Cathy Cobbs

Will the Minority-to-Majority student transfer program ever end in DeKalb County? And is its replacement program truly a non-raced-based busing program?

The answer is a confident “yes” if you ask DeKalb County School officials, and a resounding “no” from others as they accuse the administration of back-door deals and broken promises regarding M-to-M’s replacement, the Optional Transfer Program.

“It’s not M-to-M – it’s son of M-to-M,” said Dunwoody attorney Jamie Sibold, whose threatened lawsuit in effect ended the M-to-M program in 1998. “The administration, instead of having a busing program exclusively based on race, has now paired up overcrowded schools that are predominately black with undercrowded schools that are predominately white.”

The result, Sibold contends, is essentially the same program under a different name, with built-in loopholes that will allow it to continue into perpetuity.

The M-to-M program, which was implemented under court order in 1972 as a tool to further integrate the DeKalb School System, was ended during the 1999-2000 school year, although students already in attendance at a school could remain through the school’s highest grade. As part of the compromise worked out between the Southeastern Legal Foundation (the entity which threatened the lawsuit on the basis that the program was race-based), and the school board, students were supposed to transfer back to their home school after they completed the highest grade at their M-to-M school.

However Sibold and others charge that administration officials broke their promise at the end of last year and allowed an entire eighth grade class to continue on to the high school level, which in essence extends the M-to-M Program for another four years for those students. He believes the same thing will happen this year.

“Superintendent (James) Hallford has admitted as much to me that he illegally grandfathered in an entire class last year, and he promised me that it would be the only year that it would happen,” Sibold said. “But I don’t have a high level of confidence that he will follow through with his word.”

Hallford did not return several phone calls from The Crier regarding this story.

Further complicating the issue has been the preponderance of administrative transfers from school board members, which critics charge are being issued wholesale to former M-to-M students whose parents don’t want to return to them to their home school.

In the past, administrative transfers could be signed by any DeKalb County Executive Director, and Crawford Lewis, the new Executive Director for Secondary Administration, said the number of transfers given last year were “substantial.”

“This year, we’re not giving any administrative transfers, and that’s a directive from the superintendent,” Lewis said. “We are being very, very grudging about giving them. At this point it must be very, very critical for us to allow a transfer.”

Several parents have said school officials promised that each administrative transfer would be scrutinized by Hallford to cut down on the excessive numbers being granted. DeKalb County Spokesman Spencer Ragsdale issued a statement from Hallford on administrative transfers.

“I am not going to review every request for a transfer,” the statement from Hallford said. “I will review those considered to have extenuating circumstances.”

But parents believe that the administrative transfers will continue, despite the promises made by Hallford.

“If you walk down the halls at Dunwoody High School, anyone can see that 3/4 of the students are not from the neighborhood,” Sibold said. “The administration keeps telling us that they support neighborhood schools, but to me, the concept of a neighborhood school with a busing program doesn’t make any sense to me.”

According to records, Dunwoody High School, during the current school year, is comprised of 901 resident students, 190 holdovers from the M-to-M Program, and 92 Optional Transfer students from the first year of the new program. However, the number of administrative transfer students, which is included in the resident student total, was not available to The Crier.

Sibold and others are feel that the price tag for transporting the dwindling numbers of M-to-M and Optional Transfer students, which has been pegged by school officials anywhere from $3.5 - $5 million per school year, is wasteful.

“You can build an entirely new school every year for $5 million,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Millions of dollars for 2,000 students,” said a Peachtree parent. “There’s a good use of money.”

And that cost isn’t likely to go down much during the 2001-2002 school year, admitted Dannie Reed, Executive Director of Transportation.

“We are not yet to a crossroads (where bus service can be consolidated or reduced),” Reed said. “There will be less stops, but less buses? That remains to be seen.”

In addition, Reed said that although administrative transfer students are supposed to provide their own transportation to school, he believes many of them are probably riding the buses with M-to-M and Optional Transfer students.

“If you’re asking me if student X can walk to an M-to-M bus stop and eventually end up at their school, the answer is ‘yes,’ that could happen.”

Ironically, the Optional Transfer Program is generating little or no interest among potential participants. Of the 3000 or so students who could be transferred to less crowded schools, only 300 made application by the April 27 deadline. Of that number, 151 applied to Peachtree Middle School and 106 to Dunwoody High School from their respective overcrowded schools, according to school board records.

“Nobody is interested in this program – they want to stay in their home school area,” said one parent familiar with the program. “The only people who seem to be hanging on are the M-to-M parents and administrative transfer parents. And that’s a very expensive proposition for so little students.”

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