APS files lawsuit to get back deeds for school properties

May 1, 2015

[Correction – Title corrected – the suit is not specifically against the City, although they are the only logical respondent that could lay a claim for the deeds.]

Creative Loafing reports,

The Atlanta Board of Education has filed a lawsuit to claim the deeds for four former APS schools that have remained vacant for years. According to the legal filing, the city’s education board wants a judge to help APS obtain the titles for George Adair School in Adair Park, Arkwright Elementary School in Venetian Hills, Milton Avenue Elementary in Chosewood Park, and Rosalie Wright Elementary School in Florida Heights. With no resolution in sight following an ongoing disagreement with the city, APS wants a judge to “clear the cloud” from the titles, giving system officials full control of the future of those properties. 

According to the March 26 filing, which seeks to “establish title against all the world,” the city should have transferred over all contracts, orders, leases, and bonds to the Atlanta Board of Education as part of the city’s charter adopted in 1973. That shift in responsibility also should have included the ownership of all properties the city had acquired to provide a public education to Atlanta children when it oversaw the school system. Since that time, the lawsuit says, the city’s education board has paid millions in costs associated with the upkeep of those four vacant schools.

The properties noted above have remained vacant for years and APS designated the properties as “surplus” and put them up for sale. A number of offers have been received, but without the deeds the sales cannot go through. APS requested the deeds in February – which in the past have been routinely provided by the City – but Mayor Reed refused to turn them over and indicated that the deeds were part of the Beltline negotiations.

Creative Loafing attached a copy of the lawsuit to its report and it can be seen here.

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Mayor could hold back another property deed in near future and up the ante to $837 thousand

February 5, 2015

According to records received from the Atlanta Public Schools, the district has a $425 thousand offer on the Milton Avenue property and plans to act on the offer to sell the surplus property in the upcoming March Board of Education meeting. However, this property sale may also be blocked by Mayor Reed who is refusing to turn over to APS the deed for the Adair property which is currently being held by the City of Atlanta (see more here and here).

Without the property deeds, the proposed sales cannot be completed. Reed has stated that he will not release the property deeds until the APS/Beltline dispute is resolved. With the inclusion of the Milton property and the Adair property, Reed’s blocking maneuver could result in a loss of $837 thousand of proceeds to APS from the property sales.

Mayor Reed has escalated the war of words on the APS/Beltline issue and his latest move to block APS from selling surplus and dilapidated properties is being met with strong resistance from the community. Community leaders have urged the Mayor to live up to the contractual commitments made by the City, but Reed consistently refers to any statements made to attempt to resolve the matter as “political stunts” – along with other insults to community leaders.

APS is about to enter into next years budget process and has identified an extensive list of priorities that the Board of Education wants to fund. Reed’s unwillingness to stand by the City’s contractual commitment on the Beltline and now his actions to block the sale of APS surplus properties will further constrain the Board as it works on next years budget.

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Mayor Reed doubles down – Carstarphen “doesn’t know what she’s talking about”

February 4, 2015

In a follow-up to an earlier story, the AJC reported that, in remarks after the State of the City address, Mayor Reed said,

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen “doesn’t know what she’s talking about” in a dispute over deeds the city holds to APS property.

 He went on to say,

Reed called her remarks “an unfortunate political stunt” and blamed it on her relatively short time in Atlanta…“I thought that one, she’s new, she’s inexperienced in this city and doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Reed said.

Atlanta has held the deeds since 1996 and is under no legal obligation to release them, he noted. “So I’m not the first mayor not to turn over the deeds. Clearly there is a reason they haven’t been turned over,” he said.

Reed said Wednesday that he is focused on resolving the Beltline conflict, noting the property deeds will be part of the solution.

Reed’s comments raise some interesting questions. What specifically did Carstarphen say that was incorrect? He did not say. Under what legal authority does he withhold the property deeds? Again, he does not say.

As he has done in the past on the Beltline issue, Reed goes to his preferred playbook – insults and irrelevancies.

Let him know what you think – his email and phone number are mayorreed@atlantaga.gov and (404) 330-6100.

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Mayor Reed blocks sale of Atlanta Public School surplus property

February 4, 2015

The Atlanta Public School Board of Education voted on Monday to sell three surplus properties, but Mayor Reed – who holds the deed to one of the properties – is refusing to turn the deed over to APS. Without the deed, the property sale cannot be completed.

The AJC reported,

…Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says Mayor Kasim Reed is blocking the district’s ability to sell surplus property. …But Reed’s administration has so far refused to turn over a deed to a long-shuttered school in Adair Park, Carstarphen told the school board on Monday night.

Pullman Historic Development is under contract to buy the former elementary school in Southwest Atlanta for $412,000, with plans to convert it into a live-work rental development. The property has sat vacant for decades, Carstarphen said.

“I can’t close a deal if I don’t have the deed,” Carstarphen said. “I am deadly serious about this job. I want the very best for our kids. I need every obstacle moved out of my way to have it done.”

The AJC contacted the Mayor’s office and received conflicting answers,

… the mayor’s spokeswoman, said that some of the vacant properties are the subject of negotiations between the city and APS in an ongoing dispute over millions the city owes in connection with the Beltline. Atlanta has the deeds because the school district was once under the city’s purview. Torres said the mayor is reviewing APS’s request, which was initially made in October.

That’s in conflict with an email Atlanta’s real estate director John Lavelle sent APS last week. According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lavelle wrote: “I regret to tell you I have been informed by the administration that it will not consider the matter of the proposed quit-claim deeds at this time.” [emphasis added]

It is clear that Reed is using the property deed as additional leverage in the ongoing dispute over the amounts owed by the Beltline to APS. However, his action hurts not only APS, but the local community as well. The AJC further reports that,

Selling the properties is important not just for APS’s bottom line, but for communities who have long lived with abandoned buildings that have become “eye sores “ and “dangerous sites,” [Carstarphen] said. I’m not able to do what I have to do because we are at the mercy of another entity,” Carstarphen said on Monday.

It is also interesting to note that the Board of Education spent a long time in Executive Session considering “pending litigation” this past Monday. The Board should come out forcefully with immediate action against Reed to recover all the property deeds that are rightfully owned by APS.

Mayor Reed’s actions in the Beltline dispute have now gone from irresponsible to a petty personal grievance. Every parent with a child at APS should flood his office with the outrage this action deserves. His email and phone number are mayorreed@atlantaga.gov and (404) 330-6100.

It is time to heap the scorn on him that he so richly deserves for his handling of both of these matters.

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Board of Education meeting today – 2 p.m.

February 2, 2015

The Board of Education will hold its regular monthly meeting today at 2:00 p.m. and the Agenda with supporting documents can be found on BoardDocs here.

The topics that will be discussed in the Work Session are,

  • An update on the Charter System Application and Cluster Planning by Angela Smith. The group considering the details of the implementation recently held its first meeting and Smith will present on update on the process (see presentation here).
  • There will be an update on the Title I Programs and follow up on the Title I Audits (see presentation here).
    Comment – As a general rule, the federal programs have been a mess for many years. Recently the department that administers the federal programs has been reassigned to the CFO’s office. There is a lot of room for improvement here and hopefully CFO Burbridge will be able to make some headway fast.
  • A school improvement plan, supported by a $3.7 million three year State grant (SIG), has been underway at Douglass High School. There will be an update on the status of the program (see presentation here).
  • CFO Burbridge will provide an update on the FY16 budget development (see here). Currently revenues are projected at $659.8 million – a $5.8 million increase over the FY15 revised estimate of $654 million (versus the original FY15 estimate of $657.6 million). Essentially for planning purposes, the revenues are flat with prior year budgeted amounts (see page 3 of presentation). Given the long list of priorities and the substantial cost to implement them, there will be a significant number of difficult choices to make in the upcoming budget discussions.

    Additionally, enrollment is projected to increase by 875 students over FY15. Based on the data provided (which only details out a net increase of 693 students), most of the increase in enrollment is at charter schools which accounts for an increase of 793 or approximately 11% over FY15.

  • CFO Burbridge will also provide the monthly financial update (see here). It appears that local tax revenues will be less than budgeted, but to a great extent the shortfall will be made up by increased QBE revenues. The expenditures are up – as was budgeted – but, it is unclear from the report if the expenditures are consistent with the increased budgeted amounts. However, General & Administration costs appear to be down over FY14 (subject to future timing differences).
    Comment– I will note that while the information presented is better than in the past, but until we have a comparison of the projected FY15 spending to the FY15 Budget (which has been revised), it is difficult to tell if spending is on track with the approved or amended budget.

The JDA Corporal Punishment is being merged into the JCDA Student Behavior Code (see combined policy here). This is the final reading and will receive final approval.

The Human Resource Personnel Report (see here) shows some interesting items, as follows:

  • 12 new teachers were hired and 23 teachers are leaving – 14 are resigning and 9 are retiring at the end of the year.
  • One new interim principal has been named – Shaundra Fears at CS King YWLA High School.
  •  One new interim assistant principal has been named – Jason Trimble at Connally Elementary.
  • Brian Mitchell, who previously announced his resignation as principal at Mary Lin Elementary, is on the list making it official.
  • Hope-Hill Elementary assistant principal Leah Goodwin has resigned effective immediately.
  • It is also interesting to note that two assistant legal counsels have resigned. This may be the start of a reduction in the Legal Department which was taken over by Glenn Brock last year at which time he promised a $1 million decrease in the cost of this operation.

There are four positions being reclassified, but it is unclear if the reclassifications will result in an increase in compensation for the functions. Comment – Remember that reclassifications and reorganizations have been the preferred method in the past for granting raises through bureaucratic means. My sense is that the new Administration will not do this, but it bears watching.

A number of contracts will also be considered and the contracts of note are as follows:

  • Contracts to Provide Mechanical Engineering Services – $600k – this appears to be route maintenance related, but you should be aware that completely fixing the HVAC systems across the district has an estimated cost of $77 million. It is likely the systems will be fixed over a two-year period and be funded from the SPLOST Fund. Additionally, as a result of the immediate need to fix the systems, the building projects that have not already started are likely to get pushed back.
  • Contract to Provide a Classification and Compensation Study – $135k – this study is being undertaken to assess the “pay parity” issue across the district. As a result of the pay freeze that was imposed in 2009, current employees did not receive any step raises. However, a new employee coming on board would be compensated at their experience level. This resulted in employees with similar experience being paid different amounts. The current estimate is that the “pay parity” issue will cost $12-15 million to correct the differential.
    Comment – I will note that paying $135k for this study is ridiculous – if this assessment could not be done internally with a couple of people from HR and Finance – it is time to reassess the talent pool in both groups.
  • Upgrade the Enterprise Resource Planning System (Lawson) – $3.0 million – this upgrade is absolutely warranted and will bring all of the system into the most recent software release (some of the components are very old).
    Comment – By making this expenditure, any excuses about “bad systems” hampering progress go away. From the time the system is upgraded, any system or data integrity issues will fall squarely on the shoulders of the current administration.
  • Contracts for Construction at Brandon Primary Center ($8.0 million), Long Middle School ($15.9 million) and Young Middle School ($9.3 million) –
    Comment – As I have noted in the past, Operations presents a Construction Status Update on a monthly basis. However, this Report is never timely updated to reflect the changes in cost of projects. As an example, the Long Middle School project was initially budgeted at $10 million (likely a placeholder at the start of planning). However, the Board is being asked to approve a contract for $15.9 million for the project (and the Construction Status Update does not reflect the change). Operations needs to report on a far more timely basis the actual estimated costs of the projects being considered – its failure to do so on the NAHS project caused a lot of controversy that could have been avoided with timely and accurate reporting.
  • Three “surplus” properties are being recommended for sale – the Butler Y Property ($350k), the Doane Street Property ($12k) and the Adair Facility ($412k).

It is likely an Executive Session will be held on matters of litigation – if decisions are reached, they will be reported out to the public.

See you all there at 2 p.m.

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Superintendent Carstarphen speaks to class size waiver issue – also announces multi-year plan to cut central administration cost

December 17, 2014

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen published a lengthy note at her blog – @Atlsuper – updating the community on the recent controversy regarding the approval of class size waiver of +5 for grades K-8 and +3 for high school.

In addition, Carstaphen indicated that the administration had started an analysis of central administration expenditures and was working on a multi-year “central administration budget reduction strategy” to free up additional resources.

For more background on the class size issues, see links to prior posts at the bottom of this page.

In her post, Carstarphen provides an overview of why the issue was brought before the Board and why the passage of the waiver was important to the to the upcoming budget process. In her statement she said,

My recommendation to continue these waivers was so that our schools, as well as the district, would have maximum flexibility going into the budgeting process. For example, this would give the Board time to thoughtfully consider future Board-approved options and plans, including, but not limited to, findings in our recent equity audit, Board-approved budget parameters, and the upcoming flexibility and operating models application.

In effect, the approved waivers now become a Board approved budget parameter for FY16 and, unless the Board provides further guidance on the matter, the initial budget will likely be prepared using the maximum class size to determine school level resource allocations – just as it was this past year.

Carstarphen also focuses on the need for flexibility in preparing the upcoming budget so that any discretionary dollars can be allocated to programs or priorities established by the administration and the Board.

When I went to the Board… with the recommendation for continuing the class-size waivers that have been in place since 2011, I did so with the understanding that we all knew that this was simply granting us the same flexibility we currently have as we go into the budgeting process to make recommendations on where these discretionary dollars should be used. 

Having a class size waiver grants us this flexibility to consider all options, but discontinuing this waiver would effectively mean that a significant percentage, if not all, of our discretionary dollars would be required to go towards smaller class sizes without the opportunity to weigh other needs.

She also addressed the issue that different cluster have different needs and the flexibility granted by the waiver would allow each cluster to allocate resource in a manner that most suited the specific requirements of the students.

To the extent that we are able to push new (because we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence) and redirected resources into the schools with this increased flexibility, which I am committed to doing, I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

What I have learned about Atlanta is that a solution for one school is not always the right solution for another school, and imposing the same solutions across the board with one big brush stroke only further exacerbates the inequities that exist within our school communities, which are well-documented in the extensive equity audit.

I would note that while there are many issues documented in the equity audit, the allocation of school level resources is not one of them, as the equity audit failed to address how financial resources are allocated in the district (except for playgrounds, science labs and some limited information on PTA resources). In fact, until this past October when APS issued the comprehensive FY15 Budget Book (with no public notice that it had done so), the district has never previously presented school level budgets. Additionally, the information presented was insufficient to determine if the resource allocations were equitable based on student needs.

However, in the regular Board meeting on December 1st, the administration did present information on the class size issue that pointed to some very significant differences in class sizes in the district (see presentation here). As an example, the school with the smallest average class size has 17.3 students per class in grades 1-3. At the other end of the spectrum, the school with the highest average class size has 23.6 or an average of 6.3 more students in a classroom. And in grades 4-5, the differential is an average of 8.7 more students. That is a pretty big difference – and may be why Carstarphen reached the following conclusion,

I suspect that some clusters may decide to invest in smaller class sizes.  But in other clusters where class size is not the pressing concern, they will likely prioritize other needs. 

While this sounds good, I am still unclear where the additional dollars will come from to give the schools that want to prioritize class sizes the ability to do so. The Board has approved the revenue parameter for FY16 at $658 million which is at the same level as FY15 (see here). So there is no new incremental revenues (unless the Board approves an increase in taxes).  As such, the budget allocation for schools will likely be at similar levels as in FY15.

Carstarphen did announce a potential source for increasing discretionary funds that might be allocated to the schools. In her blog post, she stated,

… In addition, we began the analysis of our central administration expenses.  We have laid the groundwork for a multi-year central administration budget reduction strategy, all with the goal of identifying as many discretionary dollars for our schools as possible. 

But at the same time she indicated that,

…we will not be able to just cut our way to excellence…

So while this effort to cut central administration costs is important – and long past due – I question whether the effort in the near term will substantially increase the resources available to a school in sufficient amounts to give principals the ability to reduce class sizes. I hope I am proven wrong on this, but the numbers and other approved budget parameters do not leave much room for a substantial amount of additional resources being redirected to the schools to address class sizes, even if that is a priority for specific schools.

There is also still one nagging question that Carstarphen did not address.

Why was this waiver passed in advance of a full and complete assessment within the context of a thorough FY16 budget discussion?

She notes that “flexibility” is needed to allocate discretionary resources in a manner that most benefits the clusters and student needs. Not passing the waiver until after the FY16 budget is tentatively set does not hamper the administration ability to propose a budget that is consistent with the administration’s priorities (it also does not constrain the administration ability to begin the hiring process for new teachers). It also does not constrain the Board from making or changing priorities for resource allocations consistent with its overall policy objectives.

However, passing the waiver now does constrain the Board from using the class size waiver policy approval as leverage to push for a re-allocation of resources from administrative functions to in-school functions.

We will see how this develops.

The following links are to  prior posts on the class size waiver topic:

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Board of Education meeting today – three critical issues on the agenda

December 1, 2014

The Board of Education will hold its regular monthly meeting today at 2:00 p.m. and the Agenda with supporting documents can be found on BoardDocs here. There are three items that are critical to next years budget and are interrelated, but the interrelationship is not presented in the Agenda. The key items are as follows:

  1. Estimated revenue for FY16 – $657.6 million (with no use of General Fund reserves)
  2. Requested waiver from the 65% in school spending test (FY14 was at a shockingly low 56.4%)
  3. Renewal of the maximum class size waiver – +5 across the system except +3 at the high school level

Let’s take a look at each of the items above and see how they are interrelated with each other.

First, the revenue projection for FY16 is projected at $658 million (see presentation here). This estimate is $28.6 million higher than the current revenue estimate for FY15, but total available resources remain approximately the same when taking into account the use of the $25 million General Fund reserve in FY15. In total, over the last two years, revenues have increased by nearly $60 million or 10% (see 10 year revenue history here – p. 110 of PDF, or p. 80 of Report). In addition, the estimate exceeds the record level of revenue received in 2009. Clearly, the impact on revenues from the recession is over and the revenues have shown very solid increases for two years in a row. In addition, the new administration needs to be commended on what appears to be a plan to balance the budget without the use of General Fund reserves. This is a first in many years!

Second, even with strong revenue growth over the last two years, the district has made absolutely no movement in directing more resources to the classroom. The administration is proposing that the Board approve a waiver for the 65% test imposed by legislation (see presentation here). Based on the required formula in the statute, for the last two years APS has only allocated 56.4% of its expenditures to the classroom. To actually be in compliance, APS would have to shift an additional $60 million to classroom activities. While this may not be possible under current conditions, the $60 million shortfall is very close to the revenue gains over the last two years. Where did the money go? It is clear that the incremental fundng did not go into the classroom where it would do the most good in achieving the newly adopted mission of APS.

Third, the administration is requesting a renewal of the class size maximum waiver – again to a +5 for grades K-9 and +3 for high schools (see presentation here). This item was very controversial two years ago, but received scant attention during the last budget cycle. The administration consistently indicates that the system cannot afford to reduce class sizes and again presents the information in a manner that does not show an incremental approach to reducing class sizes. For example, the table in the presentation shows how much it would cost to reduce the class sizes for the system as a whole, but fails to show the cost of reducing class sizes by school levels (i.e. Kindergarten, grades 1-3, grades 4-5, grades 6-8 and high school).

In addition, the presentation shows the lowest and highest average class size for each grade level (p. 8 of presentation). If this chart is accurate, the differences in average class size between schools is very significant. As an example, for grades 1-3, the lowest school average class size 17.3 and the largest is 23.6 – or a difference of 6.3 students. The variance for grades 4-5 is even larger at 8.7 students. Parents should be rightfully asking – Why such a huge variance? And if the largest average class size in grade 1-3 is 2.4 students below the requested waiver of up to 26, why is the waiver above +3 even needed? The same question could be asked about every other level as well.

So let’s bring this all back together. Revenues for the last two years are at record or near record levels, but the administration has not allocated the increased resources to in-classroom activities as demonstrated by the failure to make any improvement in the 65% test or by reducing class sizes in any meaningful way.

As I have noted here many times, budgeting is all about priorities and – just as importantly – how the monies are actually spent is a clear indication of the priorities that APS has focused on. And the tale told by the items above present a clear and unambiguous picture of APS’ priorities – and it is not about improving the funding of student learning environments.

I think todays meeting is a true test of the new Board of Education that took office this past January. In accordance with their campaign promises, they should hold the administration to the balanced budget parameter (and no use of General Fund reserves). But there is so much more that was promised on the campaign trail that will not be accomplished if the waivers noted above are accepted. And at the top of the list was a transfer of funding from administrative functions to spending in the classroom. If the two waivers are approved as presented, that means that it is likely that the new Board will not have delivered on this promise two and a half years into its tenure (from Jan 1, 2014 to Jun 30, 2016).

If that happens, I say shame on them.

Both waivers should be declined until such time as the administration presents a credible three year plan to address the in-school funding issues and to eliminate the need for any waivers.

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