If I were a resident, taxpayer or parent in DeKalb County — and thank goodness I’m not — I would have grave concerns about the competence of the school board and superintendent.
The DeKalb school district is the lone holdout in a plan to add public infrastructure at the site of the old GM plant in Doraville. Developers want to build a mini-city (think: Atlantic Station) on the large tract fronting I-285 near Spaghetti Junction. The public contribution of streets and water/sewer infrastructure, among other things, would be paid from the incremental growth in property taxes as the site’s value rose over the next two decades, a financing tool known as a tax allocation district.
TADs are not without controversy. Done badly, they can lead to revenue shortfalls and legal disputes; just ask Atlanta Public Schools. Perhaps the Doraville TAD is poorly conceived. But school board members wouldn’t know because they have refused even to let the city and the developer make their case.
That’s right: There’s a potentially transformative project at a site that has sat dormant for nearly a decade, in a county that hasn’t gotten much right during those same years. And the school board turned it down without even listening.
Based on their public comments, board members and the superintendent worry the TAD would take money from the system. This calls into serious question their understanding of how TADs work.
Today, DeKalb schools receive less than $500,000 per year in property taxes from the 165-acre site. The schools would still get that money. What they wouldn’t get, at first, is any increase in revenue, which would go toward the new infrastructure. But — and this is the matter in a nutshell — absent that new infrastructure, there won’t be an increase in revenue anyway.
The system is holding up the best economic prospect DeKalb has had in years because it wants 100 percent of what today, and for the foreseeable future absent this project, amounts to $0.00.
Worse, Plan B for the site would likely include more housing. Rather than eventually increasing the system’s revenues, that could make the system worse off financially by adding students to the area’s overcrowded schools. Do board members understand that? Who knows? They won’t discuss it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the board’s only dereliction of duty. On May 24, DeKalb voters will be asked to renew a five-year sales tax for education, or E-SPLOST, without knowing anything about how the money would be spent.
The E-SPLOST plan, which merely says money will go toward such vague categories as “safety and security” or “new facilities and additions” without explaining where and how, appears to be legally deficient. The state law creating SPLOSTs holds that governing agencies “shall specify eligible expenditures” for the money raised.
The system may face a lawsuit even if the tax is approved, which itself isn’t guaranteed given the lack of details voters have. The system’s legal defense would cost a lot more than the $0.00 in new property taxes it will get from Dora-ville if it scuttles the TAD.
If you’re thinking “same old DeKalb,” well, you’re not alone.