A team hired by the Fulton County School District to recommend renovations for North Springs High School struggled to move a community meeting beyond questions and confusion from residents who want instead a brand new school to be built.
The Jan. 23 community meeting about the Sandy Springs high school, which about 100 people attended, was meant to introduce North Springs families and other residents to officials from CDH Partners, the architecture firm, and Wonder By Design, a “visioning” firm, which are working on the project. The officials had also planned to lead a variety of group activities to discuss the culture and “heart” of North Springs, but addressing the frustration and confusion expressed by residents used the majority of time in the meeting, leaving no time for the exercises.
Many residents said they expected to come to a meeting about whether the school district will build a new North Springs, which the group Citizens for a New North Springs (CFANNS) is advocating for, or continue with the current plan of completing an $18 million renovation project. Instead, the meeting, which was held at Ison Springs Elementary School, focused entirely on the renovation plan and did not mention the conflict over building a new school until a resident asked about it.
Patrick Burke, the chief operating officer of Fulton Schools, said building a new school is very unlikely and not the plan they are working from at this point. Burke said the district will work to better communicate its plans and the topics of meetings in the future.
The consultants were planning to discuss the culture of the school to determine what kind of improvements need to be made instead of focusing on the actual building materials, saying they hope to create a “school from the inside out,” a phrase repeated several times throughout the meeting.
“It’s not in the bricks, it’s in how people interact with their physical environment,” Burke said.
Christian Long, a consultant from Wonder By Design, a design studio that focuses on schools, gave lengthy speech on the importance of learning about the culture of the school before designing the actual building.
“If we don’t ask the important questions we need to early on, we may wake up and find we haven’t build what we needed,” Long said.
He also planned to lead some breakout session activities, including an exercise that would have attendees write a letter to a graduating senior at North Springs. But Long was interrupted before he finished his speech by a resident who took issue with the officials not addressing the conflict over building a new school, which spurred any hour long conversation that used the remainder of the meeting.
“I’d like to address the elephant in the room which, so far, everyone has skillfully talked around,” the resident said.
A different resident pressed Burke to answer whether a new school is being considered or not.
“This is a very simple black and white question: is a new school on the table, or is it not on the table? There’s no way around it, it’s a yes or no question,” the resident said.
Burke finally said “no” after being pressed by the resident. The district is legally bound to complete items included in the project list for the E-SPLOST tax that is funding these improvements and others in the district, Burke said.
“I don’t have any other legal capability. It is impossible for me to go against the referendum, other than to say we can hold the project,” Burke said.
Other than putting the project on hold and waiting until a new referendum can be passed or other funding is found elsewhere, the district cannot build a new school, making the prospect very unlikely, Burke said after the meeting.
“We are bound by that. When we bring a recommendation to the board, that’s what we have to bring. That’s what the taxpayers of Fulton County have approved,” Burke said.
Long asked for the community’s patience to see what improvements the consultants ultimately recommend to the district.
“If you can afford us a little bit of time to do work and listen, ultimately we’re going to come up with a series of strategies that the community and the district are going to make decisions about,” Long said.
Several elected officials, including Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul; Councilmember John Paulson; Councilmember Jody Reichel, who is a member of CFANNS; and Board of Education members Gail Dean and Julia Bernath attended the meeting. Mayor Paul and the City Council have previously expressed support for the call for a new North Springs High.
None of the officials spoke at the meeting, other than Bernath, who reminded residents attending the meeting that “this is the beginning, not the end” of the planning process for the renovations.
Fulton Schools officials and the consultants will discuss how they will move forward with community engagement following the meeting, Burke said.
The consultants plan to present a conceptual design in March or April and will present their final recommendation to the Board of Education in June.