Money fights distracts Beltline, APS from their real problem

The two-year-old dispute between Atlanta Public Schools and Atlanta Beltline Inc. is like watching a couple of newlyweds still bickering about a faux pas on their first date: It bodes very badly for their ability to resolve bigger problems in a relationship meant to last decades.

Money is at the heart of this spat. The Beltline says sending APS $162 million by 2030, to make up for property-tax revenue the district is forgoing under a deal struck before the real-estate crash, would bring the project to a halt. Then again, the Beltline could have made this year’s scheduled payment of $6.75 million and still increased its 2016 budget by 13 percent, instead of the planned 27 percent.

The school system says it is willing to negotiate changes to the deal. But City Hall, which is also entangled in this mess, has shot down each of the district’s alternate recommendations, from taking over the civic center to getting a break on police or water expenses.

The Atlanta Beltline's Eastside Trail. (AJC file photo)

The Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail. (AJC file photo)

If it sounds like I’m siding with APS, consider this: The missed payment equals less than 1 percent of the district’s budget for 2015-16, not even $140 per student. That isn’t nothing, but nor is it the reason APS has more entries on the state’s list of failing schools than any other district in Georgia.

That last part ought to alarm Beltline supporters. Maps of the 22-mile loop show 25 traditional public schools within range of the project. Nine of them are on the state’s failing-schools list. A public school near the Beltline is six times more likely to be on that list than the average public school in Georgia.

The development and population growth fueled by the Beltline will go some ways toward helping that. But gentrification alone won’t solve this problem, and in any case the schools near the most significant Beltline-induced growth so far were already pretty good before the project began in earnest.

Failing public schools could stunt the Beltline’s development far more than the money in question. The young adults moving near its parks and trails may not have children now, but many of them will someday. They may well move if the schools don’t improve: if not to places like Buckhead and Decatur, then OTP. And once they go beyond I-285, they might just keep going.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District could help turn around some of these schools. APS or the state could approve more start-up charter schools, although there already are a lot near the Beltline compared to most areas: seven, one of which is also on the failing list.

It’ll take Deal’s OSD and more charters … and more changes in the traditional schools APS continues to run … and more measures to help students in the area pay for private school if that’s their best option. We need more “and,” less “or.”

And maybe the creative minds behind the Beltline could give some thought to what kinds of schools would suit the people the project attracts. With a brand-new transit corridor one day, it would be more feasible for kids to travel a bit farther to reach the schools that best fit them.

The Beltline is a multibillion-dollar chance for Atlanta to rethink itself in many ways. That ought to include education. Every day the planners and the educators spend squabbling over money is a day they’re blowing that chance.

Reader Comments 0

26 comments
AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Kyle. Please go check out the CCRPI scores of the current State Charter Commission Schools -  Many schools' scores are below the OSD takeover level or barely above it. There also seems to be no financial accountability as salary info, vendor payments and other data easily found for traditional public schools can't be accessed as far as I can tell. 



So if the current OSD model - the State Charter School Commission has many failing schools and little financial transparency and accountability, does that bode well for more schools to be taken over by the state? Could it be more about who gets to control the flow of million$ of state and local taxpayer funds and less about improving academic achievement?


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@AvgGeorgian "Many schools' scores are below the OSD takeover level or barely above it. "

Many of these schools have also been open only a couple of years, and took in students who had been struggling. If they don't improve, they'll be shut down -- but absent the OSD, no such accountability mechanism exists for traditional public schools.

And about this: "There also seems to be no financial accountability as salary info, vendor payments and other data easily found for traditional public schools can't be accessed as far as I can tell."

Here's what the SCSC website says: "In an effort to provide stakeholders with better access to accountability data, the SCSC is developing a comprehensive performance framework that will assess a school's overall academic, operational, and financial status on an annual basis.  The framework will likely be completed in the Fall of 2015, and school-level profiles will be posted on the SCSC website at that time."

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Kyle_Wingfield @AvgGeorgian

The schools DO NOT have to meet the state takeover threshold score. Read the charter for Provost. Charter schools must only meet charter goals which are often purposely very weak to allow "success". This way a charter school can be counted as successful without meeting state standards for traditional public schools. 


I don't think that your support of the State Charter School Commission schools and the OSD would hold up if you did the several hours of research required to understand the scheme. You are not a strictly educational writer and  i understand you do not have the time to spend that much time on all stories.


The better access to accountability statement is ONLY there because the financial data has been removed from previous data reporting sites and is not currently available. It is similar to the Private School Tax Credit system that is not financially transparent(you and I have to come (You, I, and many others have to pay extra taxes to replace the 58 million given for tax credits to the chosen few corporations and individuals who know the system well enough to navigate the one day window to get the tax credit) . I expect the upcoming data to be purposely vague and not allow the taxpayer to follow the money.


I would like everyone to consider that it is possible that politicians will put a great deal of time and effort into hiding important information if control over millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@AvgGeorgian "The schools DO NOT have to meet the state takeover threshold score."
There is a charter school on the failing list.

"I don't think that your support of the State Charter School Commission schools and the OSD would hold up if you did the several hours of research required to understand the scheme."

I spent two days in New Orleans looking into them, and several hours at legislative hearings about the proposal.

"(You, I, and many others have to pay extra taxes to replace the 58 million given for tax credits to the chosen few corporations and individuals who know the system well enough to navigate the one day window to get the tax credit)"

Wrong. In fact, the average scholarship is well below the average cost of educating a child in public schools. As long as half the kids would have been in public schools -- and, given their income levels, that's a pretty safe bet -- taxpayers are saving money.

Point
Point

@Kyle_Wingfield @AvgGeorgian  Kyle, I spent 6 years in New Orleans.  You saw and heard what they wanted you to see.


The argument I keep hearing for charter schools and why we need more is because they can do things traditional schools can't because they don't have to follow the state mandates.  How about giving traditional schools the opportunity to operate without those same mandates?


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Point "Kyle, I spent 6 years in New Orleans.  You saw and heard what they wanted you to see."

They were very frank about their shortcomings -- what hasn't worked, how much work they still have to do, how hard it has been to achieve what they have achieved. I expected something of of a rose-colored glasses tour, but that's not what we got.

"How about giving traditional schools the opportunity to operate without those same mandates?"

They tried that in Louisiana -- the same flexibility as RSD schools, in exchange for the same level of accountability (OSD and charter skeptics tend to forget about that last part). As of our visit in February, not a single district had taken the offer.

The OSD will be the first time a traditional public school in Georgia has faced the real, ultimate measure of accountability that charters do: closure. Charter schools have been closed here, and when they aren't performing well that is exactly what is supposed to happen. That's a feature, not a bug. 

Colango
Colango

How in the world it was agreed upon to take money from schools to build a bike trail is beyond me.  It's not like our schools are great and can afford it.  The Beltline TAD is an abomination.  The bike trail is great and it has become a big attraction for people to visit.  But that's a far cry from the "transportation solution" that the Beltline was sold to us as.  I think the project should be handed to the Path Foundation, the TAD ended and the school system to get all the tax money they are due.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Colango This may not change your mind, but Atlanta Beltline Inc. still plans to build light rail around the entire loop. It's just going to take a while.

Claver
Claver

Interesting dilemma for APS. I would assume that the more money the Beltline gets to keep, the faster the Beltline can be built.  The faster it is built, the sooner the real estate values will go up and the more money the Beltline will have to pay APS.  So, how much should APS squeeze the Beltline?

Thunderbolt1989
Thunderbolt1989

Without job creation, all this Beltline talk is a pipe dream. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I'm just an outsider, but I would expect if any entity signs an agreement, hoping for a big payout, which does not happen, you still have to honor the terms of the agreement.  You guessed wrong; too bad.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Wascatlady If they took it to court, I'm pretty sure APS would win for that reason. But that'd be a pretty Pyrrhic victory given the legal costs that would be involved.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Kyle_Wingfield @Wascatlady Couldn't they get, as part of the settlement, for the city of Atlanta to pay their legal bill? 


Atlanta might be a little quicker to settle up if they have to pay for the litigation.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

"the Beltline could have made this year’s scheduled payment of $6.75 million"


I guess it wasn't stated as explicitly in the article, or I missed something. 


Has the Beltline already missed payments to APS?  Shouldn't the City have solved this by having a portion of the taxes go toward schools instead of Beltline payments to APS directly? 


I don't think the Opportunity School District or Charter Schools is the solution to the money problem.  The City needs to do that part.  If the Beltline is not paying its bill to APS, is it paying its tax bill to Atlanta?  


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude "Has the Beltline already missed payments to APS?"

Yes, although the disagreement is so deep, the two sides can't even agree on how much the Beltline owes APS. I think everyone agrees the tab is at least $13M, with another $7.5M due Jan. 1.

"Shouldn't the City have solved this by having a portion of the taxes go toward schools instead of Beltline payments to APS directly?"

I don't think there's any legal authority or mechanism for the city to put money directly into schools.

"I don't think the Opportunity School District or Charter Schools is the solution to the money problem.  The City needs to do that part."

My point, though, is the money problem is trivial compared to the problems OSD and charters (among other solutions) would address.

"If the Beltline is not paying its bill to APS, is it paying its tax bill to Atlanta?"

One of APS's gripes is that the Beltline has not missed payments to Fulton County per a similar agreement (not sure the city is owed any money, since the Beltline is effectively a subsidiary of the city).

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude They were good questions. This was my Sunday print column, so I didn't have room for all that kind of background even if it is important.

JeffreyEav
JeffreyEav

Good column. APS just cut band and music but not at the charter schools. I wouldn't be surprised if they blame the beltline funding.

I've lived in the city 23 years. I've heard about the good schools and the bad. In 23 years I have to say I'm disappointed that more have not gotten better.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@JeffreyEav "APS just cut band and music but not at the charter schools. I wouldn't be surprised if they blame the beltline funding."

Charter schools get to set their own curricula, which means they get to set their own priorities. You have to wonder which traditional public schools in APS would set different priorities if they had that authority.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@Kyle_Wingfield @JeffreyEav Charter schools get to set their own curricula, which means they get to set their own priorities


Yup


And they have two of them. 


1. Prepare kids only for whatever standardized test in in vogue at the moment.

2. These scores will keep the doors open which mean PROFITS !!!


Band, music, art are not part of that equation. 


One result, he said, can be that individual charter schools can favor other programs over music, even eliminating such programs altogether.  That is exactly what has happened, critics say.

“Charters like Future Is Now have dismembered the whole process,” said Dwayne Paulin, the band director at John McDonogh Senior High School, which is run by Future Is Now, a charter school network. Mr. Paulin, who graduated from the school in 1979, was a member of the marching band.

“Those people are coming in from out of state and don’t have a clue what this culture is about or what our kids need to know,” he said. A marching band gives students “a sense of culture through the music, a key component for what New Orleans is about,” he added.


http://nola14.nytimes-institute.com/2014/05/29/charter-schools-marching-band-culture/

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@HeadleyLamar Funny, Georgia has dozens of charter schools, and yet all of your horror stories come from other states.

Not to mention that the start of this particular discussion was about charter schools keeping classes such as band and music that don't have to do with "whatever standardized test in (sic) in vogue at the moment" -- while the traditional public schools ditched them.

Don't expect me to publish other comments on this thread that are pure, irrelevant charter-school bashing like this one.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@HeadleyLamar Post something credible and relevant, and I'll approve it -- and then explain why you're dead-wrong, as usual.

MG10672
MG10672

@Kyle_Wingfield I agree with a lot of what you're saying but you look ridiculous when you unapprove people's comments but keep replying to them anyway.

straker
straker

This problem has mismanagement and incompetence written all over it.