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Approving Drew Charter's High School Plans Would Save Taxpayers $3.6 Million Per Year

One financial expert's rationale for why a Drew Senior Academy makes sense for children, parents, APS and ultimately, taxpayers.

Editor's note: Parents and supporters of will have to wait until if the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education will approve the East Lake school's request to amend its charter to include a high school. Blogger Robert F. Stockwell, a finance and accounting expert by trade whose past corporate posts include McDonald's Corp., PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC and LastMinuteTravel.com, wrote a piece on the Drew Charter situation for his blog, Financial-Deconstruction.com.

by Robert F. Stockwell

Recently Drew Charter School requested that they be allowed to create a high school with a projected enrollment of up to 650 students. Further, they – and not the taxpayers – would fund the $55 million new building cost. The Drew community has come in mass to make presentations to the Board of Education and their passion and interest in their school was impressive. As importantly, their passion for their students has been overwhelmingly demonstrated with superior academic results – something that no one denies or in any way contradicted. The data is clear and the achievements exceptional – but Superintendent Davis has indicated his opposition for capacity and financial reasons. He was recently quoted in the AJC as follows:

“Davis said Atlanta isn’t opposed to adding more charters, but says his system has too many empty seats to support a new high school. The existing Jackson High, about three miles from the proposed Drew site, expects about 876 students next year although it has space for 1,450. All told, APS has 6,200 empty seats at the high school level.”

“Drew’s proposed high school won’t offer anything students can’t get at a traditional high school, Davis added.”

“If I were to come before the board and say ‘I’d like to build another high school,’ I’d be laughed out of the building because one of the things we made clear in the redistricting is that we have too many high schools,” he said. “The only reason I would agree to an additional high school is if it were strategically meeting a need we weren’t. And I have yet to see that.”

I want to examine each part of Dr. Davis’ comments above, but first I think it is important to review the constituencies, in order of importance, that Dr. Davis serves.

  1. Students – clearly this is the highest priority and the student’s educational outcomes are paramount. Additionally, the student body must be considered as a whole and as individuals – a balancing act that is often difficult to achieve.
  2. Parents – the parents of the students have the highest vested interest in the educational outcomes their children receive.
  3. Teachers – these individuals are critical to the success of the students – having a highly capable and motivated team of teachers is absolutely essential.
  4. Principals and other key administrators that are in direct contact with teachers. They must be able to establish the performance standards for teachers and evaluate teacher’s performance as they deliver a quality education to the students.
  5. Operational functions – these individuals are critical to creating a clean and safe environment for in which students learn.
  6. Administrators (both School & General) – these individuals are responsible for establishing the required infrastructure needed to effectively serve the needs of the instruction and operational functions and to do so as cost efficiently as possible.
  7. Taxpayers – the mandate for delivering an excellent and high quality education to our students must be balanced with doing so as cost effectively as possible.

My sense is that often the consideration of a course of action to take and the impact on the various constituencies are either not fully examined or the priorities get out of alignment. So let’s begin to unpack the statements made by Dr. Davis and examine them in terms of the constituencies he serves.

  1. “All told, APS has 6,200 empty seats at the high school level.” – This is an administrative problem that must be solved by administrators. The recent redistricting issue was a step forward on this. However, this statement does not speak to the needs of the students, parents, teachers and Principals. Clearly the overcapacity is a concern as it indicates prior administrations have made bad decisions and likely cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in excess building costs. However, past costs and past bad decisions are not relevant to making current decisions.
  2. “The existing Jackson High, about three miles from the proposed Drew site, expects about 876 students next year although it has space for 1,450.” – This statement is clearly relevant as the Drew Charter High School would likely have an impact on enrollment at Jackson. The Drew spokespersons made the case that the existing Drew schools have not had a major impact on the other Elementary and Middle Schools in the Jackson district. I have not seen their impact statistics refuted. But the possibility exists that the new Charter High School will affect the enrollment at Jackson. However, the Administration has not offered statistics regarding the impact on enrollment at Jackson. Even if they did, I would argue that the impact to the Jackson enrollment is not relevant to the current decision. Why? Let’s start at the top of the constituency list. The Drew community has proven that it can excel in delivering a superb education to the students under their care. In other words, the top priority of the school system is being met. So while the administrators may have to deal with additional redistricting issues in the future due to declining enrollment at Jackson, the impact on Jackson resulting from the expansion of Drew is not relevant to the current decision.
  3. “Drew’s proposed high school won’t offer anything students can’t get at a traditional high school, Davis added.” – Is this really true? Are the educational outcomes for students the same at Jackson and at Drew? A quick look at the Jackson report card places this contention into question – and likely makes the statement irrelevant to the issue at hand.
  4. “If I were to come before the board and say ‘I’d like to build another high school,’ I’d be laughed out of the building because one of the things we made clear in the redistricting is that we have too many high schools,” – This statement is a fair argument – except Dr. Davis is not asking to build a new high school with taxpayer dollars in a system with excess capacity. To the contrary, the Drew community is asking to build a new high school with their dollars and their commitment to making it an excellent program. Dr. Davis’ concern for the taxpayers, in this case, is not relevant to the decision as the taxpayers are not funding the new high school. I have addressed the over capacity issue above, and again, this is a problem for the administrators to deal with and it should not be a factor in making the Drew decision.

So let’s summarize the relevant factors at hand and their impact on each of the constituencies served by APS:

  1. Students – a better education with superb outcomes.
  2. Parents – a committed and impassioned group of parents supporting the school of their choice.
  3. Teachers – no impact.
  4. Principals and other key administrators that are in direct contact with teachers – no impact.
  5. Operational functions – transferred from APS to Drew with the likely result that local control will result in better service and a higher quality environment.
  6. Administrators (both School & General) – the impact here is significant – a lower APS school enrollment means that fewer administrator at APS are needed. Further it raises the specter of additional redistricting issues in the future and the admission that a number of prior decisions were wrong. However, isn’t that what we are paying the administrative experts for? They should welcome improved educational outcomes for certain students, make adjustments to improve the education for the rest and resolve the capacity issues in a manner that supports their most important constituency – the students.
  7. Taxpayers – as shown in the attached table – which has been updated to reflect the current FY13 Budget and projected Charter School enrollment – the savings to the taxpayer of approving the Drew High School charter are clear.

By approving the new high school with an enrollment of 650 over time, the taxpayers ultimately save $3.6 million per year.

The existing overcapacity issues and sunk costa are not relevant to the fiscal decision at hand. What is relevant is the savings to the taxpayer – and most importantly – the educational benefits for the students of the proposed new Drew Charter High School.

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