Atlanta’s public school system will release $3 million to its charter schools next year as the school district attempts to partially resolve a dispute over a decades-old pension debt, according to a letter by Superintendent Erroll Davis.
But the school district won’t repay nearly $3 million that it’s holding back from charter schools in the current school year, and charter school leaders say they may still have to increase class sizes, reduce programs and take back promised pay raises because Atlanta Public Schools is continuing to appeal the case in court. If the charter schools lose the appeal, Davis’ letter says they’d be required to repay the money.
“It was a wonderful good-faith gesture, but it doesn’t help us as much as we thought it would because we have to budget without it in case we lose in court,” said Grace Burley, incoming chairwoman of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. “The cuts are making it almost impossible to survive.”
Davis’ letter, which was sent Friday, said the school district is restoring its regular payments to charter schools starting June 30 because the pension liability “may cause short and long-term damage to charter schools’ financial health.”
Dozens of charter school supporters on Monday held up orange signs at the Atlanta school board’s monthly meeting saying “Charter kids are people too” and “Charter kids = APS kids.”
“It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on an amputated limb,” said Sarah Steely, a parent of a first grader at Wesley International Academy. “It’s not a long-term solution. It’s just to appease people.”
Atlanta’s 10 startup charter schools — those that weren’t converted from traditional schools — sued after the Atlanta school district decided last summer to require them to help pay off a $550 million pension liability that dates to the 1970s.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled in December in favor of the charter schools, whose lawyers argued that their employees don’t benefit from the pension system and their funding can’t be altered. Atlanta Public Schools’ appeal of Shoob’s decision is pending.
The school district has said that the pension should be shared by all public schools, including charters. About 10 percent of the school district’s 50,000 students attend charter schools.