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05 January 2015

Supreme Court Rulings Suggests Fulton County Schools Belong to Atlanta If Sandtown Annexes

A debate is raging in unincorporated south Fulton County.

On one side is South Fulton Now and Go South Fulton, advocating for creating the city of South Fulton. And on the other side are citizens who wish to join existing cities like Atlanta [Stockman, Rachel (15 April 2014). Sandtown residents debate merits of Atlanta annexation. WSB-TV. Retrieved on 5 January 2015.].

An online survey conducted by the Sandtown Community Association implies that most of their residents want no part of a new city. Those same residents, however, are not completely sold on annexing into the City of Atlanta either. The major point of contention in the citizen-led annexation efforts is schools.

Sandtown community residents want their children to continue attending existing Fulton County schools such as Westlake High and Sandtown Elementary. But groups like South Fulton Now and Go South Fulton keep telling the Sandtown community if they annex into Atlanta, Fulton County schools stay in unincorporated south Fulton County. A Georgia Supreme Court ruling seems to contradict this oft-repeated assertion though.

Research by Georgia Unfiltered found two Supreme Court rulings that suggest Atlanta would become the owner of any public school located in the area, if the Sandtown community chooses annexation over a newly-created city.

In UPSON COUNTY v. CITY OF THOMASTON, the state Supreme Court issued an opinion that read in part, "This case presents the question of whether the annexation of territory into the corporate limits of a municipality operating an independent public school system also extends the limits of the city school system.

"We hold that, absent an expression of legislative intent clearly to the contrary or valid agreement between the school systems involved, municipal annexation extends the limits of an independent public school system operated by the municipality."

Essentially what that means is when an existing city expands its borders by annexation, the municipality also expands the jurisdiction of the city school system if one exists. But what happens to county school district property when a city annexes and expands its borders?

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled, in Board of Ed. of Fulton County v. Board of Ed. of College Park, "[w]here a municipality is authorized by the General Assembly to create a public-school system coextensive with its corporate limits, a part or all of which territory has theretofore been included within the system of public schools operated by the county, forming a portion of a school district, the municipality succeeds to the control of educational matters and to the title to the real estate held as public-school property within its territory...."

Additionally, the Attorney General of Georgia issued two opinions, dated April 13, 1954, and August 24, 1961, that reads as follows:

“Where the corporate limits of a municipality are extended so as to take in an area where a county school is located, the school authorities of the independent municipal system succeed to the control of all educational matters in such area and also to title to real estate held as public school property, in the absence of expressed intent on the part of the Legislature or in the absence of an agreement between the interested parties.”

In other words, if Atlanta annexes the Sandtown community, the Atlanta Public School system becomes the owner of any Fulton County School that's part of the annexed territory.

Sandtown children would still be able to attend Westlake High School. But students living outside the Atlanta city limits might be forced to leave Westlake, and instead attend a school that remains under the Fulton County School Board jurisdiction.