The Dunwoody City Council signed a preliminary agreement Oct. 5 with the DeKalb County Board of Education for a land swap for the construction of a new Austin Elementary School. As part of the swap, the school board will pay the city $3.6 million, according to the deal set to be voted on next month.
The council did not take a vote at the Wednesday morning meeting but met in executive session for about 20 minutes. When the council emerged from the closed-door meeting, Mayor Denis Shortal announced the city signed the letter of intent with the school district. The school board signed the same letter intent on Monday, Oct. 3.
As part of the proposed land swap deal, the county will pay the city $3.6 million and give eventual control of the current Austin Elementary School property on Roberts Drive to the city. In exchange, the city will give the Dunwoody Senior Baseball fields in Dunwoody Park, just down the road from Austin Elementary also on Roberts Drive, to the school district to be used as the site for a new 900-seat Austin Elementary School.
The Dunwoody Park acreage going to the school board is slightly more than 10 acres and the current Austin Elementary School property is just under 10 acres.
The city will construct two new baseball fields at Peachtree Charter Middle School on about 8 acres of the school property to be used by the Dunwoody Senior Baseball league; the city will also maintain the PCMS’s football field and track area with the agreement the city will have access to the fields when not in use by the school.
The rough timeline for the entire process is for the new baseball fields to be constructed first so DSB can transition to them. Construction on the new Austin Elementary would then begin with plans to open in August 2018.
After the county is finished building the new school, the property where the current school is located is turned over to the city to turn into park land and the community would provide input on what kind of park it would want, council members said.
Shortal stressed, however, that the signing of the letter of intent with the school board was not final. There will be two community meetings at City Hall on Oct. 17 and Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. with a final vote slated to go to the council on Nov. 14.
“We have about six weeks to look at this, to vet this,” he said. “We are the folks you elected and I’ve urged council to be open to public input.”
Dunwoody Senior Baseball supporters and board members oppose the move of the fields to PCMS and several spoke during public comment at the meeting Wednesday morning. The league and city have a private-public partnership for use of the fields on the city’s park property.
“It would be like building on Fenway Park,” said DSB board member John Crawford. “Our partnership has been amazing. We’re really disappointed that our partners would consider evicting us in this plan.”
Drew Evangelista said it shouldn’t be the city’s responsibility to help the county school board’s problem with school overcrowding by allowing a new school to be built on the baseball fields.
“They are making DeKalb’s problems Dunwoody’s problems,” he said. “It’s unfair for Dunwoody citizens and you all to be placed in that situation. I feel this is a jewel to the city that you are giving away. Push back and make the school board do something different.”
Councilmember Doug Thompson said negotiations between the school board and the city have been years in the making and he believes the one being considered now is good for all involved.
“We know Dunwoody Senior Baseball has been tough on us,” he said. “I’m a youth sports guy. I would not have done anything to hurt the program. We’re getting $3.6 million from the [school board] and we can get some nice fields.
“We ended up with park land and money,” he added. “You just can’t beat that.”
Councilmember Lynn Deutsch also praised the deal’s guarantee of more park land for the city. She also said the city was going “above and beyond” in being transparent about the real estate swap, noting that the city of Brookhaven recently entered into a similar park land swap with the school district with no public input.
“We are starting month-long process,” she said. “This is not a bad deal. And this just the beginning of the process. We are open to input.”
Councilmember Terry Nall expressed some displeasure with the deal, saying there would be no issues had the county built the new school where the current one is located. Nall said that state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) had worked out a deal with the prior school superintendent, Michael Thurmond, to do just that. However, no formal agreement was ever made to do so, said DeKalb schools spokesperson Quinn Hudson.
Nall also said the overall deal was a good one.
“Schools make our community and our job is to protect our community. This is a net gain for the city,” he said.
Councilmember John Heneghan said the county approached the city about a land-swap deal and noted a new school was needed. He said the city went to DSB and the Dunwoody Nature Center, located in Dunwoody Park, to vet some plans to try to make a “win-win situation.”
“The current site of Austin will become a city park someday. What does the city want? What are the needs of that corner? There is a great amount of need for this,” he said.
“We’ve worked very hard to make this a workable situation for the entire community,” he said.
Councilmember Jim Riticher said in addition to new baseball fields and new park land, the city also enters into a 25-year agreement with the school board to fix up and share use of the PCMS football field and track area.
Thompson said he understood that change and DSB moving to new baseball fields after some 40 years at Dunwoody Park is hard.
“The new fields will be better, but they will be different,” he said. “We’ve bought ourselves a month. We’ll hear you out.”
Shortal blasted the DeKalb County School District and said he would be “dancing in the streets” when the city is able to take over the schools, adding the school board is “totally inadequate.”
“It is unbelievable to me the school board cannot build decent facilities for our schools,” he said.
The new school is being funded with taxes raised when voters approved a 2011 E-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
UPDATE Oct. 7: The city posted video renderings of the proposed baseball fields on its website.