The Sandy Springs advocacy group Citizens for Local Area School Systems (CLASS) is pushing to create its own city school district. According to an April 2019 study commissioned by the group, Sandy Springs’ taxes would generate sufficient funding to operate the 11 public schools within the city’s borders.
Sandy Springs schools are part of Fulton County Schools (FCS), the fourth largest school system in the state. FCS employs more than 14,000 people, including 7,500 teachers in 106 schools, serving about 95,000 students.
CLASS formed about three years ago, growing from the effort it took to convince the FCS Board that the North Springs Charter High School building needed to be renovated instead of replaced.
Parents felt the aging facility could no longer meet modern scholastic demands, according to statements submitted by CLASS members Cheryl Barlow, Sandra Jewell, Betty Klein, Linda Trickey and Sandy Springs City Councilmember Jody Reichel. It is important to note that the city of Sandy Springs has not officially endorsed the idea of a city schools district.
“We wondered why it was so challenging to effect positive change,” the group said in its prepared statement. CLASS studied the state of education in Georgia and Fulton County and found that, despite the good intentions of FCS personnel, the size of the organization, the number of schools and the large geographic area made it difficult to focus on the needs of specific schools and the variety of students.
“Sandy Springs is a very diverse city and has broad diversity in its schools,” CLASS said. “FCS has seven board members that serve 106 schools and 95,000 students.”
This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised.
In 2013, a group of Dunwoody parents organized under the name Georgians for Local Area School Systems (GLASS) to lobby the state Legislature to amend the state Constitution to allow the creation of new city school systems. Schools in Dunwoody are part of the DeKalb County School District, the third largest school system in Georgia, with 140 schools serving nearly 102,000 students and employing about 15,500 people, including 6,600 teachers.
GLASS member Heyward Wescott, a former chair of the Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber of Commerce and current candidate for a seat on the Dunwoody City Council, said the group is not actively pursuing an independent school district.
However, the group still files papers with the state every year to continue to operate. “We’re ready to go at any moment and become be active again,” Wescott said. “We still want to improve education. We’re keeping an eye on CLASS and waiting to see what happens with our neighbors.”
CLASS said that research shows that smaller school districts typically have better student performance than larger school districts, regardless of the racial makeup and economic status of students. Many of the top public-school systems in Georgia are city school systems or smaller county systems with less than 12,000 students, the group said. Sandy Springs has approximately 10,000 public school students.
“We believe that a local school system will provide many of the same benefits as cityhood—a more responsive organizational structure with greater accountability, the ability to quickly respond to changes, increased community input for desired outcomes and fiscal responsibility that would allow teachers to be paid more,” CLASS said. “Sandy Springs is proud to have the highest-paid fire and police forces in the state. Our teachers deserve the same consideration.”
However, advocates for creating new school districts must jump a high bar: the state Constitution prohibits creation of new independent school systems.
“City districts established prior to the incorporation of this language can continue to operate [under the state Constitution], but no new ones can be established unless the law changes,” said Meghan Frick, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Education. “Legislation has been proposed a few times in recent years that would allow cities to create their own school districts, but has not passed.”
CLASS said that the school system cap was first set 70 years ago, when legislators didn’t envision mega school systems with tens of thousands of kids.
“While there may have been good reasons then, there are better reasons to eliminate the cap now and allow for new approaches in education,” CLASS said.
State Rep. Tom Taylor, a Dunwoody Republican, introduced legislation that called for a statewide vote to change the constitution to allow school districts to be created in cities, such as Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, that have been created since 2005. The legislation repeatedly stalled and Taylor is no longer in office. Still, supporters aren’t giving up.
Dunwoody had its own feasibility study done, Westcott said, and found that they have the perfect footprint for a city school district, with one high school, one middle school and five elementary schools that feed into them.
“What it comes down to,” Wescott said, “is that there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done for the legislation to be changed so city school districts can form. We need more cities to be engaged in this issue.”
When asked about Sandy Springs’ effort to create a city schools district, Fulton officials responded: “Fulton County has great schools in Sandy Springs.
Our students are excelling. We have fantastic and talented teachers and staff. We will continue to provide the best education to the children in our jurisdiction. If the jurisdiction changes, we will continue to provide the best learning experience for the students that remain in our schools.”
CLASS said it has heard concerns from some citizens, including that running a school system is a big job and very different than running a city… “and those concerns are valid,” the group said in its statement. “We know there are major logistical challenges. However, smart people who are motivated can figure this out, just like the other city school systems.”
Another concern is that students in other parts of the county could be affected by separation. The CLASS response is that FCS would receive more state and federal funding for their budget. Any difference in the budget can be substantially or totally offset with changes in spending at the district level.
“We encourage Sandy Springs citizens to look at their tax bills,” CLASS said. “For most property owners, more than 50% of their taxes go to FCS. And 25% of the FCS operating budget—more than a billion dollars a year—comes from Sandy Springs.”
CLASS said that what it wants is to give Sandy Springs citizens the right to choose. “Ultimately,” the group said, “this is about the students and teachers, and giving the citizens of Sandy Springs the right to decide what is important to them and whether they want a city school system.”