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Doraville officials divided on new school

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Different accounts for Shallowford Gardens purchase from council, mayor

 Two city officials are telling different stories about the decision to purchase Shallowford Gardens Apartments, located at 3630 Shallowford Road, for the purpose of building a new elementary school.

 Doraville councilwoman Dawn O’Connor, who represents the district in which Shallowford Gardens is located and has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years, said she is disappointed that council was not informed about the purchase being considered by DeKalb County School District (DCSD).

 DCSD announced the purchase of the property on June 13. The purchase will displace more than 100 families currently living at Shallowford Gardens, which primarily serves low-income, non-English speaking residents.

 According to O’Connor, no member of Doraville City Council was informed by DCSD or city staff about details of the purchase.

 “I saw it on TV just like everyone else,” O’Connor said. “My district is not the only one impacted by the new school and I am disappointed in the way the matter was handled on many fronts. Every time we have asked about updates, we were given the same answer: ‘Nothing yet.’ Never did I think it was going to be at Shallowford Gardens.”

 O’Connor said the purchase conflicts with Doraville’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grant, which plans to keep the area affected by the purchase completely residential. She said Doraville taxpayers do not like money being used for demolition when it may not be needed.

“They say, ‘Why do that when there’s plenty of land elsewhere?’” O’Connor said. “There are money concerns from citizens.”

 O’Connor has also heard from constituents that the $2,250 provided to Shallowford Gardens lease holders as a monetary incentive may be inadequate. She said many individuals who hold leases have died or may no longer live in the apartments, as many residents have called Shallowford Gardens home for more than 15 years.

 O’Connor also brought up a familiar topic in Doraville: redistricting. Doraville and the Cross Keys High School cluster were subjected to redistricting in February 2016 to alleviate overcrowding. She said without a complete public process and decisions being made behind closed doors, redistricting may occur again.

 “I’ve heard there was a discussion again about redistricting,” O’Connor said. “The new school will have a capacity of 900 students. We may not be able to fill this school, so we may redistrict kids from Huntley Hills. It’s creating the same [situation] in a different place.”

Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman said she is excited to alleviate overcrowding at schools in the city. Photo by R. Scott Belzer

Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman said she is excited to alleviate overcrowding at schools in the city. Photo by R. Scott Belzer

 O’Connor said there is a lot of mistrust in Doraville regarding DCSD, as any decision made is presented as a “done deal.”

 “Everything is a done deal or something they can’t talk about,” O’Connor said. “When they close our schools—done deal. When they redistricted kids to Chamblee and Brookhaven—done deal.”

 According to Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman, the purchase is beneficial to the city and its residents.

 Pittman said it’s exciting to see something she has lobbied for finally come to fruition. She said she hopes the new school will alleviate overcrowding at Cary Reynolds and provide “education alternatives” to Doraville citizens with school age children.

 “I have been speaking with [DCSD] since I was elected mayor in 2011 and even [before], as a council member, I have lobbied,” Pittman said. “I have discussed a Doraville High School and will continue those discussions.”

 Pittman said discussions about the new school coincided with conversations about the new Assembly development “early on,” but have since ceased.

 Pittman declined to answer when she or any other city official first learned of DCSD’s interest in the Shallowford Gardens property. She also did not disclose if the district consulted with Doraville regarding the purchase or any other property in the city.

 “Since this was a private real estate transaction I have chosen to not discuss those details,” Pittman said.

 Pittman said she has heard positive feedback from residents regarding the purchase.

 No residents or council members spoke about the purchase at Doraville’s June 19 city council meeting—the first council meeting to take place after the purchase was announced.

 Pittman released an official statement on June 14 on Doraville’s website.

 “We are very excited with this news,” Pittman said. “We’ve all been aware of the overcrowding issues in DeKalb County for some time and are elated that the school board and staff has taken the initiative to build this new school. And what better place than in Doraville!”

 An email shared with The Champion states Pittman and former city manager Shawn Gillen met with DCSD officials—including Superintendent R. Stephen Green—in October 2016 to discuss options to alleviate overcrowding at Cary Reynolds Elementary.

 “The options we discussed included tearing down the current building and building a new one on the same site,” Pittman states in the email. “The other option was upgrading the current building and building another new school. The staff stated the latter option would address the overcrowding issue in a much more significant way.”

 The email—sent to Doraville City Council—states DCSD staff will work in conjunction with Pittman and Gillen in determining a site as well as “collaborating together to move [the] project forward  and addressing all issues.”

 A response email from one council member requests Pittman direct DCSD rebuild Cary Reynolds completely. The email concludes with a request from council to remain involved in the entire process.

 The email also states Doraville Community Development Director Enrique Bascunana, Economic Development Director Luke Howe and assistant planner Brianna Rindge identified “many properties [Doraville] owns that could easily house a new school.”

 O’Connor said she could not confirm to what extent Pittman and Gillen were involved in the process or how often DCSD contacted city officials and business owners. She called the overall process “infuriating” because such decisions often breed distrust.

 “When a board decides what’s best for a community, that’s the first step in a wrong direction. We were left out in the dark—we didn’t even get a phone call,” O’Connor said. “I hope it does provide some [overcrowding] relief to the Cary Reynolds community, but my fear is it’s going to do more harm than good. We’re pushing away the people that we need to help. DCSD will say they have done their due diligence and research, but when you’re displacing hundreds of people, did they really?”

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  1. Tim Snyder says:

    I would love to know who Doraville’s mayor is talking about when she said “We” are very excited with this news”. It certainly isn’t the hundreds of people being displaced from these apartment buildings. It certainly isn’t the taxpayers of DeKalb County who are footing the 8+ million dollar bill to buy the apartments. No school, just the apartments. Then taxpayers will pay millions more to have the buildings razed, the ground remediated, and when that’s all done then and only then DCSD can build a school. Less than 1 mile away is Carry Reynolds Elementary and Sequoia Middle School. There is more than 10 acres of vacant land behind Sequoia that the DCSD already owns! A new school could be built on this property and when completed the old building could be revamped. There is absolutely no good reason to squander more than 8 million taxpayer dollars on property we don’t need when this money could be spent on building a new school. It is also very obvious that the mayor is unwilling or unable to address the fact that the city Council had already earmarked this area for housing in Doraville’s LCI grant. Who is the mayor working for? Certainly not Doraville and her constituents.

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