By Amy Wenk
After nearly six months of discussion, the city of Sandy Springs has come to a resolution with Tabula Rasa — The Language Academy.
The city Planning Commission voted 3-2 June 18 to approve three use permits for the private school and day care facility housed at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, but not without a host of conditions, including three the applicant added.
Since the application was introduced to the public Jan. 27, neighbors have been up in arms over the Riverside Drive church’s request to expand by 2,000 square feet to make room for enrollment growth for its tenant, Tabula Rasa. The school immerses children in preschool and kindergarten in Spanish or French and has an after-school program and a weekend enrichment program with older elementary children. It plans to add first grade in the fall.
Many questions have been raised regarding the school’s use of the permit it obtained July 2007 — which allowed 60 children but which the school interpreted to mean 60 at a time — as well as the integrity of founder and owner Besa Tarazhi, who resigned as principal in April amid controversy over preschoolers staying longer than allowed. Tarazhi retains control of the school.
Neighbors expressed concerns about increased traffic and other issues.
The school went before the Planning Commission twice before, but the third time did the trick. The application will move to the City Council for final approval July 21.
“This process is difficult at best,” Planning Commission Vice Chairman Wayne Thatcher told the opposing neighbors who attended the June 18 meeting. “We won’t make a decision that will destroy a great neighborhood. … I implore you to look at who you are throwing harpoons at. We are not the enemy. We are here to serve the greater good.”
Among the commission’s recommendations, a significant stipulation restricts Tabula Rasa to 17 full-time staffers and 118 students until the Fulton County Department Health and Wellness approves the facility. As part of the property renovation permit process, the governmental entity must ensure the church has suitable septic tank capacity to accommodate more people. If the building does, the permit will be issued. If not, the church must make septic tank improvements before an increase in enrollment is allowed.
“Health and Wellness has to be satisfied,” said Nancy Leathers, the city’s director of community development. “The burden will be on them.”
Other conditions limit enrollment to 220 children Monday through Friday and 50 children on Saturdays. Specific times are laid out according to the ages of the children.
The applicant also added three conditions. Although the original intent of Tabula Rasa was to establish a full-fledged elementary school running through fifth grade, one stipulation limits the school to third grade. Another says the school may add only one grade per year. The final condition from the applicant is that the use permit for the school will expire Dec. 31, 2013. The use permit for the day care facility, however, will not expire.
“We are currently looking, and we intend to spend the next 3½ years to determine whether or not sufficient interest” exists to build an elementary school elsewhere, said Ellen Smith, the school’s attorney.
The complete list of conditions is available at www.sandyspringsga.org.