By Dyana Bagby and John Ruch

The new Brookhaven Innovation Academy wants to build its first school partly in Skyland Park, officials said in a draft proposal made at the Nov. 17 Brookhaven City Council meeting.

The $8 million Skyland Drive proposal got a skeptical reception. It was not a formal request and the council did not take a vote. BIA is looking at other possible locations, including Brookhaven Baptist Church.

Councilwoman Linley Jones said the idea of destroying parkland to build a school is “extremely unpalatable.”

“I fully support BIA. But I support the acquisition of additional parkland, not the destruction or repurposing of parkland that belongs to all of Brookhaven,” Jones said.

Councilman Bates Mattison is also BIA’s new executive director and recused himself from the discussion. Earlier this week, Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams ordered a legal review of the ethics of Mattison holding the BIA job and the council seat at the same time. Councilman Joe Gebbia is BIA board member and did not recuse himself, but he also did not ask questions about the plan.

Mattison, in an interview a day before the meeting, said BIA is struggling to find a school location in time for its scheduled August 2016 opening. Requesting state approval to delay the opening a “worst-case scenario” option, he said, adding that he is not directly involved in the board-led search for a location.

“We do have about five potential [location] options that are strong options,” Mattison said. “Some are in Brookhaven. Some are not…I’m running out of options in Brookhaven.”

Mattison confirmed that Brookhaven Baptist Church’s hall on North Druid Hills Road is another option in negotiation. The church did not respond to a request for comment.

The Skyland proposal involves part of Skyland Park as well as some land along a former school, now used for state offices, that the city is in the process of buying. BIA formerly expressed general interest in using the Skyland building itself, but the current proposal involves constructing two buildings next to it.

“We are looking at you giving us a ground lease behind the Skyland building,” said Jennifer Self Langley, the board chair of BIA.

The $8 million proposal would build an administrative building and a school for grades K-8. A possible future development phase would construct a grade 9-12 building as well as other facilities such as a play field, swimming pool, children’s playground, tennis courts and even a dog park.

The proposed $8 million project would only pay for the first phase, explained former state Rep. Ed Lindsey, who also sits on the BIA board.

The proposed location of the BIA structures straddle city property and Brookhaven Development Authority land, which threw up some red flags for City Attorney Chris Balch.

“I hate to play the downer lawyer,” Balch said. “This is a Development Authority project … not a city project. This isn’t city property to give away or lease.”

Should the city decide to lease their portion of the land, the council would have to put out a request for proposals and a public bid, Balch added.

“We couldn’t just give this preferred nation status,” Balch added. “My first impressions are we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”

Lindsey said the BIA would also meet with the Development Authority. But, he stressed, time is short and plans between BIA and the city, if the city approves, must be made by February to ensure the school opens in August as planned.

“We probably need to have everything tied down and ready to start building in February,” he said. “We’re asking for the city to negotiate with us or talk with us. We are talking to other entities, but our first preference is to say in Brookhaven.”

Lindsey said the school would be a benefit to all of Brookhaven as well, by offering parents an option to send their children and by also helping property values.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.