State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) is ready to try once again to convince his fellow legislators that now is the time to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to create independent school systems for Dunwoody and other cities throughout the state.
But coming on the heels of the sound defeat at the polls of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District legislation, trying any kind of education reform is sure to be a tough battle, he acknowledges.
“This is not a partisan issue, this is a local issue,” Taylor said. “The general consensus in the community is this is a priority. This is not a Dunwoody bill per se, but it is what’s driving it. But we need to realize this is not about a Dunwoody school system. This has to be a statewide effort.”
Taylor first introduced the legislation, House Resolution 4, in 2013 after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the DeKalb County school system on accreditation probation due in part to a dysfunctional school board and a massive budget deficit.
Lack of support has stalled the HR 4 effort over the past few years, but Taylor said he is hoping to gain enough votes to have the referendum put on the ballot in 2018.
While DeKalb schools have improved and Supt. Stephen Green has earned the respect of many parents, Taylor said, the idea of creating an independent school system is still necessary. And as Dunwoody, and then Brookhaven, formed their own cities in part to have more local control, his bill would do the same for schools, Taylor said.
“Just like we did with the city [of Dunwoody] we can do with schools – we can do better,” Taylor said. But this battle will be “a tough, tough fight – much harder than the fight for cityhood.”
Taylor is working with members of Georgians for Local Area School Systems, or GLASS, to try to educate people in other cities about the proposed Constitutional amendment.
Erika Harris, a founder of GLASS, said at a recent Dunwoody Homeowners Association meeting that she has talked to independent school supporters in other cities including Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Lawrenceville and Sandy Springs.
Georgia law now limits the number of school districts in the state to 180, Taylor said, which has created districts in metro Atlanta with tens of thousands of students. Gwinnett County schools is expected to have more than 200,000 students enroll by 2020, for example. DeKalb County has more than 100,000 students and is busting at the seams, according to GLASS.
“DeKalb County is plagued with the highest millage rate and lowest graduation rates. We pay more for less,” Taylor said.
Other local legislators have their own projects to promote during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.
Newly-elected Rep. Meagan Hanson (R-Brookhaven) promised during her campaign to bring transportation issues in her home city to the forefront and said she supported MARTA expansion and also a comprehensive review of the district’s major traffic areas, such as North Druid Hills Road, Johnson Ferry Road and Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) said she is working with DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader on legislation to promote discussions on how the various city and county development authorities communicate with one another when it comes to granting tax incentives to corporations and developers.
State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), sponsor of the legislation to recreate the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said he will be spending much of the upcoming session working on “redoing and revamping” the commission. The judicial watchdog agency will now have appointments made by the Legislature and not the State Bar of Georgia.
Sure to come up in some form for the fourth year in a row is a “religious liberty” bill championed by the evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Last year, Deal vetoed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or House Bill 757, saying the bill invited discrimination.
State Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta), who has been at the center of the “religious freedom” fight while sitting on the House Judiciary Committee, said she welcomes a Donald Trump presidency and a push to move the fight to the federal level.
“People have talked for a long time that Congress should revisit the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” she said, noting Trump and a Republican Congress appear agreeable to take up the issue. “I would appreciate this … because [at the state level] it takes up a disproportionate amount of time and energy.