The Jefferson City School System is quickly becoming a victim of its own success.

The school is growing fast, filling up classrooms despite expansion projects in recent years.

Two weeks ago, Superintendent John Jackson told the Jefferson City Council that the system's middle school has the most pressing need. He said that the school would have mobile units next fall because of the student growth in the middle school facility.

Those comments were followed by a long discussion at the Jefferson-Talmo Planning Commission meeting on March 2 about potential city annexations and the impact on the school system of residential development.

And all of that comes as some members of the city council have recently voiced concerns about the continuing drumbeat of housing growth on the school system.

The overall picture to come from those comments — and other comments at recent school board retreats — is that student growth pressures are pushing the school system to grow faster than many city leaders would like to see.

As with many growth projects, schools can't always afford to build "for the future" because they don't have the funding to do so until their current facilities are at capacity. That's especially true with Georgia schools where state funding to accommodate more students lags that growth by 12-24 months.

And there's another dynamic at play here, too: Jefferson has been very successful in recent years in luring industrial growth, especially with distribution centers such as Amazon and Home Goods and manufacturing with Kubota and Toyota.

That's great for the town's tax base, but it also puts pressure on housing in the area. The demand for housing, especially "affordable" housing for moderate income workers, is growing.

City officials would like to accommodate that, but "affordable" housing brings more children into the schools while at the same time, bringing in few tax dollars.

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It's no secret that one of the reasons Jefferson has seen such housing growth in the last two decades is because of the quality of its school system. The system is one of the top public schools in the state based on several academic testing results. It also has a long record of athletic success.

That combination is attractive to a lot of young families, especially those from nearby Gwinnett County who are looking to get away from that community's mega-sized schools and intense suburban development. For a lot of those families, small town Jefferson with its top-flight school system is a big draw.

Because of that, housing development in the city has been growing. Subdivisions have been growing like weeds and homes in older neighborhoods have undergone expansions and redevelopment by younger families.

That's been good for the local economy. Sales taxes are going up; new stores and restaurants are being established; and construction jobs and related products have been soaring.

But all of that hasn't come without a price tag. The most obvious impact — and one of the most expensive — has been on the city school system where the need for more classrooms, teachers, buses, and support services is getting slammed.

For the most part, the average house in Jefferson with two kids of school age doesn't pay nearly enough in school taxes to support the cost of educating those children. The difference in that cost is made up from taxes paid by businesses and from homeowners who don't have children in school.

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That financial reality was at the core of the recent discussion at the JTPC meeting. It was a fascinating moment because it brought this issue to the table in a way that had only been hinted at in many earlier public discussions.

Jefferson Board of Education Chairman Ronnie Hopkins is also the attorney for the planning board and for the Jefferson City Council. During the planning board's recent meeting, a discussion was held about a rezoning for apartments in the city. Part of the city planning department's report on the apartments suggested that the 300 units would probably not cater to families and would not have a dramatic impact on the school system.

Hopkins, who rarely injects into the board's discussions, didn't hold back on that point. He said the school system's own research suggested that each apartment unit would generate .95 children on average, meaning the project would hit the school with an additional 285 students.

Hopkins wasn't against the rezoning — the property was already rezoned in 2003 for apartments and this rezoning was just an update which actually decreased the total number of units. But he did give voice to the frustrations the school system is feeling from growth.

In particular, Hopkins wants the city to stop annexing property for subdivision or other residential developments. He said the city already had a lot of undeveloped residential land and that no more should be added that would draw additional residential growth.

"More and more people talk about they want to maintain a 'small town feel'; you can't maintain a small town feel when the city's getting bigger — it's hard," Hopkins said.

Hopkins pointed to the financial aspect of the apartments, saying that it would not pay enough taxes for the additional classroom construction it would create and also that it would not pay for even half of the cost of hiring additional teachers.

Planning board member Greg Laughinghouse said the school system apparently doesn't have a plan to accommodate the growth and that he wasn't sure how to respond to annexation requests coming before the board without some kind of data from the school system.

"It's hard for me to make a decision here in planning about stopping annexations if I don't have a plan to be able to tell people (developers) why," he said. "...I would love to have some kind of plan so that if I do have to restrict annexations I've got a way to show them 'here's the plan.'"

City planner Jerry Weitz said that the city's current comprehensive plan doesn't have a specific policy to restrict annexations based on school capacity issues, but that it could be made a city policy if the planning board or city council wanted to do that.

Weitz does suggest in his proposed plan update that the city not annex only a few lots in existing subdivisions and if it contemplated such annexations, the entire subdivision should be annexed or rejected.

Nobody on the planning commission made a motion to create a city annexation policy to restrict annexations based on school capacity issues.

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None of these issues are really new. Growth has always brought pain to communities with traffic and overcrowding of existing facilities. No town or county has the resources to build much infrastructure in advance of growth; they're always playing catch-up.

And there is the legal reality that communities don't have too much control over growth since property owners have the right, within reason, to develop their land.

Some communities try to get around this by enacting various fees to artificially push up the price of new homes and thus, push up the amount of taxes collected.

But that tends to create economic segregation where communities seek to only have wealthier residents and to price out moderate income households. Apartments are a flash-point in a lot of zoning disputes as upscale homeowners always oppose rental apartments near them.

And then there's the growing generational pressure this kind of growth brings to a town like Jefferson. As Hopkins pointed out at the planning board meeting, as the town grows with new residents, taxes will have to go up to pay for more classrooms, teachers, buses and other education expenses. Growth does have a price tag.

That may be OK with younger families who have children in school. They are often willing to pay for good schools, good recreation programs and other local amenities. But a lot of older residents who no longer have children in school see it differently — they want taxes to go down, not up.

That pinches local governments between older voters who don't want growth or higher taxes and younger residents who want more — and better — services even if it cost more.

To help take the pressure off, local governments seek more industry to help pay the higher taxes. But as we've seen in recent years, a lot of residents, old and young, don't want massive warehouses in their neighborhoods, either.

And when communities are successful in bringing in industry, that eventually leads to more residents, which starts the cycle all over again.

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There are no easy or quick answers to all of this. While Jefferson should refrain from annexing more residential property and it should seek to bring in additional businesses and industry, the town doesn't have full control over any of those things. The marketplace will determine most of that regardless of what city leaders want.

The irony of all this is that in fleeing the suburbs for better schools and a smaller town atmosphere, newer residents are creating the same kind of suburban sprawl here that they wanted to escape.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's a riddle, inside a conundrum, wrapped in a problem.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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