Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

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.

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.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.