By Michael Jacobs
Just when it appeared the public schools in Sandy Springs were through with overcrowding, they enter the summer uncertain about how many students they’ll see when classes begin again Aug. 10.
Two new elementary schools, Lake Forest this year and Ison Springs in the fall, and the renovation of Ridgeview Charter School were supposed to solve capacity problems, but that was before the recession and a new state law.
Parents and administrators discussed the enrollment issues May 21 during Fulton County Board of Education member Gail Dean’s community meeting at Ridgeview.
School administrators have anecdotal evidence that finances are forcing families to switch from private to public schools to save tens of thousands of dollars a year. North Springs Charter High School Principal Lisa Stueve, for example, told school board member Julia Bernath’s April community meeting about a couple crying in her office because they had to end a tradition of attending Marist School.
Dean said Sandy Springs has the highest percentage of school-age children in Fulton going to private schools, so it has the greatest potential for an influx into the public schools.
At the request of Principal Eddie Echols, Riverwood International Charter School is adding four portable classrooms in anticipation of that private-to-public shift.
It takes six weeks to get a portable classroom installed, said Leonard Box, the area superintendent in Sandy Springs, so August is too late to learn that a school lacks space.
“If there is a family that is considering, in fact, to move from private education to public education, it is important for them to register now,” Box said.
That information also could be crucial to how H.B. 251 affects schools.
That law, which Gov. Sonny Perdue signed May 5, allows families to enroll children in any school in the district that has capacity, as long as the parents provide transportation. Once a child is enrolled in a school, he or she can’t be forced out if the school becomes overcrowded in later years.
Charter schools and new schools are exempt, so only two Sandy Springs schools — Heards Ferry Elementary, which ended the year with about 410 pupils, and High Point Elementary, which had about 620 — could be forced to accept transfers.
The key will be how the state Education Department writes the rules, especially the definition of capacity. Box said the county expects the rules by the third week in June.
The state sets a building capacity for each school based on number of classrooms. But Dean said the program capacity, accounting for limits on such classes as special education and English as a second language, is far lower.
The state lets school systems define capacity for transfers from failing schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, so Box is hopeful that will be the case for H.B. 251.