APS leader: Buckhead ‘divorce’ will leave APS students behind

Atlanta school board chair: Buckhead cityhood would disrupt education of thousands of kids

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported, if Buckhead becomes its own city, a major question will be what happens to the Atlanta Public Schools in the neighborhood and the thousands of children enrolled in them.

The AJC’s Patricia Murphy wrote:

The answer is made supremely complicated by Georgia's constitution, which prevents the creation of a new city school system anywhere in the state. That means that any new “Buckhead City" won't have Buckhead City Schools to go with it.

That would leave the new potential city with schools still owned by APS, but students who are no longer eligible to attend them, since they're not Atlanta residents anymore.

In a guest column today, the Atlanta school board chair shares his concerns over the fate of the schools and the students if Buckhead secedes. Elected to the school board in 2013, Jason Esteves is an attorney and former educator.

By Jason Esteves

I’ve heard the proposed Buckhead de-annexation often referred to as a “divorce.” As the son of parents that divorced when I was 13 and the current chair of the Atlanta Board of Education, that analogy has a deeper meaning for me. I’m fortunate my parents’ divorce was relatively straightforward, but, in messier divorces, the interests of children are oftentimes put on the back burner.

The Buckhead “divorce” appears to be messy.

More than 5,500 Atlanta Public Schools students live within the boundaries of the proposed city and attend North Atlanta High School cluster schools (including charter schools). That’s nearly 60% of all school-aged children in Buckhead. There are also more than 2,400 students who attend North Atlanta cluster schools, but would be left out of the boundaries of the proposed city.

Jason Esteves

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Despite the fact that nearly 8,000 students would be directly impacted by a “Buckhead City,” the interests of and the impact on these students have been largely ignored or dismissed in the public dialogue.

It is time for that to change.

Because of the unprecedented nature of the proposed city, there is no doubt that the effort would be potentially disastrous for the children of Atlanta. Furthermore, given the fact our community is working to recover and emerge from the pandemic, the last thing our students need is for APS to have to spend resources, time, and focus on mitigating the impacts of de-annexation.

Here are the facts:

1. The proposed city would not be able to create its own school system. The Georgia Constitution explicitly prohibits it.

2. Without a change in law or an intergovernmental agreement with Fulton County Schools, students within the boundaries of the proposed city would automatically become students of Fulton County Schools; however, the school sites would remain APS property.

There are several complicating factors, including:

Staff — Parents will tell you that the 633 amazing school leaders and staff are one of the best features of the North Atlanta cluster. But retention of that staff would be at risk. No school leader or teacher wants to be in a school cluster that will be in limbo for years. Many staff would want to stay in APS regardless of the outcome.

Intergovernmental Agreement — An IGA would have to be negotiated between the Fulton County School District and APS, and it would need to withstand the scrutiny of likely lawsuits. An IGA would only be a short-term solution to keep students in place while Fulton County Schools integrates those students into its school system or until legislation is enacted to keep those students in APS. Nevertheless, the residents of the proposed city would not be able to legally vote for APS school board members even though the school district would provide their students with services — removing an important layer of accountability for Buckhead families.

Legislation — Aside from an IGA, legislation would be required to ensure students are either in a new school system (which would require a constitutional amendment) or permanently in APS (which would require a change in state law and the APS Charter). Either option would take considerable time and “political will” in the General Assembly to get it done.

Properties — APS owns 13 properties within the proposed city’s boundaries. Some of those properties recently received multimillion-dollar renovations. They would have to be part of any negotiation between APS and Fulton County Schools. A key sticking point is likely to be the costs of the buildings and the $72.4 million in bonds that are still outstanding for North Atlanta High School.

Credit Rating — APS stands to lose its “extremely strong” credit rating because bonds are still outstanding on North Atlanta High School, and the loss of a significant portion of our tax base would compromise our ability to repay investors.

Finances and Pension — APS has worked hard to be in a strong financial position. De-annexation would likely mean a loss of nearly 30% of the APS general fund budget. That’s a significant loss that would impact school budgets across the city. Fulton County Schools would also have to make significant budget adjustments to account for the annexation. A millage rate increase would have to be on the table for both APS and Fulton County Schools. Further, de-annexation would negatively impact progress APS has made on addressing a 40-year-old pension liability issue that is set to provide Atlanta taxpayers with an annual windfall of nearly $70 million in 2027.

The most detrimental thing that would happen as a result of this proposed de-annexation, however, is that two school systems would be forced to put teaching and learning on the back burner while they work to solve complex and unnecessarily created issues.

Our children can’t afford the disruption.

There are sensible solutions to the issues that helped create the de-annexation movement. For example, crime and safety concerns can be addressed by tackling poverty and economic disparity, increased mental health supports, keeping teens occupied outside of school hours, truancy intervention initiatives, quality workforce development programs, and additional police officers trained in community policing. Doing those things would not be disruptive for students and would have a more immediate and effective impact on crime than the de-annexation process.

Coming together and doing this work isn’t easy. Anyone who has contemplated divorce can tell you that. But we owe it to our children, and ourselves, to not attempt to solve these issues at their expense.

Let’s do the work.

The author of this guest column, Jason Esteves, is chair of the Atlanta Board of Education.

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