The Board of Education in Atlanta, Georgia has unanimously approved a new charter school, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which overrides the superintendent's recommendation against starting new charters. The Atlanta Classical Academy, a K-8 charter school in Buckhead, will be launched in the 2014-2015 school year.
Superintendent Erroll Davis requested that the board not approve 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 do not participate in the pension system.
Board members said they did not 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."
According to Davis, the school district's independently managed charter schools should contribute toward paying off a pension debt that has been building for more than 30 years. He said it is not fair that payments 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."
But charter schools do not agree with Davis. In court, charter schools have argued that they were founded years after the school system accumulated its pension debt, and their funding cannot 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.
During the current school year, the school district is scheduled to pay a total of $48.5 million toward the unfunded pension liability.
The Atlanta Board of Education, which establishes and approves the policies governing the Atlanta Public School system, consists of nine members, representing six geographical districts and three "at-large" districts. One person is elected per district to represent the schools in a given district for a four-year term, according to the board's website.