The type of drama normally reserved for Dunwoody High School’s stage has oozed out of the high school’s hallways and into city politics. Local politicians recently engaged in a tit-for-tat as a fight over trailers parked in front of the school devolved into battles of words over stop signs and federal lawsuits.
An outspoken DeKalb County commissioner, a former mayor, a controversial state senator and a city councilmember are among the cast of characters in this story that was revealed, as many school-age squabbles are wont to be these days, on Facebook.
DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester, who lives in Dunwoody, was angered over Spring Break when she saw the DeKalb County School District installing large trailers, or portable classrooms, in front of the high school. On April 8, she denounced the trailers on her personal Facebook page by stating, “This isn’t a better Dunwoody” and adding that “this is the reason redistricting should have been done.”
Following Jester’s Facebook post, numerous people posted their agreement. City Councilmember Terry Nall also chimed in to note that “DCSD is a sovereign government entity.”
A back-and-forth ensued, including comments from residents. Nall suggested Jester’s outspoken criticism of the city was merely out of anger at not getting her way on having the city put a stop sign in her neighborhood. He said she might also be upset because city officials declined to meet with her and her friend state Sen. Josh McKoon in a secret meeting to discuss Dunwoody possibly suing the federal government over independent schools.
“I do hope the peculiar actions since then are unrelated,” Nall said.
Jester denied her complaints about trailers in front of DHS has anything to do with what Nall suggested.
“The city should stop trying to fight a mom trying to keep children safe, apologize for their oversight, and get on with their obligation as a city to ensure the safety of children,” she said.
In an April 10 email to City Council that she shared on her blog, Jester blasted the City Council and used Nall’s words from Facebook to accuse the city of neglecting its duty by not inspecting and permitting the trailers. By allowing DCSD to put up the trailers with no city intervention, the city was putting children’s lives at risk, Jester said.
“They are putting them up on cinderblocks … and one [trailer] is very close to the road,” Jester said in an interview. “It would be very easy for someone to careen onto the sidewalk and into the building.”
When asked if she thought the school district did not want to ensure students’ safety, she said she had no idea what codes the district followed. She added, “This is a jurisdictional issue, not a school issue.”
Nall, in a statement, said any suggestion the city is not concerned about children’s safety “is engaging in political hyperbole.”
“It’s a tactic that does more to sow discord than solve significant issues in our community,” he said.
Independent districts and lawsuit talk
But is this public battle really only about trailers?
Some background: Nancy Jester is married to DeKalb Board of Education member Stan Jester. She’s also a former school board member, one of six removed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013 after the district faced losing its accreditation amid Southern Association of Colleges and Schools allegations that board members interfered with day-to-day school operations.
Both Jesters in their respective blogs and in public comments have battled with the school district over redistricting and vehemently oppose its plans to sink Educational Special Local Option Sales Tax funds into adding on to Dunwoody High School rather than building a new high school in Doraville.
“South of [U.S.] 78 … there are almost 4,000 seats available,” Nancy Jester said in an interview. “The overcrowding is north of 78 … at Lakeside, Dunwoody and Chamblee [high schools].”
The city has long wanted to run its own independent school district as one way to deal with overcrowding that includes students from outside the city. For years, students have attended classes in trailers at Peachtree Charter Middle School, Dunwoody Elementary School and Vanderlyn Elementary School. It’s estimated DHS will be over capacity by some 600 students in the next few years.
State Rep. Tom Taylor for several years has introduced a bill, to no avail, to amend the state Constitution to allow for independent school districts.
The days before that April 8 Facebook post on DHS trailers, Jester and state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican attorney from Columbus who has led the controversial “religious freedom” fight in the General Assembly, hoped to meet with the City Council in a closed-door executive discussion. The reason? To discuss the city being a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the state over independent school districts.
Nall said he was called by Mike Davis, former Dunwoody mayor and current chief of staff to Nancy Jester, asking him to support holding such a secret meeting.
“The pitch was for potential litigation by the city against the state of Georgia in federal court over the Georgia Constitution’s ban against additional independent school districts,” Nall said in an interview.
Nall said he did not and will not support an executive session to discuss such a lawsuit because the city’s charter does not grant school authority and so the city government does not have legal standing to sue. Nall said he was also told that an African-American family was needed as a co-plaintiff to make the case stronger.
“I would not support this on moral grounds alone,” Nall said, adding Jester’s timing for lashing out at the city over school trailers is “peculiar.”
Davis confirmed he called a few City Councilmembers asking for an executive session. McKoon did not return calls for comment.
Jester declined to comment but said any suggestion that her criticizing the city about school trailers has anything to do with a potential lawsuit is not true.
“I can’t talk about any potential lawsuit on the record … The city has stated it wants an independent school district I believe any and all means to obtain that outcome should be explored,” she said.
Nall also added that in recent days leading up to her April 8 Facebook post, Jester sent several emails to the City Council asking that a stop sign be put on Mount Vernon Way, where she lives.
“This is a Public Works issue, not a City Council issue,” he said. “But the request did not meet the guidelines to warrant the stop signs.”
Answered Jester, “I have two children in trailers in Dunwoody that have, apparently, not been inspected by the city. They are not alone. Anyone who would suggest any connection with any other issue, however valid a stand-alone issue, is to insult me as a mom and is insulting to all parents of students in DCSD schools.”
One Dunwoody parent, however, is not impressed with Jester’s actions.
Erika Harris, former head of Georgians for Local Area School Systems, which has led the effort with Taylor to seek an independent school district for Dunwoody, said in an email obtained through an open records request that Jester’s attack against the city was disappointing.
“[T]he public picture presented is a hostile one,” Harris told Jester in an April 17 email that was copied to the City Council. “The general sentiment from the outside is that ‘our commissioner has gone to war with our City Council.’ At the very least, this is unfortunate and disappointing.”
Jester said in an interview the use of “war” to describe her actions is hyperbole.