Six parents withdrew their children from Brookhaven’s new charter school after learning the school would be located in Norcross, Brookhaven Innovation Academy’s executive director says.
“The board extensively focused on trying to find a location in Brookhaven,” said BIA Executive Director Bates Mattison, who also holds a seat on Brookhaven City Council.
“The reality is BIA spent months looking for a location in the city and for one reason or another, the board couldn’t find anything. It was open in Norcross, or delay opening the school a year.”
The state-approved charter school, scheduled to open this year, has a one-year lease with the Norcross location and could stay up to three years there as BIA continues to look for a long-term location, Mattison said.
After learning BIA was going to be located in Norcross, a local mother immediately withdrew her child from the new state charter school.
One parent, who agreed to be quoted only if not named, said, “it broke our hearts” to withdraw her child from the school.
“When hearing that the school we all had so much invested in was to be located in Norcross…it broke our hearts,” she said of her family’s reaction. “From day one, the school has been aimed at the Brookhaven community and heavily backed by the Brookhaven city residents with hopes our children would be able to attend such an amazing school.”
BIA’s board of directors looked at between 50 to 60 prospective sites in Brookhaven, the city of Atlanta, Chamblee, Doraville, Peachtree Corners, unincorporated DeKalb and Norcross, Mattison said.
Mattison appeared at one point to lay blame for the school’s having to locate in Gwinnett County on city officials, after the city backed out of purchasing the state-owned Skyland Center building on Skyland Drive.
In an April 6 email to a parent, Mattison stated, “If you live in the city of Brookhaven, I would encourage you to express your interest to see BIA in the city to your elected officials.”
He then went on to state that if BIA had known the city was not going to purchase the Skyland Center building, the school could have bought it directly from the state. Skyland, formerly a school, currently houses metro Atlanta’s Vital Records office and other state offices.
“Two years ago, I found the building, Skyland Elementary, as a very good potential location for BIA. The city chose not to purchase the building. If we had known that the city was not going to buy the building, BIA could have purchased the property directly from the state of Georgia,” Mattison stated in the email.
The city did initially approve on Dec. 15 issuing up $3.3 million in revenue bonds to purchase the Skyland Center building, but reversed its decision on Dec. 23 after concerns were raised about Councilmember Joe Gebbia serving on the school’s board of directors and on the council. Gebbia resigned from BIA’s board.
An independent legal review in December found no ethical conflicts with Mattison serving on the council and as executive director of BIA.
“I believe the city has a responsibility to its residents to help provide good school options – which is something BIA can offer. Leadership of BIA met with the city of Brookhaven on multiple occasions to attempt to find a solution. Unfortunately, the city of Brookhaven showed no interest in assisting BIA. I hope that if enough Brookhaven citizens express interest in having this school here, the city will change their position,” Mattison stated in the email to the parent.
Mayor John Ernst said the city is willing to do anything it can legally to help the school, but said the two are separate entities.
“And my understanding is that BIA said Skyland was not viable because the state couldn’t move out on time,” he said. BIA officials told the council in December they needed to have possession of the building and property by February to be able to open in August; the state’s offices wouldn’t be out before July, so BIA was forced to look elsewhere.
BIA is not a government agency, according to Ernst, so would not be able to buy the state-owned building without bidding on it, should the state decide to sell – the opposite of what Mattison told the parent. Mattison said he misspoke in his email. “That was an error,” he said.
Mattison also said he is not trying to blame the city for anything.
“BIA never intended to blame the city,” Mattison said. “I do think if citizens are interested in having BIA located in Brookhaven, they should contact their local government. BIA has no control over land or rezoning. We made sure there is a clear separation between city and BIA. The school is not funded in any way by the city.”
At the same time Mattison is saying the city should help more in finding a site in Brookhaven for BIA, he also said in a recent interview, “I don’t know what the city could do – it’s not like the city has a bunch of property.”
Finding a long-term location
BIA receives $7,200 per pupil annually from the state as part of being a public state charter school, Mattison said. The school is beginning with 420 students in K-6 with plans in the near future to expand to 540 students for K-8.
At $7,200 per pupil a year for 540 students, the total comes to approximately $3.9 million a year. BIA is budgeted to use 15 percent of that $3.9 million – or approximately $600,000 – for rent or to purchase a facility, Mattison explained.
The city was instrumental in getting the petition approved for the BIA state charter, paying for two separate studies at a total cost of about $63,000 to determine the feasibility of creating an independent city school district or a state charter school.
The city did invest seed money for the petition that led to the creation of the school. But since that time there has been no involvement, Mattison said. “BIA would be extremely pleased to work with the city but these are two separate organizations,” he said. “There is great potential for partnerships, but [we] don’t know what that is right now.”