After last night’s meeting, I understand infinitely more about the North and South DeKalb divide. There are inequities – to be sure. However, I’m not sure that SPLOST dollars can fix all that. We are thinking too simplistically.

On May 12, at the secondary schools planning and feasibility meeting for DeKalb County Schools, many parents from Regions 3, 4, and 5 proudly wore “Vote YES for SPLOST!” pins, but once the suggestions were revealed (click here to view the district presentation), the parents quickly began to explain how they felt the money was being disproportionately allocated to the northern part of the county comprising Regions 1 and 2.

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I understood their concerns, but I knew that many of the inequities they were voicing came from a much deeper place – a place that SPLOST dollars cannot fix.

Problems in South DeKalb vs. Problems in North DeKalb

In the South, the problem isn’t necessarily facilities (although there were definitely some valid concerns). The problem is under-capacity schools, blighted neighborhoods, students leaving the schools for the northern part of the county, and fewer economic opportunities. This is the effect of racism and segregation. (Read about red-lining, white-flight, the construction of I-285, and a plethora of other hideous practices that have created the gap between the North and the South.)

The problems facing North DeKalb are vastly different than the problems facing South DeKalb. The problems in the North consist of over-crowded schools.

While the county’s proposals for SPLOST don’t appear to be equally distributed to both the northern and the southern parts of the county, the problems in the North can be addressed through new schools paid for by SPLOST. The problems facing the South are much more difficult to address. No amount of funding in the South will fix the far-reaching, lasting effects of racism and segregation – not if funding is not accompanied by other systemic changes.

Systemic Change: Money Can’t Buy Everything

The communities in South DeKalb care deeply about the schools just like the communities in North DeKalb – they just feel disenfranchised and forgotten. That’s why even after millions of SPLOST dollars have been poured into South DeKalb facilities for additions, renovations, and new construction, these communities still feel that things are unequal.

And they are – but the inequities stem from place far deeper than SPLOST spending (which have disproportionately been spent in the South in recent years).

There has been economic investment in South DeKalb (i.e Mall of Stonecrest). Wealthy African-American families have moved into South DeKalb. Money has been spent on improving the schools. Why aren’t things changing?

This article explains how communities that are over 70% African-American have been slower to recover economically from the recession because of reasons that researchers cannot identify except for race. This is just another aspect of the inequities that exist between the north and south parts of DeKalb. The inequities aren’t just perceived; they are real. We can’t, however, just keep throwing money at the inequity, hoping that things will change.

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inquitySouth DeKalb Wants to Improve Their Schools

Besides questioning the spending of SPLOST dollars, parents in Regions 3, 4 and 5 expressed support for fixing the schools in their regions in ways that don’t just include better buildings. One parent explained that she and her neighbors and friends are tired of driving their children to the north side of DeKalb. They want to change the schools in their neighborhood – starting now.

A few of their suggestions included:

  1. Placing programs at schools like McNair, MLK, Redan, and Lithonia that would make their schools competitive with other top schools in the state – programs like STEM, architecture, the arts, business, etc.
  2. Creating theme schools in place of the current schools (eg. Converting MLK HS and MS to a theme school, among others)
  3. Creating dual-language immersion programs in Regions 3, 4, and 5 to improve educational opportunities and attract new families to their schools.
  4. Creating a centrally located magnet high school for Wadsworth Magnet MS to feed into (much like Kittredge feeds into Chamblee MS and HS) and extending the magnet program at Wadsworth to 8th grade
  5. Parents deciding to stay at their home schools and becoming more involved in the life of the school.

These changes would definitely move in the right direction, but these changes alone will not solve the perennial issues facing South DeKalb.

A Lesson from History: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

The simplicity of trying to address the inequities between the North and South through funding allocation is tantamount to Booker T. Washington’s “separate but equal” metaphor which he explained through the image of the fingers on a hand in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. This approach, as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out in his biting criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk, didn’t work during the turn of the 20th century, and it won’t work any better today.

Until we figure out a way to integrate communities in South DeKalb (racially, socially, and economically), we won’t figure out how to address the inequities that exist between the North and the South. We need a comprehensive approach that combines the above-mentioned options with effective community revitalization efforts and economic development strategies.

The Future of DeKalb Schools

We need committed leaders from South DeKalb and North DeKalb working together to figure out how to not only invest financially in struggling schools but to also invest in much deeper ways. SPLOST is a wonderful tool, and the southern part of the county should definitely receive SPLOST dollars. However, the Cross Keys cluster – another group of people who has suffered from this “separate but equal” philosophy – is bursting at the seams and is in desperate need of buildings. Equity isn’t always about the equal division of assets. It’s more nuanced than that.

The South needs investment – but we should not settle for an equal distribution of SPLOST funds in order to appease our collective conscience. If a man is dying of thirst in a desert, and you give him a few dollars, it won’t do him any good. South DeKalb has some beautiful facilities, but they have empty seats. They don’t need more seats or more buildings – they need more investment that will require MUCH more than money.

We need to – at the very least – do the following:

  • Attract and retain highly qualified, experienced teachers (from all ethnicities and races)
  • Attract families from multiple demographics to live, work, and play in the southern part of the county
  • Create new programs and enhance existing programs in South DeKalb Schools
  • Improve connectivity between the North and the South (think about what the Beltline has done for Atlanta – is there some infrastructure like this that could create an intersection between recreation, housing, and economics?)
  • Improve the perception of South DeKalb and clear up misconceptions about South DeKalb

Ask yourself how you can contribute to the massive task of closing the gap between South DeKalb and North DeKalb – without simply donating some dollars and resuming life as normal.