By Michael Jacobs

The positives of Sandy Springs’ public schools, from the opening of two new elementary schools and the renovations at Ridgeview Charter School to the spread of charter schools with distinctive programs at all levels, come with a potential downside: competition.

The tension that comes from neighboring public schools vying for the hearts and minds of families rose to the surface during the community meeting of Fulton County Board of Education member Julia Bernath on April 22. The meeting was held at North Springs Charter High School, whose cluster falls within the district of Bernath, a Sandy Springs resident and former North Springs parent.

The three elementary schools now in the North Springs cluster — Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School, Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School and Woodland Elementary Charter School — figure to have significantly fewer students in the fall when Ison Springs Elementary School opens. If the charter schools fall below capacity, families outside their attendance zones can apply for lotteries for the available slots.

That situation creates the possibility of recruiting, with all the emotions, frustrations and rumors of college football recruiting.

Beth Mazur, the PTA president at Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School, complained about Woodland’s recruiting among her neighborhoods. The problem, she said, isn’t the recruiting itself — “I don’t care what they’re doing; I love my school” — but what appears to be an uneven playing field.

She mentioned rumors about promises being made to potential Woodland families in areas such as pre-kindergarten and the Talented and Gifted Program.

No representative of Woodland attended the meeting, but the others in the room said Woodland has every right to recruit students and wouldn’t intentionally break any rules.

“As wonderful as the Sandy Springs community is, we have always been victims of rumors,” Bernath said.

Susan Nelson of the Sandy Springs Middle School PTA said the opening of Ison Springs and the economic factors compelling some private school families to reconsider public schools make the time right for some healthy competition.

“Spalding is a charter mainly because we were so sick of hearing about Woodland,” Nelson said. “What we did was step up to the plate. We knew our school was great.”

Bernath said the schools in the North Springs and Riverwood International Charter School clusters need to work together to educate Sandy Springs residents about how good they are and the programs each offers.

DeeAnn Weprinsky, who chairs the North Springs cluster advisory committee, said Sandy Springs schools have fought negative public perceptions for decades, even though “these schools have been very good all along.”

“It behooves us to try to tell a joint story and to do promotion not at the expense of other schools, but in concert,” Bernath said.

She also said it might be time for a community school task force to examine the needs and issues of the next five years. She said such a task force six or seven years ago convinced the school system of Sandy Springs’ need for two new elementary schools, which became Lake Forest and Ison Springs.

“We all want our school to be the best school, but we’re only as good as the most challenged school in our area,” Bernath said. “We’ve got a vested interest in making sure that all the schools do well.”