By C. Julia Nelson
cjnelson@reporternewspapers.net

The debate over whether construction at the Ison Road elementary school in Sandy Springs will be pushed back a year has everyone – including Sandy Springs City Council, Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) and the Fulton County Board of Education (FCBE) – buzzing about keeping promises and meeting cashflow and enrollment demands.

The decision that has the community on pins and needles as to whether the school will open in 2009 or 2010, will most likely be made at the April 17 regular Fulton County Board of Education meeting, when the FY09 budget, thus capital prioritization, is finalized.

The annual SPLOST budget, which will be presented at the April 1 work session, will include the allocation of dollars funding the construction of the Ison Road school in addition to several other projects. In totality, SPLOST III is providing $988,348,336 to the district for continuous improvements over five years; the Ison project is slated to get $28,954,015 of that funding.

Michael Russell, the district’s Associate Superintendent of Operations, explained that for SPLOST III funds, the board must find a balance between meeting instructional capacity/enrollment demands (including and beyond Sandy Springs) and working with a limited cashflow from month-to-month.

“The timing of these projects is based on need and is driven by enrollment and cashflow,” Russell said. “We can’t do everything at once.”

Other projects contending for SPLOST III dollars, specifically those scheduled tentatively ahead of Ison, include: a new high school at Johns Creek, new elementary schools at West Stubbs and Birmingham Road, a replacement facility at Westlake High School, and additions at Roswell High School and several elementaries: Mimosa, Roswell North, Bethune, Love T. Nolan and Mountain Park.

“Almost two-thirds of SPLOST III is (allocated for) new schools and additions,” he said.

Since SPLOST dollars are based on the collection of sales tax over five years, the district has invested in construction notes to expedite the improvements as much as possible.

“Without the use of these borrowed dollars, these schools would be even further behind,” Russell said. “The priority list is simply a balance of what you can afford and the timing of when you can build for all your projects put together.”

During the March 13 meeting of the Fulton Schools’ board, Cheryl Barlow, a parent of a kindergarten student at Spalding Drive Charter School and a member of the school’s redistricting committee, petitioned the board to keep the construction of the Ison Road school on schedule. As a spokesperson for Spalding parents and local Sandy Springs PTAs, she said the board’s announcement of the possible delay at Ison was an act of bad faith following the Feb. 1 board decision regarding redistricting elementary schools to address overcrowding.

“There is unanimous pain that this situation has been handled badly by the Fulton County Schools’ staff,” she said.

Barlow suggested the board consider each school under SPLOST III individually and base the prioritization on individual overcrowding statistics rather than systemic capacity numbers.

“No matter what the numbers say, we are desperately overcrowded at Spalding,” Barlow said. “Another year is a big deal for us. We lost almost 40 percent of our population to Ison. We really need this school to be built on time. This is especially egregious since we just went through redistricting and this was promised to us.”

Members of the Sandy Springs City Council also addressed the possible delay of construction at its own March 11 work session, noting that the Fulton board made promises to city council and thus to its constituents about having the school ready in 2009 and needs to keep them.

“We issued a resolution where we endorsed SPLOST III with a proviso that the schools would be built in a timely manner,” Mayor Eva Galambos said of a resolution dated March 17, 2007.

The second proviso in the resolution called for “the second new elementary school in Sandy Springs be opened by the fall of 2009.”

“I’m losing patience with them,” Galambos said.

Councilman Rusty Paul, Dist.3, expressed concern based on the idea that if the board delays construction at Ison, it would have negative implications on council as well. Since council resolved to endorse a 2009 opening date, delaying could have damaging affects on council’s constituent relationships in addition to the continuing overcrowding problems throughout the city’s elementary schools.

“When a school system, or any form of government, comes in and makes promises to the voters… and they don’t keep their word, it makes it difficult for us to (maintain constituent trust),” Paul said. “Citizens don’t distinguish (one governmental entity from another) when promises are made. It really hinges upon our credibility… with our constituents.”

Council member Ashley Jenkins, Dist. 4, said the best action for parents is to send e-mails to the district’s board members outlining their concerns.

Board member Gail Dean, who represents Dist. 3, which includes Spalding and the future Ison Road schools, is hopeful to keep the construction on schedule as originally planned to get students there in 2009.

“In my opinion, Ison Road was already a project in process,” Dean said. “Once you are in the process of (issuing) permits and breaking ground, which we have done, (it needs to move forward). I was taken aback that Ison could be delayed (based on staff reports).”

While the community waits for a decision from the board, some processes are still moving forward on the Ison Road project.

The board approved the schematic design for the Ison Road School at the March 13 meeting. While construction may be postponed, construction documents will be drawn and once approved will be followed by a 90-day bidding process for the project before construction could even begin.

Russell said the board would approve the final budget in June. Public comments will be taken at the April 1 work session, which will be held at the board offices at 786 Cleveland Ave. S.W. The April 17 meeting will be held at Dunwoody Springs Charter School, 8100 Roberts Drive.