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Schofield: Students affected by city's annexation plans
0826SouthHall
Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield was the featured speaker at the South Hall Business Coalition meeting Tuesday at Bradford House & Garden in Flowery Branch. Schofield recently sent a letter to Gainesville City Council members asking them to consider the potentially “seismic” effects the city’s proposed annexations could have on school district lines. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The leader of the Hall County school system pleaded with Gainesville City Council members to consider how the city’s proposed annexations could affect the system’s district lines now and in the future.

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield suggests in a letter to council members there’s a flaw in the state constitution, which allows municipalities to annex property, changing school district lines and tax digests.

"When you have an independent school system in a county and annexation occurs, not only do you change police and fire service and where water lines are run, you change children’s school districts. And certainly that was an oversight. When the constitution was rewritten, I believe in the early 1970s, nobody really gave that much thought. ... And it only affects those areas that have any of Georgia’s 20 city school systems in them," Schofield said.

Schofield notes Hall County school system’s district lines are affected by both Gainesville and Buford annexations.

Gainesville City Council will hold a hearing Tuesday on the proposed annexation of $26 million worth of property. The proposed annexations could affect the Riverbend, Jones and Lyman Hall elementary school districts, Schofield said.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said her system largely is unaffected by the proposed annexations, and system leaders are mostly "neutral" on the issue.

"It’s not our job to decide what’s best for municipal annexations," Schofield said of school leaders. "These annexations affect school zones and affect where people send the most valuable resource they have — their children. We just would ask that people really look at the issues carefully and weigh the pros and the cons before making annexation decisions."

The city says its methodology for the proposed annexations requires properties to meet two criteria: The properties must be part of an unincorporated island and fall within the city’s gateway overlay zone. Although the city’s hearings have yet to come, the proposal to annex "island" properties at major entrances into the city already has proved controversial.

Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver, who has been an outspoken opponent of the annexation, said he is glad the county school system has spoken on the issue.

"I’m delighted they’ve taken a stand," Oliver said.

Oliver said the commission understood the annexation would affect the school systems but wanted the schools to speak for themselves.

"We understood it could affect almost 25,000 students in Hall County that are going to our schools now, and it’s a real detriment to all of them," Oliver said. "We can’t just sit around and take money out of one pocket and put it into somebody else’s pocket."

But it’s not about losing revenue, Schofield said of his annexation concerns. It’s about stability for students and having a steady tax digest.

Gainesville and Hall County school boards have a 2007 tax-sharing agreement that allows the few residents in the affected areas to send their children to Hall County schools until 2018 even though they could be living in the city. The Gainesville school board would collect about $191,000 in newly annexed territories, but would hand over the vast majority of that to the Hall County school board to support its students in the annexed areas.

Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said she thinks the intergovernmental agreement between the school systems solves most of the problems that could arise.

"There won’t be many children involved in this annexation that we’re proposing anyway because most of the properties are businesses or empty lots. There are very few residences, and if there are any children it would be very few," she said.

Schofield said the tax-sharing agreement between Hall County and Gainesville schools delays potential negative effects of the proposed annexations until 2018.

"I just don’t believe a family ought to get up in the morning and get a notice that, ‘Oh, by the way, your school district changed last night,’" he said. "‘Next year, your child will have to change schools and go to a different school district.’ And they haven’t moved and they haven’t asked to be changed. I just don’t think you ought to do that to people, and that’s what the current constitution allows for when municipalities that include an independent city district annex property."

Oliver said he is prepared to draft a resolution asking the legislative delegation to deannex the properties if the city approves the proposed annexations.

"It’s not a community-oriented annexation. It’s a forced annexation," Oliver said.

Schofield said it is nearly impossible for annexations to fairly balance the number of students and tax revenues between the two involved districts.

"So every time you have a municipal annexation, there’s a winner and a loser. And if you look at the history of annexations in Gainesville over the last 20 years, it’d be hard to say who has been the winner and who has been the loser over all," he said. "... That was the reason the two school boards got together two years ago and said we’ve got to take this chaos out of this annexation business, and that’s when we drafted that tax-sharing agreement, which basically said let’s just allow students to stay where they are. And despite of annexations, let’s just allow funding to flow through to where it would have gone."

Schofield said he believes municipalities should feel free to annex when it benefits the citizenry, but school districts should have more permanent borders.

"Let’s make sure there’s a solid reason for wanting to annex property. ... It’s pretty hard for me to see how those annexations limit any islands," he said.

Times staff writer Melissa Weinman contributed to this report

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