The Atlanta Board of Education has postponed a vote on the charter application for a proposed Buckhead charter school, Atlanta Classical Academy.

The vote was originally scheduled for today, July 1.

Prior to the deferral, Superintendent Erroll Davis had recommended rejecting the charter school’s petition, for several reasons. He specifically singled out a lack of facilities as an important consideration.

ACA sent a message to supporters informing them the vote had been delayed. The action item no longer appears on the meeting agenda on the board’s website.

ACA Chairman Matthew Kirby said he would make a statement during the July 1 meeting thanking the BOE for the additional time.

“Let’s focus on the positives…thank the administration for their willingness to work with us to enhance our plan, and perhaps share how wonderful it would be to offer an option like ACA to Atlanta families,” Kirby wrote to ACA supporters. “In terms of our dialogue with APS, it feels good that lines of communication are open. We are grateful for this opportunity. We have said from the beginning that we intend to have a positive relationship…to be a good partner with APS. I believe we are off to a good start.

“We will be hard at work in July to get to a final approval, and we will need you! We will keep you informed.”

In his earlier recommendation to the board that it should deny the application, Davis said that ACA organizers recommended sharing space with Sutton Middle School.

In an earlier letter to supporters, ACA Chairman Matthew Kirby disputed this claim.

“Our petition made no mention of Sutton,” Kirby wrote. “But it is true that for months, we have been asking APS board members and administrators to have a real conversation with us about excess capacity in existing buildings beginning in 2014.”

Kirby’s entire letter is reprinted beneath this article.

The APS legislative meeting begins at 7 p.m. Meetings are held at 130 Trinity Avenue SW, Atlanta, GA 30303.

Here is Kirby’s letter to ACA supporters, sent prior to the board removing the item from its agenda.

Dear Friends of ACA:

Undoubtedly you have read or heard about the Superintendent’s recommendation to deny our petition application.

I am going to address the Superintendent’s reference to Sutton below, but please know this:

With a positive attitude, we are working this weekend to elevate the merits of ACA with Mr. Davis and APS board members. We think there are reasons to be hopeful, so let’s all stay positive!

The administration’s objection to our petition is clearly centered (at least for now) on our facility plans. Truly, this is not unexpected, and apart from a recommendation for an APPROVAL from Mr. Davis, it is probably a best case scenario. Let me tell you why.

WHAT APS IS NOT SAYING

We should all feel energized to know that the APS administration and board has expressed no concerns or objections related to

  • the efficacy of classical education,
  • the strength of our leadership team,
  • our capacity to manage public and private funds,
  • the strength of our HR/staffing plan,
  • the reasonableness of our budget,
  • the potential in our community and academic partners to deliver excellence for our kids,
  • our ability to attract teachers suitable to teach in the classical environment,
  • our commitment to ensuring that we enroll a diverse student body, or
  • our professionalism in working together with APS in the coming years.

APS has never questioned that we have adequate community support for ACA.

We believe the board and Mr. Davis are clear that ACA would be a very different kind of school not otherwise offered by APS (or anywhere else in the Metro Atlanta area).

This is all great news.

To APS, we are saying, “Yes, there is risk…there is always risk. And the facility we choose could eliminate almost all of ACA’s start-up risk. So let’s work together for a mutually beneficial solution. Charter school students are public school students. They are not something else. If you support equity in choice and you otherwise support our plan, then please work with us on the facilities challenge.

NEW NEWS

We had not officially shared this with everyone: APS asked us to reduce our “launch enrollment” plan from K-10 to K-8. We know that this affects many of you who had hoped to have a second public option for your rising 8th and 9th graders, and we are sincerely disappointed for and with you. Though we hated to do it, we felt it was important to concede on this point to show our willingness to be a strong partner. It hurts a number of families who have supported us, but it does not cause insurmountable damage to our academic or financial model. We still plan to grow to K-12 as our students advance.

SCHOOL LEADER

Mr. Davis mentions this in his recommendation, but we don’t think he considers this a key issue. We provided APS a comprehensive plan that outlines how, where, and when we will hire our school leader. In short, we have the luxury of being able to efficiently conduct a national search because of the strength of our partners and board members. Dr. Friedman and I met several candidates last week that we know you would support, and we already have face-to-face meetings scheduled with 16 candidates in the month of July. We don’t think APS really expects us (or a high-talent candidate) to commit before we are approved. We have a great plan, and we are completely confident that we’ll get a candidate in place soon. If Mr. Davis is really concerned on this point, an approval would help us make this hire quicker!

THE WHERE? QUESTION

Before I describe our rationale that you have now read about on BoardDocs, let me be clear about Sutton.

Our petition made no mention of Sutton.

But it is true that for months, we have been asking APS board members and administrators to have a real conversation with us about excess capacity in existing buildings beginning in 2014.

Why would we do this?

First, we think charter school students are public school students and not something different.

Second, we see 1,700 – 2,700 empty seats in our cluster during the first term of our charter.[1] We do not and have never had our eyes locked on Sutton, but based on all that we know, Sutton would have approximately 700 empty seats in 2014…in empty, dark (modular) rooms with the lights and air turned off. We would need only 486 and 540 seats in our first two years, and no more than 700 at our max enrollment.

Third, we want to minimize risk to our children and to APS, and we want to be good stewards of public resourcesThe impact of the facilities question is clear: either we invest heavily to create a new school in a new location and pay upwards of $250,000 – $450,000 each year in rent to a private landlord,…or, we occupy an existing APS space, help APS defray operating expenses, and apply $250,000 – $450,000 to children via teachers and enhancements to a public facility that we already own….a facility that would otherwise be empty.

We are saying simply, “Let’s use existing, available space to house ACA on a short-term basis. We are happy to use the “chalets” at Sutton (modular buildings). If you approve of our academic plan, and you want to provide equity in school choice, then let’s work together to find a solution.”

We have already heard administrators and board members say, “What if we need that space for our students?” Two responses: A) This shows that they have not yet come to see charter school students as public school students, and B) This implies that they would, in the next several years, consider a major redistricting or bussing plan to fill existing north cluster buildings. We don’t think these ideas would be well-received by anyone in any cluster.

So the questions are these: where is the capacity, where could it be, and how do we build consensus around providing school choice and using our resources wisely. How could this solution benefit our community and APS as a whole?

The wise way to mitigate risk, to set ACA up for success, and to keep dollars in the classroom is to place ACA in an existing facility on a temporary basis only, and then, to the extent that APS needs the space for traditional schools, use the strength of our successful track record to find and finance a new, stand-alone facility.

OTHER FACILITIES OPTIONS

We have also been working tirelessly to create a facility plan around privately owned real estate. Though we have significant financial and time restraints, we identified two workable solutions.

APS is concerned with one proposed site (though the location, visibility, access, and proximity to other schools is nearly ideal) because we propose modular buildings on a temporary basis. According to the Superintendent (via his staff), modular buildings are below the APS standard. Honestly, this resistance feels like an affront for something else. APS is and has been a major user of modular buildings. In the context of a growing, dynamic district with a responsible facilities plan, we think modular classrooms are perfectly acceptable.

The other site we proposed is completely adequate except that it is generally close to our community’s least-well attended elementary school.  We are sensitive to this issue and will remain so as we engage in further discussion and exploration on this site.

WHAT NOW?

We are asking the Board for an approval subject a determination of the facility. This is de facto how almost every charter school is approved because charter boards would never sign a binding lease before an approval. Furthermore, APS has approved at least two charter schools before a location had been formally identified, and it has happened frequently that approved charter schools will not know where they are going until shortly before the school year. To be approved would help ACA substantially in negotiations with private landlords on the sites we have mentioned and several others we have not mentioned.

Further, we are asking the Board and the Superintendent to pledge best efforts to working with ACA and the entire community to find a way to use all or a portion of an existing facility on ashort-term basis so as to give ACA the greatest opportunity for success, to wisely use taxpayer resources, and to keep as much money as possible in the classroom.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Call Mr. Davis and Board Members this weekend and Monday. Remind them that charter school students are public school students. Ask them to approve ACA so that we can more effectively get about the business of hiring a school leader and finalizing facility plans. Implore them to work with us in a real way to consider the low-risk facility solution that makes wise use of existing publicly owned school buildings. For those of you who are passionate about the classical model, remind them how positive and remarkable it would be for APS to deliver such an option to Atlanta families. Resources that may be helpful are here.

NEW TO ACA?

If you are reading about ACA for the first time, please get to know us better at AtlantaClassical.org. To learn more about charter schools, visit here. For more information about our Board and Advisory Counsel, visit here.

Thank you for your support and encouragement.

Matthew Kirby and the ACA Board of Directors