Closer Look: Doraville’s GM Plant; Food Trends; And More
Dr. Melvin Johnson, DeKalb County School Board Chairman, discusses the stalled funding redevelopment of the GM plant in Doraville today on ”Closer Look.”
Rose Scott (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look) – “Redevelopment”, that’s a great buzz word when it comes to economic growth and the city of Atlanta is a perfect example of it. Think Atlantic Station, Ponce City Market, Krog Street and Edgewood. Now, think about the developers of these projects and the financing, who puts in how much and where does it come from.
Jim Burress (Cohost of WABE 90.1 Closer Look) – The old Doraville General Motors plant was sold in 2014 for 50 million dollars. The atlanta-based integral group is heading up the redevelopment project, turning the old plant into businesses and retail space. Plans include high-rises, greenspaces, grand walkways and a 270,000 square-foot media complex called the Third Rail Studios.
But, there’s a bump in that road hendering the redevelopment of the old GM plant. That bump is funding.
That’s because a significant portion of the funding would come from the creation of a Doraville Tax Allocation District or TAD. And the DeKalb School Board would need to approve the Tax Allocation District proposal. We’ll get to the actual numbers in a moment. Joining Closer Look now is Dr. Melvin Johnson. He’s chairman of the DeKalb County School Board. Dr. Johnson, welcome.
Dr. Melvin Johnson (Chair of the DeKalb County School Board) – Thank you
Rose Scott – Let’s get right to it. As of right now what is the position of the DeKalb County school board on approving this TAD?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – The position that we have as so board right now is that we believe that all funds generated by tax dollars should go to student learning. It is our primary focus and primary purpose is to educate boys and girls and provide the resources necessary for them to be successful.
Rose Scott – And this is the first time the district is being asked, your board is being asked to look at a proposal like this. Do you feel like the board has really vetted the opportunities, talked to all the major players involved here?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – DeKalb County has never participated in a TAD ever. We have explored many opportunities. We met with Mr. Perry, the developer. We met with the Mayor and her staff of Doraville and many others discussing options and opportunities in this regard.
Of course I want to say to everyone that we believe in economic development. Economic development is a primary focus of our school system because we believe that we develop a quality school system with higher achieving students that business will come to DeKalb. We will have new parents coming to DeKalb. So, therefore increasing our tax base to educate our boys and girls.
Jim Burress – That leads me to the question, some would argue that by approving this TAD and helping the redevelopment that you will draw that business in. It may take a little time, but once things are up and running you’re going to have a lot more tax money coming in because of that. Almost like it’s an investment.
Dr. Melvin Johnson – I do agree it would be an investment. However, we personally feel that students, teachers should not defer 25 years of tax dollars for private development. That’s our position because our primary focus is educating boys and girls.
Jim Burress – Do you look to any other county or municipality who may have done this well or not so well and use them as an example?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – Historically, we’ve done a TAD and certainly looking at the Beltline and other situations. That has been general information for us and certainly we learn from opportunities of this nature. But, our primary focus is keeping educational dollars in education and focusing on education.
Rose Scott – Let’s get into details here because all of this is to secure $247 million dollars in infrastructure bonds which the school board would have to approve the TAD. This would also be over a 25 year time frame as well.
Are you saying that DeKalb Schools would essentially be forfeiting money that should come into the district over that time?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – Yes. We would be deferring money in that regard over a million dollars per month in that regard.
Rose Scott – a million dollars per month?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – Yes. Per month that would be deferred. However, we get into how long that goes on and over a period of money we would be giving up roughly $235 million over time. It’s our estimate that we would probably break even in 2050.
Rose Scott – Is that when you would get the money back?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – That’s when we would start collecting the taxes from the development itself.
Rose Scott – Now you mentioned the Beltline and of course you’re talking about the agreement between the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools. An agreement that was made under another administration, not Mayor Kaseem Reed. But, we all know how that turned out because there were threats of legal action before they could actually come up with that settlement. Did that concern you, that DeKalb could down the road be doing the same thing?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – Naturally that concerns us and certainly we make decisions from the point of view … we take into consideration many variables. And certainly we can not eliminate that particular variable. But what was done in Atlanta was done in Atlanta and I don’t know if it was political or whatever. That’s why we believe that if we continue to focus on our purpose, and that is to educate boys and girls … that would not occur in our situation.
I think it’s critical for the public to understand there is a direct correlation between economic growth and development and student achievement. If we focus on student achievement, we will be attracting businesses. We will be attracting viable tax payers to this county and in the end we are educating … will be focused on being a positive and good citizen and therefore bringing about economic growth back into the community.
Jim Burress – I’d like if you could to put some of this into perspective. You mentioned the loss of a million dollars a month to the school system. What would the system spend in an average month. How big of a deal is that million dollars?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – In terms of the million dollars per month, if you equate that to teachers, how many teachers will that serve? You have to understand that we look at every teacher as being critical in the school district and to give up a million dollars a month in salaries to teachers could equate to millions of dollars in losses by not educating boys and girls and by not using the teachers in a positive way to bring about the kind of student achievement we desire.
Jim Burress – Are you saying if this went through you would have to lay off teachers?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – No, we hope not … that we would have to lay off teachers per say. But it mean that our students would not receive the benefit that they deserve [sic].
Jim Burress – Do you know how much DeKalb County School spends in a typical month on operations, employment … all the bills put together?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – Our budget, we have $874 million dollar budget. That does not include SPLOST or capital. That total budget is $1.2 billion. To give the audience a good understanding, 90% of our budget goes to personnel.
I’m a model thinker, so if I give you a model to look at you can better analyze and perceive what a million dollars looks like also what a $872 million dollar budget per year would look like.
Jim Burress – It’s been a while since I’ve been in a math class. If I’m calculating right, that’s 1 tenth of 1 percent of the over all budget.
Rose Scott – We’re talking to Melvin Johnson, chairman of the DeKalb County School Board. We’re talking about funding for the redevelopment of the old GM Plant in Doraville. A lot of this relies on whether or not you all approve that TAD.
Everybody is weighing in on this including Georgia State Senator Fran Millar. The AJC printed his opinion which included this, and I’m quoting, “If I was a DeKalb School Board member, I would ask myself why is all of these other entities wrong to support this initiative. Unfortunately the Governor can’t take action this time if the board fails to act in a responsible manor.”
Dr. Melvin Johnson – We take great pride in what we do and how we go about it. We are excited, we have full accreditation at this point and we worked hard to get full accreditation.
Issues that we have corrected to get full accreditation certainly will be fiscal management and managing our dollars correctly because the concern in the past that we were using funds in a way that was not directed to student learning. So from that stand point, we feel very good about it. We feel very good about our student achievement. We have growth in student achievement. Our graduation rate has increased by 11 points. Our test scores have gone up.
So we’re very pleased with where we are and we want to maintain that. There are many businesses and we look through the eyes of what we do and our mission and what we are supposed to do. Legislatures do what they do from that perspective.
Rose Scott – Do you think he was taking a shot here in terms of the past and the Governor having to come in having to remove school board members. Do you feel that was an unfair shot that the Senator through at you?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – I won’t address his motives. I would like to always take the high road and focus on what we do, how others perceive us. That goes back to how critical it is that we make the appropriate decision and stay in our lanes so to speak and do what we do in educating boys and girls.
Because you just mentioned something that’s critical and that’s perception and school image. We are judged by how we manage our funds. We are judged by the product and student outcomes. So, it’s our responsibility not to delete any of that. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we point every dollar and put every dollar in the pool that would give us positive student outcomes.
Jim Burress – I want to come back to the Integral Group who is behind the redevelopment of the GM Plant in Doraville. Do you believe that those developers could complete this project without the TAD?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – We truly believe that. We know this property and this project will be developed regardless of the position of the school district. We feel it can be developed and will be developed without school system participation.
Jim Burress – So, as you see it, this is a non issue?
Dr. Melvin Johnson – I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.
Jim Burress – As you see the redevelopment question and how DeKalb County Schools play into that with the TAD. It sounds to me like you’re saying it’s a moot point, it doesn’t matter because it’s going to happen anyway.
Dr. Melvin Johnson – I think it will happen any way. It may not happen with the same profile that is being discussed right now. But, it will certainly happen and it will be developed regardless whether or not the school system participates or not.
Jim Burress – We should note that Closer Look reached out to the Integral Group to discuss this issue to be a part of this conversation. That request has gone unanswered.
Rose Scott – Mr Chairman, as we wrap up, your Superintendent, Dr. Stephen Green has said that given the choice between educational well being of our students and politically motivated land deals, we’ll choose our students every time. Obviously the board supports that.
Dr. Melvin Johnson – I 100%, again I want the public to know, that we’re in the student learning business. AdvancEd, our accrediting agency, has verified the fact that it is our responsibility to focus our monies, our efforts, our energy, and our vision to student learning.
Jim Burress – We’ve been speaking with Dr. Melvin Johnson, chairman of the DeKalb County School Board about stalled funding for the redevelopment of the GM Plant in Doraville.
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