Where to build new baseball fields and what kind of athletic fields the city needs are major issues bubbling to the surface as the City Council considers what to do about a land swap agreement with DeKalb schools.
Residents and officials representing all sides of the issue debate the land swap at the Oct. 24 council meeting, which also saw Meredy Shortal, wife of Mayor Denis Shortal, blasting the new school as a “business” and the deal as “horse-trading.”
The City Council is slated to vote Nov. 14 on entering into an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, with the DeKalb County School District to swap the land where the current Austin Elementary School sits in exchange for the 10.2-acre Dunwoody Senior Baseball fields in Dunwoody Park. The school district would then build a new 900-seat Austin Elementary School on the land where the fields are.
As part of the deal, the school district would also pay the city $3.6 million to be used toward constructing new baseball fields on approximately 8 acres at Peachtree Charter Middle School for the Dunwoody Senior Baseball league and to be used by PCMS students during school hours. The city would also rehab PCMS’s football fields and track area, giving the city access to the football field for the next 25 years when not in use by the school. The 9.8 acres where the current Austin Elementary sits would then be owned by the city to use for park space or other public amenity.
Public meetings and public comments about the tentative agreement between the city and DeKalb schools have taken place in the past two weeks. During that time, major disagreements between Dunwoody Senior Baseball supporters and Austin Elementary parents have emerged.
Dunwoody Senior Baseball’s board and also several Peachtree Charter Middle School parents oppose the city building new baseball fields at PCMS and are urging the city to build them at Brook Run Park instead. PCMS parents argue the school needs multi-use fields at the school rather than baseball fields.
Board members for Dunwoody Senior Baseball, a league for boys ages 13 to 29 with more than 1,000 players a year, say their program won’t survive at PCMS due to, among other issues, traffic and lack of parking. They also argue lack of complete control of the fields will hamper league play.
Austin Elementary School parents are also speaking out, saying the new school is desperately needed to alleviate severe overcrowding not only at Austin but also at other city elementary schools. There are approximately 700 students enrolled at Austin Elementary School, a facility designed to hold only about 600 students. The new Austin Elementary is being funded with taxes raised when voters approved a 2011 E-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and was originally slated to open in August 2018.
The current IGA already approved by the school district and given preliminary approval by the City Council was negotiated to have no disruption of services for Austin Elementary or Dunwoody Senior Baseball and also have the school open by August 2019. Any kind of change to the agreement set in motion now could delay opening the new school in Fall 2019 and also postpone league play for some time. League play runs from mid-February every year and ends in mid-November.
Residents, officials explain their stances
At a public hearing during the Oct. 24 council meeting, PCMS parent Julie LeDoyen, chair of the school’s Parent Teacher Charter Council, asked the council to not build the baseball fields at PCMS because the acreage needed will take away from learning space needed for the school to achieve STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) certification. She also said lack of input from PCMS taints the entire deal.
“We are very concerned about the lack of parent and teacher input [from PCMS] requested for this IGA,” she said. “DeKalb school came to our campus after the IGA was made public. Our campus is shrinking … and for us to have baseball fields is not conducive to learning. When you consider this deal, please consider academic instruction … for now and the next 25 years.”
Dan Drake, director of Planning and SPLOST Programming for DeKalb schools, said the school district could not discuss the IGA agreement with PCMS before it went public because the deal was being negotiated in executive session. State law allows for real estate matters to be discussed behind closed doors.
Drake acknowledged PCMS’ governing bodies said they do not want the baseball fields build at the school.
“The school district has provided the requests to the city and it will be up to the city of Dunwoody for consideration,” Drake said in a statement.
Stephen Moss, who has children at Austin Elementary, urged council members to approve the IGA as it stands because any changes would only delay the opening of the new Austin Elementary.
“Put the priority of the educational needs of 700 students first,” he asked.
Another Austin parent pointed out the deal to build the new school was already delayed a year to accommodate the Dunwoody Senior Baseball league and that a new school benefits the entire community. Another Austin parent praised the potential partnership between the Dunwoody Nature Center and the new elementary school.
“For me, the priority is Austin opening in the fall of 2019 – no later,” said City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch at the Oct. 24 meeting. “That’s the goal we need to be working backwards from. Everything needs to fit in that goal. We have multiple surrounding elementary schools that also benefit [from a new school].”
Mayor Denis Shortal, whose home backs up to Dunwoody Park, recused himself from discussion and the vote on the IGA after he said someone pointed out a potential conflict of interest. His wife, Meredy Shortal, however, voiced fierce opposition to building a new school in Dunwoody Park.
“Call the school what it is – a business,” she said. “It’s a business being plunked down into a neighborhood where people thought they were investing in park property. When did the city get into horse-trading?”
Dunwoody Senior Baseball President Jerry Weiner also voiced strong opposition at the Oct. 24 meeting. He said while the league doesn’t want to move from the fields where it has been located for 41 years, the board understands the need for a new elementary school.
“One of the things we were promised was that Dunwoody Senior Baseball would be kept intact. These two baseball fields are not going to allow us to run a program like we have today – and nobody [at the city] seems to be hearing this,” he said.
He said having school children running on the baseball fields during school hours will hurt the fields, which need special care, especially for the infield and pitcher’s mound. Building the new baseball fields in the back area of Brook Run Park would save the baseball program, he said.
However, city officials say that just deciding to build new baseball fields in Brook Run Park is not that easy because the city is in the midst of putting together its Parks Master Plan update, which is also tied to the demolition of Brook Run theater.
“The Parks Master Plan Update is approaching the final stages of information collection. The IGA with the DeKalb County School District and the demolition of the Brook Run theater are important arrangements/decisions which hold critical sway on portions of Brook Run Park,” said city spokesperson Bob Mullen.
“Once there is approval and direction from City Council on these two items, the Parks Master Plan Update process can continue,” Mullen added. “The Parks Master Plan Update examines existing recreational facilities, programs, services, collects comprehensive community input and will help determine the service levels and priorities for current and future parks within the community.”