By Gerhard Schneibel

It came as a surprise to the Sandy Springs Planning Commission on March 19 that the Tabula Rasa language school at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Riverside Drive is 97 students over its allowed capacity and thus in violation of its use permit.

The church is asking to expand its facilities by 2,000 square feet and to increase the allowed capacity of the language school to 200 students. The school received permission in July 2007 to enroll 60 students but currently has 157 students.

The school, founded in December 2001, teaches Spanish and French and plans to add Mandarin Chinese in August. After starting a Spanish-English kindergarten this school year, Tabula Rasa intends to expand by one grade level each year until the bilingual program runs through fifth grade.

Neighbors have characterized the school as a commercial venture in a residential area. The for-profit Tabula Rasa school rents space from St. Andrew’s, which the Planning Commission suggested could jeopardize the church’s nonprofit status.

The school has approval to instruct children ranging from 2 to 6 years old but hasn’t limited itself to those ages. Patrice Ruffin, a senior planner with the city, said that puts the school “out of compliance with the state requirements.”

The school doesn’t have a sign at St. Andrew’s, but Rebecca Hunter of the school’s parents committee said that is because Sandy Springs has a moratorium on signs.

Hunter argued the school isn’t out of compliance with the city or state because its 157 students are instructed at staggered times in groups of no more than 60.

“We’re not in the zone that is incompatible with your code. It’s not a day care, it’s a school,” she said. “The idea that you’re going to have 200 families picking up their kids at 5 p.m. is inaccurate. It’s an incredible asset to the city of Sandy Springs, and it’s an incredible asset for parents.”

If the city approves a permit for 200 students, Planning Commissioner Al Pond asked Tabula Rasa representatives, “what’s to say you won’t have 400 or 500?”

Planning Commissioner David Rubenstein said the school is “clearly operating on the edge of the envelope.”

“That does not put you in good standing with this panel,” he said. “It’s nothing against you. It’s nothing against your program.”

The commission unanimously voted to defer the church’s application for 60 days, but Chairman Lee Duncan said the applicants made a “slippery presentation to the staff,” and “this thing needs to be buttoned up.”