To the editor,

On March 27, Fulton County school board member Gail Dean held a special community meeting to give an update on where the school system is in the process of rebuilding Heards Ferry Elementary School. As deputy superintendent of operations, I presented information on the planning process.

I understand the frustration that was vented at our inability to share detailed information about the school’s location – whether it will remain at its current site or be built at another location. There seemed to be a feeling that the school system was withholding information, not being transparent in its operations, and not involving the community.

I strongly believe in open government, and it’s clear to me that we need our community to be engaged throughout the entire construction process. What’s difficult to digest, though, is that Georgia law permits the school system to exercise discretion when it comes to land search and acquisition for new schools.

Some sellers view government agencies as having deep pockets, and having interest in a parcel of land publicly known often drives up the cost. In other cases, when school systems show public interest in purchasing a property, developers sometimes buy it out from under them and then try to sell it to the school system at a higher cost.

Another concern is that, in the beginning of the land acquisition process, there are many different options to consider, and over time many of these will be ruled out because they’re not viable. In the case of Heards Ferry Elementary, multiple options are being considered, including keeping the school on its existing site. However, we’re still completing an engineering study to determine if that is a feasible option.

Our foremost concern is to build the best school possible, in the most economical way, and to safeguard and protect taxpayers’ dollars. You have charged us to be fiscally responsible with the SPLOST [special purpose local option sales tax] monies being used to fund this project, and we intend to do just that. Our intent is not to seem secretive or to withhold critical information from the community. In fact, it’s the opposite. We’ve held four meetings on this topic at different stages in the planning and construction process, and will hold more as the project progresses.

At the March 27 meeting, our purpose was to share the information that could be publicly shared at this time and then break into small, facilitated groups to discuss the features that are desired at a school site. Rather than hold a “town hall-style” forum, where the loudest voices can dominate a room and overpower the information, the meeting was purposefully designed to solicit input in a more intimate setting. This feedback is then used as we go forward and select viable options for a school site. We are very deliberate in this process, because frankly, it works well and gives everyone an equal voice.

Establishing a new school is a community process. It takes the collaboration of parents, teachers and staff, school and community leaders, and government officials to make the start of a new school successful and productive. Please stay involved – we will continue to keep the community informed as we continue the Heards Ferry construction project.

Patrick Burke

Deputy Superintendent of Operations

Fulton County School System