Rob Smith, center, points to a map of where the proposed Skyland Elementary School is to be located.
Mayor John Ernst, seated, left, listens to concerns from residents living near Skyland Park. (Photo Dyana Bagby)

The Brookhaven City Council voted May 10 to approve an agreement with the DeKalb County Board of Education for the school system to purchase Skyland Park for $4.7 million as the site for a new elementary school as part of the school district’s efforts to alleviate overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster.

The vote was 3-0 with Mayor John Ernst and Councilmembers Linley Jones and Joe Gebbia voting in favor. Councilmember Bates Mattison, executive director of the Brookhaven Innovation Academy, which last year wanted to purchase the park property for its new charter school, recused himself from the discussion to ensure there was no perceived conflict of interest. Councilmember John Park, who represents the neighborhoods around Skyland Park, was absent.

The city’s May 10 vote followed the DeKalb BOE vote on Monday, May 9, approving the deal with Brookhaven and also with the state. The school district is purchasing 10 acres of Skyland Park from Brookhaven and also purchasing from the state the Skyland building where the State Vital Records Office is located for $2.8 million.

As part of the agreement, DeKalb County BOE will then transfer the land the building is located on — some 4 acres — to the city for the renovation and construction of a new Skyland Park.

Of the $4.7 million being paid to the city, $2.3 million will be used to demolish the state building and build a new Skyland Park to include dog parks, a multi-use field and a playground, according to draft plans drawn up by GreenbergFarrow. Estimated cost to build the new Skyland Park is right at $2.3 million, according to the city.

The remaining $2.4 million will be used specifically for the purchase of more greenspace. The school district is expected to close on the properties with the city and state by January 2017 with the new school slated to open in three years. The new park is expected to be completed in less than a year.

Residents voice displeasure with process, raise concerns of traffic

The BOE’s plans to construct a new $22 million 900-seat elementary school on the current Skyland Park property did not sit well with those living in neighborhoods near the park.

Rob Smith of Skyland Drive said he was upset no news of the deal was made public until the day before the council vote.

“I’m really upset with the process,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to get on board with projects in the future.”

Matt Ades said he was so angered by the agreement he planned to put a “For Sale” sign in his yard on Wednesday and “move out of Brookhaven and say goodbye.”

“We’re very concerned about the new school being built — all the students being bused in …  95 percent are on public assistance and 97 percent are Hispanic. This won’t represent the community the school is in,” Ades said.

Sunil Singh said the City Council gave the public plenty of time to voice opinions when other development moves into a neighborhood, such as gas stations. “But for this we were not given any warning,” he said.

Outspoken neighborhood activist Ronnie Mayer was visibly upset after the vote and berated council members.

“Shame on you all,” he said. “This just makes my blood boil. You just sold the whole city out.”

City attorney: ‘This is not ancient Athens where we have direct participation’

Interestingly, the city was on track to purchase the Skyland building late last year, but that deal was nixed after Ernst, who had just been elected to office, told then-mayor Rebecca Chase Williams he planned to kill the deal after taking office.

The fact the council vote seemed to come out of nowhere was the major factor angering residents opposed to the deal.

City Attorney Chris Balch explained the city is allowed by state law to discuss real estate matters behind closed doors. He explained that because the board of education voted on Monday to approve the deal and the state’s deadline of May 15 on the sale of its Skyland building meant the city had to act quickly.

Balch also said voting in favor of such a transaction despite vocal concerns from members of the public about learning of the deal at the last minute of the public is “part of governance.”

“We live in a representative republic and a representative democracy,” he said. “This is not ancient Athens where we have direct participation. And the reason you were each elected was to provide the voice of people and to make decisions for the citizens of this city.”

Ernst said when he was presented the land proposition from the school district a month after taking office, he agreed to hear the district out and was satisfied with what was offered. Being an elected official also means making tough decisions, he added.

“This will be the first school built in Brookhaven since the 1970s … and I believe it will be a pillar for our community,” he said. “We have to make decisions, that’s what we were elected to do. And I know I’m going to disappoint people. I truly understand your concerns. The advocates … need to start speaking out publicly. I’m tired of people privately telling me they support a vote” but not saying it publicly.

Gebbia agreed that making tough votes is part of governance and said the decision to sell Skyland Park to build a new school is a regional issue, not just a city one, and the city must participate in working to alleviate overcrowding.

“This is the first step in that direction,” he said.

Jones said she agreed to vote in favor of the deal because it meant the city had some leverage in deciding what development took place on the property.

“My loyalty is to the citizens of Brookhaven,” she said. “I don’t see a better outcome.”

Council also praised for vote

Kim Gockce, president of the Cross Keys Foundation, praised the council for its courage in voting to approve the deal.

“These are decisions of generational consequence,” he said. “I understand concerns raised, but we have to have public schools. All current schools are over capacity. This council has a broader responsibility to thousands of children. And I think once [the community] sees the context of this decision I think you will win them over.”

Lissie Stahlman, a former public school teacher, thanked the council for its decision to help alleviate school overcrowding.

“This is going to be a state-of-the-art school. I guarantee you will there won’t be as many trailers with kids who have to hold it because they can’t use the bathroom and winding up with urinary tract infections; that’s what’s happening right now,” she said. “I’m 100 percent in favor of this.”

Ernst and Jones met with concerned citizens after the meeting and said they would help set up a meeting with DeKalb school officials to discuss what exactly is planned for the new school’s site.

UPDATE May 11: District 2 Councilmember John Park issued a statement via his Facebook page about why he was absent from the May 9 vote, saying he was in New York for work and unable to change his schedule.

I apologize for not being at the city council meeting when a very important vote was taken with serious consequences for our district and Brookhaven. City council is a part time position and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t change my travel schedule and I was in New York on business. We all have many responsibilities and duties.

He also said he would have voted “yes” on the deal and explained why.

With the horrible overcrowding within the city of Brookhaven, we chose to partner with the BOE to help provide safe and excellent facilities for all our children. Without an agreement, the property would have gone out to public bid and it would have resulted in more residential development, which actually could have a negative effect on the city, county, and schools financially. It would also increase overcrowding in our schools.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.