By John Schaffner

No Buckhead schools were on the state’s list of those Atlanta Public Schools suspected of major cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), new Atlanta school board member Nancy Meister told the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Feb. 11.

The list of schools released Feb. 10 by the state included Garden Hills Elementary School as a school of “minimum concern” for 10 percent of its classes. It was the only Buckhead school on the list at all.

Despite the relatively clean record of Buckhead schools, the 20 some representatives of Buckhead neighborhoods at the BCN monthly meeting called on the APS board “to hire independent outside auditors to investigate the CRCT cheating, aside from whatever investigation [Atlanta School] Superintendent Beverly Hall has done or does internally.”

The message given to Meister, who represents District 4 on the school board, was clear: Buckhead residents expect education excellence in Atlanta’s public schools, considering the superintendent’s extensive yearly compensation and the fact the system has one of the highest per pupil expenditures per year of any school system in the nation, said council education committee chairman Glen Delk, who represents the Historic Brookhaven neighborhood.

Meister also reported “a piece of land has been identified” for building a new high school in Buckhead, but said she could not say where it is located. “Not even my husband knows,” she said

Meister said she has been told the new high school will require about 30 acres of land, for the school facility, sports fields, parking and other uses. The present North Atlanta High has 1,114 students and is located on just 17 acres on Northside Drive just north of West Wesley.

The present North Atlanta High facility is to be turned into a second Buckhead middle school to alleviate overcrowding at Sutton Middle School, the only middle school in Buckhead which accepts students from all six Buckhead elementary schools — E. Rivers, Garden Hills, Bolton Academy, Morris Brandon, Jackson and Sarah Smith.

Sutton Middle has a planned capacity of 1,040. That was exceeded this year with an enrollment of approximately 1,052. Next school year it is expected to climb to 1,169 students and to 1,340 in the 2011-2012 school year. “We are fortunate our school enrollments are growing,” she added.

Meister said Buckhead elementary schools are growing, while other parts of the city are having declining school enrollments.

Meister told the BCN meeting that there is discussion of splitting students between Sutton and the new middle school by classes rather than districting by where they live in Buckhead.

She said there are no potential new elementary schools planned at this time. Three of the elementary school have been expanded recently at a total cost of about $30 million.

Also presenting to the BCN February meeting was Atlanta Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Rob Hunter, who announced he is continuing to head up the city’s water and sewer operations under the administration of new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Hunter told the group his department has faced a lot of challenges in the past. He said the department’s budget of $543 million is one-third of the city’s budget.

“We are a regional waste water and regional drinking water utility,” serving more than the city of Atlanta, he said.

Hunter indicated the budget for 2009-2010 went up about 1 percent. He said operational expenses went down, but debt service on bonds to support the water and sewer systems overhauls went up. He said the city is one step above junk-bond status, which makes financing the money more expensive than if its bond rating were better. The department had two bond issues in 2009 totaling over $1 billion.

Hunter said water and sewer revenues have been adversely affected in past years by the drought and empty houses caused by the down economy. He said sales tax revenues for the city are now off 16 percent since last year.

The department is raising its water and sewer rates over the next two years, 12.5 percent in the first year and 12 percent in the second year. Hunter said he is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to change the system to tie rate increases to household incomes as well as use.

Hunter admitted one of the biggest challenges in the department is in the area of customer service. He said he came into a system “that is not focused on productivity and service. The challenge is how to fix that culture,” said Hunter, who has headed up the department for the past six years.

Check the Feb. 26 issue of the Buckhead Reporter for more information.