The former A.D. Williams Elementary School in northwest Atlanta is one of eight properties that have yet to be turned over to Atlanta Public Schools more than a year after the school district and city reached an agreement for the city to turn over school property deeds to APS. The elementary school closed in 2009, and the building is vacant. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC
Photo: Vanessa McCray
Photo: Vanessa McCray

Year after mayor promised deeds, APS still waiting for 8 of them

More than a year after Atlanta Public Schools and the city trumpeted an agreement to end years of bitter conflict over school property deeds, the job remains unfinished.

The school district and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in January of 2018 that the city would hand over disputed deeds to dozens of school properties to APS, but eight of the 51 properties still have not been transferred.

The most recent transfers took place in mid-September.

Officials on both sides blamed the delay on the time it takes to do legal reviews, including work such as property surveys and analyzing title information.

APS has long sought the flexibility and authority to sell, trade and make other decisions about school properties, deeds to which the city has held onto since it legally split from the school district in the 1970s.

The city in prior years resisted giving APS some deeds, and Bottoms’ promise to hand them over marked a turning point in the sometimes-tense relationship between city and school district.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen acknowledged the transfers were “very slow going.”

“Hope springs eternal. We are going to be patient, keep working through things. It is what it is,” she said. “We absolutely came to agreement that we would get every deed.”

Bottoms’ press secretary Michael Smith did not provide a timeline for when the remaining deeds would be turned over but said city and APS attorneys plan to meet Friday to discuss the status. He said discussions about holding that meeting began early this year.

He said Bottoms still intends to turn over all the deeds, a promise she made in late 2017 while campaigning for mayor.

“The law department and APS counsel have worked cooperatively and diligently over the last year to obtain and work through the survey and title issues for each of the 51 properties,” he said, in a written statement.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, center, is surrounded by Atlanta school board members and the school superintendent as she signs documents turning over deeds to 31 Atlanta Public Schools properties on Feb. 20, 2018. Photo from Atlanta Public Schools Twitter account.

More than half of the 51 properties are used by schools currently in operation. Two are for sale, and one has been sold. Others are leased, vacant, or used for administrative functions.

APS is embarking on a six-months to year-long facilities master planning process that will include determining which properties are needed and which ones aren’t, said school board Chairman Jason Esteves. Having the deeds in hand and the finished master plan will allow APS to make “strategic decisions” about properties, he said.

“We are optimistic that the city will transfer all the deeds that are promised to us and that the mayor will keep her word,” he said.

The deed dispute dates back to former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, when the relationship between the city and school district fractured over several issues.

The two sides battled over Beltline tax funding after the city missed payments during the recession that it was supposed to make to APS in exchange for using school property taxes to support development along the trail.

After a couple of years of conflict, the two sides finally hammered out a deal to resolve the dispute.

But another fight became a flashpoint: Who should control deeds to Atlanta school properties?

In 2015, the school district wanted to sell a few unused properties but contended that Reed made it impossible because he refused to turn over the deeds.

A war of words erupted. Reed called the superintendent “inexperienced in Atlanta” and claimed she didn’t “know what she’s talking about.”

In March of 2015, APS sued for control of a few of the deeds the city had held onto.

Before Reed handed them over, he wanted the school district to commit to affordable housing requirements for properties it sold, and the school board approved such a policy for certain properties in January of 2017.

The spat persisted as APS tried to secure dozens of additional deeds from the city.

During the first three years of legal wrangling, the school district and city spent more than $730,000, tax dollars that paid for attorneys and property title research, according to records obtained last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The unresolved deed issue spilled into the 2017 mayor’s race as Bottoms campaigned to succeed Reed. She promised to repair the strained relationship with APS and to turn over the deeds “on day one.”

Her first day in office came and went without the deeds being transferred, an act that requires not just a stroke of the mayor’s pen but also approval from the Atlanta City Council.

A few weeks later, Bottoms and APS announced an agreement to transfer about 50 properties to the school district “without restriction or condition.” The district and city agreed to stay the legal case while they worked to resolve the situation outside of court.

Bottoms signed over deeds to 31 properties on Feb. 20, after city council authorized the transfer. Flanked by smiling school board members and the superintendent, the mayor said: “I don’t make promises that I don’t intend to keep.”

Deeds to 12 more properties trickled over to APS in the following months.

Eight of the 51 properties have yet to be turned over.

The city has authorized the transfer of property on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, but the handover has been delayed while a survey is completed, APS said. The property is the future site of Woodson Park Academy, scheduled to open in a new building in 2020.

That leaves seven languishing properties, which the mayor’s spokesman said the city still intends to deliver to APS.

Smith said those seven “have required additional work” such as sorting out title and ownership issues. He said they contain public streets and involve leases.

None of the eight outstanding properties are listed for sale by the school district, APS said.

One of those sites, the former A.D. Williams Elementary School in northwest Atlanta, is a vacant building, fenced off and forlorn. The school closed in 2009 as enrollment declined amid the closure of a nearby housing development.

Residents want to to see the entire area, including the school property, cleaned up and redeveloped in a way that benefits all, said Ola Reynolds, chairwoman of the neighborhood planning unit.

“We want everything to be inclusive,” she said.

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