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Atlanta school board votes to restrict use of school taxes for Westside projects

The Atlanta school board voted today to restrict further use of school property taxes to fund future development on the city’s Westside, despite concerns from two board members who fear the move could escalate tensions with the city. 

The school board’s 7-2 vote came a month after Atlanta City Council approved a public financing package worth up to $1.9 billion for the Gulch, a proposed 40-acre mini-city to be built near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The public funding includes school tax dollars collected in the Westside Tax Allocation District, or TAD. 

School leaders want the city to renegotiate the terms of the district’s participation in five TADs -- areas where a portion of property tax revenue, including school taxes, are used to support development projects for a period of time. They’ve expressed concerns about protecting the educational tax base and diverting money that could be used to help schools and students. 

The resolution approved today calls for the district to give written approval before school property tax dollars can be used to fund future development in the Westside TAD.

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APS agreed in 1998 and again in 2005 to give up future tax dollars collected within the area until 2038 to help pay for redevelopment. The initial public financing package proposed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms extended the life of the TAD to help support the Gulch project, but the deal was revised after objections from the school district and city council. The deal approved by city council does not lengthen the life of the TAD or require approvals from the school system, according to the city and the California-based developer CIM Group. 

School officials said the board’s action today sets policy. School board Chairman Jason Esteves said the board has instructed school district administrators to negotiate with the city. The district did not immediately announce what its next steps would be. 

“It’s meant to help us decide, not today but in the next few days over the coming weeks, what we are actually going to do. So it doesn’t determine a path today. No final decisions have been made, but it does explain to the public how we got here and … why we have to take a little more time to ensure that we are being responsible with our taxpayer dollars,” Superintendent Meria Carstarphen told board members today.

ORIGINAL DOCUMENT: ATLANTA BOARD OF EDUCATION RESOLUTION

Atlanta school board members Byron Amos and Erika Mitchell opposed the resolution. In interviews after the vote, both said they are concerned that the board’s action will cause deeper tensions between the school district and city. 

“We didn’t take the time to really try to be diplomatic with our communication regarding the Gulch,” said Mitchell. “I think the conversation never really happened the correct way.” 

Mitchell said talks between APS and the city broke down after Carstarphen made public comments in October, before city council approved a revised deal, calling for renegotiation of all five TADs before the school district discussed Gulch funding. 

“I think it took a turn for the worse,” Mitchell said. “It creates a barrier and going down that road with this behavior I don’t think develops a healthy relationship between Atlanta Public Schools and city hall.” 

Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen, speaks with reporters during a meeting at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017. (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Amos said he opposed the school board’s resolution because it was a “missed opportunity” to work with the city. He also questioned what legal weight the board’s action carries. 

“It adds another layer of tension (with) the city,” he said. “It’s almost with this resolution we’re using a hammer to kill a fly.” 

School board Chairman Jason Esteves said he wants a good relationship with the city and said the district wants to collaborate with the city. 

“There are ongoing conversations that are happening, and we want to encourage those conversations, but at the same time we want to make sure that we are being prudent and that we are being good stewards for the system,” he said.

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