South Fulton: To annex or not to annex


  • Fulton County Government
  • Sandtown, shown in orange, is one of several areas that could become part of the city

In the hot debate over three south Fulton County communities — parts of Sandtown, Loch Lomond and South Oaks — seeking annexation into Atlanta, locals on both sides agree on one thing. By bringing two Fulton schools into the city, annexation could leave 1,650 county students school-less in a system not ready to absorb them.

Proponents say they have a potential solution — a muscular lawsuit filed by the City of Atlanta against Atlanta Public Schools that seeks to give annexed the Atlanta City Council the choice of keeping the schools in the Fulton system. Opponents, who packed a May 18 City Council meeting to voice their displeasure, say a lawsuit is more gamble than plan. They also think the main annexation petition is headed for failure anyway, but that isn’t lessening their anger.

Then there’s the question of why anyone thinks annexation is worth this school-system-sized headache right now. The answer lies in metro Atlanta’s new municipal physics, where it seems that for every cityhood effort, there’s an equal and opposite annexation plan. In this case, the concept of a new City of South Fulton — the effort failed in the General Assembly's last session, but continues to lurk — is pushing some residents to seek refuge in Atlanta’s embrace instead.

“I don’t want to be part of the City of South Fulton,” says John Davis, a former Sandtown Community Association president who is among the annexation petition organizers. “Part of the problem with the Atlanta area is you have so many small towns and cities when you’re trying to address big issues…all competing for the same resources. Atlanta is a growing international city…None of the other metro cities would survive if Atlanta wasn’t around.”

Problem is, the annexation includes two schools, Randolph Elementary and Sandtown Middle. And that doesn’t sit well with the local PTAs.

Fulton County Schools isn’t thrilled, either, issuing a statement about the “extreme domino-type” effect on local school zones and the estimated $54 million cost of replacing the buildings. About 200 FCS students are in the annexation areas, but a total of 1,850 seats would be lost.

The deal is “200 families making a decision that affects 1,600 other kids,” says Dr. Catherine Foster-Rowell, a Randolph PTA member. “That’s not fair.”

“Yeah, it would happen,” Davis acknowledges of the zoning chaos, saying it’s ultimately FCS’s fault for being overcrowded already. But he points to the city’s lawsuit, filed in March, as defusing that concern. Under current law, Atlanta Public Schools would automatically take over the annexed areas, but the lawsuit seeks to make it an optional, voter-approved move instead. The city says the law — a local constitutional amendment — was improperly renewed years ago. (APS declined to comment beyond saying it’s ready to find “an agreeable resolution.”)

“We don’t think that’s an acceptable response,” counters Foster-Rowell. If the lawsuit works, it’s a good idea, she says, but adds: “Those questions should be answered before moving forward. It will likely be a long, drawn-out legal thing, and kids are caught in the crossfire.”

The lawsuit is a sign of Mayor Kasim Reed’s intense interest in the annexation. He’s a resident of Midwest Cascade, which was annexed in 2006 — the same year a previous Sandtown annexation failed, again triggered by South Fulton cityhood motions. He’s also a former resident of Loch Lomond.

Reed and his political ally Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms stumped hard for the annexation in community meetings. Davis, who helped lead the 2006 annexation effort as well, emphasized that the annexation petitions are grassroots efforts.

“The whole criticism that it’s a land-grab by the City of Atlanta is not accurate,” Davis says. “It’s coming from the community.”

But Reed has a Fulton annexation effort of his own that involves a second lawsuit. He wants to bring in a former SunTrust branch on Fulton Industrial Boulevard that the bank recently donated to the city. That move is banned under another local constitutional amendment that the city claims is also invalid.

The residential annexations are using the easiest possible method: a petition with signatures from 60 percent of voters and owners of 60 percent of the property in question. The city is vetting the three petitions now; if they’re validated — and there’s no deadline to do so — the City Council would vote on annexation.

Meanwhile, both sides allege that petition-signers were misled about the nature of the deal. And the PTA activists say they’ve done their own petition-checking and found it headed for failure.

“We know Sandtown doesn’t have 60 percent,” Foster-Roswell claims, adding that her group might sue if the city validates the petitions.

Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, who was a familiar face during last year's meetings about annexing parts of Druid Hills, says he’s concerned there is “bad information being circulated deliberately, politically,” about Atlanta’s ability to provide services to an annexed area. But, he adds, he understands the cityhood frenzy that is driving such strong debates in areas that likely won’t remain unincorporated for long, one way or another.

“No one wants to be left holding the bag,” he says.

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