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Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Paying for Prosperity

Paying for Prosperity

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Changing Face The curb where 12-year-old Andrew Smola sits waiting for the bus wasn't a curb at all when he was born. This neighborhood of manicured, lush green lawns and two-story houses with long driveways was then thick Georgia woods, laced with a swampy bog, where hunters stomped behind their dogs, chasing deer and rabbits.

Remodeling Suburbia

Not much about Fayette County is the same as it was when Andrew was born. This chunk of land south of Atlanta has begun to resemble many other places in the United States, with its shopping plazas, traffic snarls, and spreading pads of pavement and vinyl siding.

The old Peeples property down by Starr's Mill is now home to three sparkling-new schools, with so much brick and concrete they look like an upscale shopping mall. If leaders of the 19,500-student district have their way, county voters will pass a $65 million bond referendum next month to build four schools and renovate several more.

Fayette County, Ga.

  • Population: 90,900
  • Public School enrollment: 19, 500
  • Student profile: 83 percent white, 12 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander
  • Percentage of students who receive free or discounted meats: 6.7
  • Median household income: $50,000
  • Big change: Enrollment has increased from fewer than 3,5000 students in 1970.

But passage isn't assured. Voters have turned down two sales-tax hikes for schools in the past two years. The growing pains in Fayette County are likely to echo in other American communities as districts struggle to keep up with the relentless march to newer communities.

The Smola family's town of Tyrone may one day grow to the size of Peachtree City, the newest and largest town in Fayette County, a planned city with one of Georgia's highest rates of personal income and reputedly more golf carts per person than any other community in America.

By the time Andrew and his classmates enroll in college, he likely won't recognize the suburb where he grew up.

Lure of Good Schools

For Janet Smola, Andrew's mother, the lure of Fayette County was its schools.

The district's reputation has helped swell its enrollment from fewer than 3,500 students in 1970 to nearly 20,000 today.

Smola, a seven-year resident who ran unopposed this fall for the school board, intends to help manage the growth that's transforming her adopted home county. A 48-year-old independent professional fund-raiser, she's proud of the district's well-trained teachers, generally new schools, manageable class sizes, and well-supplied classrooms.

Since the Smolas enrolled their three boys here after a move from Connecticut for Michael Smola's job as a division comptroller for Delta Airlines, they haven't been disappointed.

"I had heard the school systems in the South didn't hold a candle to the school systems in the North," Janet Smola says. "I did not notice a disparity."

Debbie Condon, who leaves office next month after eight years on the Fayette County board of education—the past two as its chairwoman—says planning for growth is a big part of what Smola will face as a district policymaker.

"I didn't know I'd have to be knowledgeable about sewer systems, roads, and construction contracts," says Condon, an assistant dean at the Georgia Military College campus in nearby Fulton County.

The county's reputation as a top district draws residents—and puts pressure on schools to keep up.

Fayette County's population has surged from a sleepy 11,000 in 1970—easily the smallest of any Atlanta-area county—to more than 90,000 today. Planners expect the population to reach about 200,000 in the next 10 years, swelled by the region's continued prosperity and Fayette's proximity to large employers such as the Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport, one of the world's busiest, just north of the Fayette County border.

The growth in population and enrollment has brought more students, more cars, more houses, and a demand for more schools to Fayette, keeping constant pressure on Superintendent John DeCotis and the school board.

"People are used to instant solutions," says DeCotis, now in his second year as superintendent. "But when you are trying to solve a school problem, it's complicated."

DeCotis, 47, who arrived here from upstate New York on a Greyhound bus 21 years ago to teach, recalls that Fayette was a different place then. "It really was a poor county back in the days before and after World War II," he says in his Fayetteville office, "really up until the late 1960s and early 1970s."

Fortunately for the Fayette schools' tax base, businesses have blossomed here as well as houses. The warehouses at the industrial sites near Peachtree City are filled with companies from around the world. Taxpayers also have been reasonably open to paying for new schools, approving a bond referendum in 1994 that allowed construction of five schools, including the Starr's Mill complex.

But the need for new schools may finally be catching up with the Fayette County tax base, still modest in comparison with those of Atlanta's larger suburban counties. Taxpayers twice this year rejected a penny sales-tax hike on purchases made in Fayette County. The money was to be used to build new schools and enlarge several others.

Another request for money comes next month, when voters will be asked to approve the $65 million bond referendum. The need is so great that even some of the district's newest schools have portable classrooms. More than 100 such classrooms are in use countywide.

Smola hopes that this time, taxpayers will see the need is real. Growth here really has just begun, she says, and if voters refuse to invest in the respected schools that are luring people to homes in Fayette County, she warns, "we are going to dim the shining star that brought them here in the first place."

'They Expect a Lot'

When Andrew Smola, who is in 7th grade, strolls into the library at Flat Rock Middle School, more than 20 computers await him. A parent volunteer roams the room, shelving magazines. An artist stands atop a platform, painting a mural on the wall. Andrew sits down and begins to type as fast as an adult who works on computers every day.

The schools here in Fayette County have one of the best academic reputations in Georgia. Andrew and his brothers, Zach, who is in 10th grade, and Evan, a high school senior, know they attend the kind of schools some kids dream of.

The migration of people from all over the country has required many of the county's longtime educators to stay fresh.

"They do expect us to do a lot with their kids," Sandra Watson, the principal of Peeples Elementary School, says of the many families moving into the Starr's Mill community. "There's no faking it. You have to know what you're doing."

If voters turn down a bond referendum, ‘we are going to dim the shining star that brought them here in the first place.’

Janet Smola,
Fayette County resident

Twenty years ago, test scores began to rise slowly in Fayette County. This year, its high schools have the highest SAT average in the state: 1046 combined math and verbal, compared with the national average of 1019 out of a possible 1600. Georgia's average is 974.

"The clientele has changed, and we've adjusted," says Pam Riddle, an administrator who oversees the county's elementary schools.

Janet Smola recognizes that success with test scores and scholarships can't be completely attributed to the schools. She knows stay-at- home mothers who have advanced degrees—a pediatrician and a biologist—and are able to reinforce what their children learn at school. The parental support pays off: Nine of 10 Fayette students enroll in college.

Al Gilbert, a county planning commissioner and the sales manager for a building-supply company, laments some of the changes occurring in Fayette County as it grows, but he loves the schooling his children have received. Gilbert's son, a freshman at West Georgia College, recently told his father about a math class he was taking.

"He said, 'Daddy, I had this course in the 8th grade,' " reports Gilbert, a native of nearby Newnan in Coweta County.

"I sometimes wish we could go back to a little smaller size of school," says Gilbert, who recalls fondly the days when Fayette County High was the only high school here. Now, there are five.

The county has grown so rapidly, in fact, that Smola joins Gilbert and their friends and acquaintances in joking that no one is "from" Fayette County. Even native Georgians, it seems, moved here from neighboring counties.

Ripe for Demographic Change

Smola sometimes worries about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the community where her children are growing up. But when Andrew turned 12 this year, she relaxed. "Twenty-eight 12- year-old boys in the back yard with their BMX bikes," she says, "and there were just as many black faces as white ones. They didn't seem to notice the difference."

The district's enrollment was 83 percent white, 12 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent data. But planners here say indicators suggest Fayette is ripe for demographic change. Development officials say expensive housing will bar less well-off families from relocating here, but for those with means, regardless of race, the schools are a powerful magnet.

At 11 percent, the county already has a larger proportion of minority residents than other affluent, suburban counties in metropolitan Atlanta. Nearly half the schoolchildren in the metropolitan area come from non-Asian minority groups, and many live within a short ride of Fayette's borders.

On the county's northern border, closest to Atlanta, is its first majority-black elementary school. The new neighborhoods surrounding it resemble the Smolas', but are filled with middle- and upper-middle-class black families.

Fayette County has the nation's third-fastest growing Hispanic population, even though the total is still small—only 3,500. The number of such residents is up 246 percent since 1990.

"Our community as a whole is becoming more diverse as people from different countries move here," Superintendent DeCotis says. "And we have some international businesses."

To be sure, Fayette lacks many hallmarks of more established regions. Officials here say they need a community college to train workers, housing for people with modest incomes who work in restaurants, shops, and homes around Fayette County, and more roads and public transportation for a population expected to double in the next 20 years.

It's only a matter of time, then, before the neighborhood where Andrew awaits the bus each day will change.

"Fayette is going to be overrun with people trying to wedge their way in there," says Myron Orfield, a Minneapolis-based expert on urban planning who has studied the Atlanta region. "Everybody's going to want to be there."

Vol. 20, Issue 7, Pages 31-33

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