By Katie Fallon
An informal meeting between the Sandy Springs City Council and members of the Fulton County School Board on March 22 may have started out friendly enough over lunch, but it quickly turned into a serious discussion of what school officials are going to do to alleviate overcrowding in schools within the city.
The meeting was held in response to the chilly endorsement the city council gave the school board’s third Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) during its March 6 council meeting. At that meeting, the council passed a resolution endorsing SPLOST III with a 5 to 1 vote, but attached a number of conditions. Those conditions, which contained a number of timelines for school construction, renovation and redistricting, hinged on what the council said was a $53 million inequality between the tax revenue generated in Sandy Springs and the expenditures the board makes in Sandy Springs schools.
With the passage of SPLOST III just two days before the meeting, the benefits of the renewed one-cent tax were fresh on the minds of many in attendance.
Representatives from the school board included Superintendent James Wilson and board members Gail Dean, Julia Bernath, Linda Bryant, Katie Reeves, Ashley Widener and Catherine Maddox. Mayor Eva Galambos was also in attendance, as were council members Karen Meinzen McEnerny, Ashley Jenkins, Dianne Fries and Rusty Paul.
Because some improvements designated for Sandy Springs schools from SPLOST II revenues have not been started or completed, a few city representatives voiced an eagerness for the city to see the benefits of new SPLOST funds as soon as possible. The new Lake Forrest Elementary School, for instance, is a SPLOST II school and is not close to opening.
“We are very, very anxious for the SPLOST III funds to get started in Sandy Springs early,” Galambos said.
The council also reported that 45 percent of school-age children living in Sandy Springs attend one of the many private schools in the community that are within close proximity to Fulton’s public schools.
“There’s a reason for that,” said Councilwoman Fries.
Dean said the trend toward private school enrollment was down last year, although it has risen in recent years.
Wilson told the council that while he was aware of the overcrowding in the city’s schools, the same situation was happening in many other area of the county and that priority could not be given to one city over another.
“Every city thinks their needs are greater,” Wilson said. “We agree with every city that they should be a priority.”
Similarly, Bryant said the district was going to try to start school constructions and renovations around the same time and not stagger projects. She said the process requires creative financing.
Regardless of when school renovations begin in relation to other projects, Jenkins said, more than anything, the council needs more definitive timelines of when projects can be expected to begin in order to keep residents better informed. If parents don’t get that timeline, Jenkins said, she fears more parents will either move their students to private schools or out of the district all together.
“What I’m afraid is going to happen is you’re going to have these parents walking away and you’re not going to be able to get them back,” Jenkins said.
The council members noted that the overcrowding in Sandy Springs is a particular problem at the elementary schools and especially High Point and Woodland.
“We’d like to see the core areas of the elementary schools be improved or expanded so the children at High Point don’t have to go to lunch at 10:20 in the morning,” Meinzen McEnerny said. “A lot of our frustration with the timing is the fact that we contribute more money than is spent in our community.”
Despite the council’s assertion of the $53 million inequality between revenues and expenditures, the superintendent said there is a set process for SPLOST funds distribution.
“It’s dispersed by student percentage,” Wilson said. “We receive the largest percentage. We probably sit better than anyone in the state to receive a SPLOST penny.”
SPLOST III revenues in Fulton, according to the school district, are expected to fund seven new elementary, three new middle and four new high schools. One each of the elementary and middle schools is planned specifically for Sandy Springs. Major additions are also planned for seven elementary and four high schools. Other improvements include upgrades to security, utilities, technology and athletic fields. SPLOST funds are also expected to reduce bond debt and purchase land for future school sites.