pine forests and red clay. Georgia started “building highways expressly to enrich developers,” Goldberg says. “A whole lot of land owners and developers who knew how to do suburban development had the ear of state government and the money to buy influence. They took all that money we had and put it into developing interchanges way out from town. A lot of what was new suburban development back then is now underused, decaying, and part of an eroding tax base in the older suburban areas.”
The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA—until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. “The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use,” Goldberg says. “The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion—the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin.” He refers to the neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, then force them to merge onto the freeways, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

More than forty years later, what does the failure to create MARTA as a regional system mean for Atlanta? Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University, has been watching Atlanta’s growth—and decline—for decades. In January he declared, “Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.” He cited the free fall from the number eighty-ninespot on the list of the world’s 200 fastest-growing metro areas to ranking at 189 in just five years. Not to mention the plunge of 29 percent in average housing price per square foot between 2000 and 2010. Not to mention that Atlanta has the eleventh-most-congested traffic of 101 metro areas in the country.
“The big mistake was not taking advantage of MARTA,” Leinberger says. “Atlanta was given by the federal taxpayers a tremendous gift that they squandered as far as MARTA. It’s not just that Atlanta did not take advantage of it. They didn’t expand it and they didn’t recognize that it could allow them to build a balanced way of developing.”
Leinberger agrees that part of the region’s blindness toward MARTA’s potential was the belief “that the car was the be-all and end-all forever. The other part was the basic racism that still molds how Atlanta is built.”
The most maddening realization is that the once virtually all-white suburbs that voted against MARTA years ago are today quite diverse and reflect Atlanta’s evolution from a biracial city to a multiracial, multiethnic one. Today’s suburbs are not only home to African Americans, but also Latino, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants. The city’s diversity is projected to increase over the coming decades (see page 68). Many of the people who voted against MARTA decades ago are dead or retired. The suburban lifestyle they were so eager to defend has lost much of its cachet as gas prices soar and houses don’t sell. Smart young people up to their necks in college debt don’t want to spend their money and time driving cars back and forth; they want to live in town. Atlanta’s only neighborhoods to gain inflation-adjusted housing value in the past decade, Leinberger notes, were Virginia-Highland, Grant Park, and East Lake.
The Georgia Sierra Club’s opposition to the July 31 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax—on the grounds that the plan, despite including a majority for transit, was a sprawl-inducing road expansion—troubled Leinberger. “That’s a dangerous strategy. From what everybody tells me, this is a one-off.” He says the state legislature has traditionally treated Atlanta like a child, and is saying, “Finally, one time only, children, are we going to let you decide for yourself. This is it.”
The July 31 vote is “an Olympic moment,” he says. “If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area.” Forty years from now, will we look back at failure to pass the referendum as a mistake as devastating as the 1971 MARTA compromise?
Atlanta faces a classic problem. It boomed in the go-go decades at the end of the twentieth century when everyone zoomed alone in their cars from home to office to store. Now it must move beyond what worked in the past to a new era that demands a new way of building, with up to 70 percent of new development oriented around transit, Leinberger says. “Atlanta has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.”
The never-ending ramifications of a race-based transportation infrastructure, built to accommodate a suburban driving lifestyle that has started to die off in a state that has traditionally refused to embrace mass transit, could doom Atlanta to a future as a newer, sunnier Detroit.
“It only takes a generation-plus of yinning when you should have yanged to wake up and say, ‘Oh my God! How did it happen?’” says outgoing MARTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott, who watched from afar the decline of her hometown, Cleveland.
Atlanta’s failure to build out MARTA looks even more shameful when compared with what happened with similar transit systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which started at the same time as MARTA, she says. “The reality is, this region got stuck. We have about half the build-out of what it was planned to be.” But San Francisco and Washington “kept building and moving . . . they had plans regardless of whether folks were red or blue. They had a vision and the fortitude to make purple and keep moving. We just got stuck.”
MARTA was born out of Atlanta’s giant ego in the days when the city was entering the major leagues across the board—baseball, football, international airport—bolstered by a racially harmonious reputation unmatched in the South, deserved or not. “You said to yourself, ‘We’re top-notch. Everybody’s got to have a rail system,’” Scott says. “But it was built as a manifestation of ‘we have arrived’ without a bigger vision of ‘what do we want to do for our region?’ You built it like a trophy.” Indeed, some of the Downtown MARTA stations were built on a scale that would please a pharaoh.
Yet Scott says she is no doomsayer. During her tenure at MARTA, she has seen marked progress in forging the civic- political infrastructure necessary to build an integrated transportation network. Her concern is that the region is at a critically urgent juncture in the process and can’t afford to lose focus or momentum.“There’s still much work to be done,” she says.
Word about Atlanta’s transportation muddle has gotten around. Scott says she’s been privy to meetings during which corporate relocation experts tell Chamber of Commerce members: “Hey, Atlanta is not only not at the top tier anymore, we’ve got companies saying, ‘Don’t put the Atlanta region on the list.’” It’s not just the congestion and pollution—“they’re not seeing leadership or plans to get yourself out of the fix.”
Atlanta’s leaderless transportation fix is the ultimate example of the admonition, “Be careful what you pray for.”
“This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation,” says historian Kevin Kruse. “As a result, they have been in their cars on 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. They’re just not moving anywhere.”

City, Neighbors Have Long Discussion Over Sewer Tank

ByEden Landow
The city of Atlanta, under the gun to meet a federal court-ordered consent decree deadline to substantially improve its wastewater management infrastructure, is trying a third time to build a massive storage tank somewhere near the confluence of the south and north forks of Peachtree Creek, but once again running into neighborhood concerns.
Neighbors turned out last week for a meeting at Rock Springs Presbyterian Church to find out more about the project and voice their concerns, which included security, odor, effect to property values, unsightliness, sewer gas odors and unforeseen problems.
They complained the community is “taking one for the team” by being unduly impacted with massive projects, including the Ga. 400 interchange, Clifton Corridor rail construction, Georgia Power Co.  transmission lines — and now this water-management project.
“What is our neighborhood doing to get in exchange for this,” some asked.
The project is about 60 percent through the design stage and would include building one 10-million gallon, raised overflow tank off Cheshire Bridge Road at 2061 Liddell Drive. The tank would be about 55 feet tall and 185 feet wide, with a pumping station and electrical station on the flood plain at 2001 Cheshire Bridge Rd., near the north end of Lenox Road.
Plans call for tunneling diluted sewage overflow under Cheshire Bridge Road to the Liddell Road tank when the main system is overcapacity, which is usually about once a month, said EDT Waterworks principal engineer Donald Fry, who explained the project in a slideshow presentation.
By email, Lindbergh-Lavista Corridor Coalition board member Courtney Harkness said, “The City of Atlanta has a decision to make: Does it want to redevelop the Cheshire Bridge corridor or does it want to make the area an industrial dumping ground? If the City goes forward with this sewer project off of Cheshire Bridge Road, we will know what path they have chosen.”
Fry said the city needs to do something to protect the creeks and environment and that the city believes this is the best and most cost-effective way to do it.
The project is estimated to cost about $35 million.
“We selected the center of the only commercial and industrial area in the vicinity,” Fry said.
The project, sited on city-owned land, will effectively double the capacity of the current flow. He said the project is not foreseen to ever have more tanks, though he said the site is large enough for  a second one.
The city initially planned to build the overflow tanks off Zonolite Road, then relocated the project off Kay Lane. Both locations were taken off the table after residents and business owners fought against building the project.
According to Sharon Matthews, senior watershed director for the city of Atlanta, to comply with the consent decree, the city must have construction completed in June 2014 and that construction would begin on this facility around the first of the year.
Harkness said the group is concerned the city’s 1999 Cheshire Bridge redevelopment plan would be jeopardized.
“This is the future Cheshire Bridge neighborhood, a multi-ethnic community that integrates open-air shopping, dining and entertainment with new residential development,” Harkness said. “A 55 ft. x 185 ft. sewer tank that will only be used, by the City’s estimation, for four to six hours each month to handle sewer overflow, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $40 million, does not jibe with this redevelopment plan at all.”
Area residents, who worked to get the City to develop this plan in 1999 and then again to get the City to rezone Cheshire Bridge Road to Neighborhood Commercial (NC) zoning in 2005, feel abandoned by the City and its leadership with the proposal of this sewer tank project, she said.
Matthews said the tank can be built with architectural features and landscaping so that it will not diminish the looks of the community.
Harkness said the community feels the “burden of achieving clean water is being ‘dumped’ on in  this area of town, even though the issue affects a much larger area. They feel that other neighborhoods and jurisdictions (Buckhead, DeKalb County) that are affected by Peachtree Creek should also have to come to the table to solve this issue.”
“The only positive part of this project is that it (supposedly) will keep sewer run off out of Peachtree Creek,” Harkness said. “However, area residents feel that the burden of achieving clean water is being ‘dumped’ on this area of town, even though the issue affects a much larger area.”
An initial community meeting was cancelled last month “due to issues that have to be addressed with internal stakeholders.”
To read the entire article and add your comments, go to the Virginia-Highland/Druid Hills Patch by clicking on this link:
http://vahi.patch.com/articles/city-neighbors-have-long-discussion-over-sewer-tank

DeKalb County Addresses North Druid Hills Road Construction

By Jonathan Cribbs for North Druid HIlls – Briarcliff Patch

The widening project along North Druid Hills Road will cost $2.6 million and last about 15 months
A number of people have emailed me over the last few days about this construction on North Druid Hills Road. I got a response today from DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan, and, before I write a more detailed story, I figured I would pass his email along to you guys who want to know more about it.
Here is Brennan’s email to me:

The project will widen North Druid Hills Road from Briarcliff Road to Woodcliff Drive in order to extend the left-turn lane to Briarcliff Road southbound. North Druid Hills Road will also be widened from Briarcliff Road to the west, toward Interstate 85, in order to provide a third westbound receiving lane for the double left turn lane from Briarcliff Road northbound. Briarcliff Road will also be widened to provide an additional southbound through lane from North Druid Hills Rd to Sheridan Drive.
The project is expected to ease traffic congestion and reduce delays for drivers who use this intersection every day.  In addition, new ADA compliant sidewalks, upgraded traffic signals, and crosswalks will enhance the safety of pedestrians who pass through the area.

Funding for the project comes from revenue from the 2005 bond referendum for infrastructure projects. Construction is estimated to take approximately 15 months at a cost of approximately $2.6 million. The contractor for the project is Desmear Systems, Inc.

Now, does that mean motorists on that road can expect the same kind of delays for the next 15 months? I’m not sure. Either way, I doubt it’s going to be pretty considering how awfully congested that road is most of the time anyway. (It’s a primary reason I grocery shop at 1 in the morning.) It’s going to be split into phases, and Brennan is currently looking into that for me now. Like I said, I’ll have a more detailed story on it for you guys once I get all the information. This is for those of you wondering what the heck is going on out there.
UPDATE: Brennan just emailed me back regarding the phases.
Here’s his response:

It will be up to the contractor to decide how to phase his work.   However, he is not going to be working in the road all of the time, so  his impacts to traffic are going to be variable during the life of the  project.