By John Schaffner

It was made very clear to North Buckhead residents March 27 that the Atlanta school system has a contract to purchase the property at 4141 Wieuca Road for a new Sarah Smith primary center and intends to close on the property by the end of April unless some major problem shows up during its due diligence.

It was announced that the primary center for kindergarten and first-grade students, is expected to be ready to open in the winter of 2010.

Atlanta Board of Education member Katy Pattillo and Valerie Thomas, who is charge of facilities for the Atlanta Public Schools (APS), met with many discontented residents at the annual meeting of the North Buckhead Civic Association (NBCA), during an hour and a half question and answer session about the proposed site.

Thomas told the group of 100-plus members and guests that the facilities department of the APS administration reveiwed 11 properties and discarded all but the Wieuca Road site for various reasons.

Among the major objections raised by those attending the meeting were that there had been too few public opportunities where residents could ask questions relating to the negotiations; that the price of $8.2 million for just over 6 acres of property seemed “outrageous;” that present traffic on Wieuca Road makes the area dangerous; and placing the new school there would only make it worse.

Pattillo and Thomas said it is possible that this facility could eventually be expanded into a kindergarten through fifth-grade facility if the north Atlanta schools continue to grow at their present rate. If that were to happen, it would become a facility for about 500 students.

Among the options the school board has considered, in the process of trying to deal with growth at Sarah Smith, Jackson and Morris Brandon elementary schools on the north side, was the use of the Tuxedo School facility on Northside Drive. APS decided not to pursue that option because it would not solve the growth problem at Sarah Smith Elementary School.

“(The) north side is booming,” Pattillo told the group. She said Sarah Smith, Jackson and Morris Brandon are all growing. Part of the north side problem is going to be served by a small redistricting effort around the Jackson and Morris Brandon schools. And, the board is building primary centers around the schools.

Presently, kindergarten classes for Sarah Smith are housed at the Buckhead Baptist Church, 4100 Roswell Road. That lease is about to expire, the group was told, which made the timing important for locating a site to build the primary center.

Many in the audience felt school officials had not negotiated well enough on the price of the property.

Thomas countered by saying that the number two site on the list had a price of $2.8 million per acre.

As for opening up the negotiations for community input, Thomas explained that APS does not allow for much community input when it is looking to purchase a site. She said no one wants to open those negotiations up to public scrutiny because it can hamper the negotiation process.

Thomas said APS had negotiated the developer of the property down from his original asking price. She explained that one of the problems was that some of the lots in the planned high-end housing development had already been sold and APS wanted the developer to buy them back to complete the purchase of the property as a whole.

Both Pattillo, who was APS board chair until recently stepping down, and Thomas said a traffic study of Wieuca Road is being conducted as part of the APS’ due diligence on the property. Thomas believes the traffic problems on Wieuca Road will be mitigated by the school being there.

However, some members of the audience said there cannot be a large enough queuing area along the road to keep parked cars of parents picking up students off of Wieuca.

After being challenged for over an hour to consider other sites for the primary center location, Thomas agreed to allow residents to e-mail her site suggestions that met the criteria, which included being at least 6 acres.

However, she emphasized that there is a contract on the site and if no serious concerns arise during the due diligence, then the APS will proceed with the purchase of that site.