Atlanta school board approves new charter school

Atlanta’s school board unanimously approved a new charter school Monday, overriding the superintendent’s recommendation against starting new charters.

Board of Education members gave the go-ahead for Atlanta Classical Academy, a K-8 charter school in Buckhead, to launch in the 2014-2015 school year.

Superintendent Erroll Davis had advised the board not to create new charter schools while the Georgia Supreme Court is considering whether they can be required by Atlanta Public Schools to help pay off a pension debt of more than $500 million. Charter schools don’t participate in the pension system.

Board members said they didn’t want to reject a high-quality school for financial reasons.

“I’m very uncomfortable with denying it for that reason,” said board member Cecily Harsch-Kinnane. “I do think we need to address the unfunded pension issue; I don’t think this is the time to do it.”

Supporters of Atlanta Classical Academy erupted in cheers after the board’s vote.

“We’re thrilled to have this opportunity for all families in the district,” said Matthew Kirby, the school’s board chairman.

Davis wants the school district’s independently managed charter schools to contribute toward paying off a pension debt that has been building for more than 30 years. Davis said it’s unfair for payments to come from traditional schools without charter schools pitching in.

“The problem has to be solved. I’m comfortable because Atlanta Classical Academy is not the root of the problem,” Davis said. “I do want to point out that we can’t keep marching down this path.”

Charter schools have argued in court that they were founded years after the school system accumulated its pension debt, and their funding can’t be reduced to help pay it off.

“It is your duty to consider charter school petitions on their merits,” said Beth Beskin, whose two children attended Morris Brandon Elementary, in comments to the board. “The proper remedy is not to summarily reject all petitions for start-up charter schools.”

Another parent, Barbara Simpson, said she opposed the creation of Atlanta Classical Academy because charter schools pull students and resources from traditional schools.

“Parents should have choices, but we must understand those choices come to be as a result of traditional schools that need improvement,” Simpson said.

The school district is scheduled to pay a total of $48.5 million toward the unfunded pension liability during the current school year.

“Every time a child leaves to go to a charter, their portion of the pension liability is left behind,” said Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel.

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