Atlanta BeltLine and APS should unify, not divide, our city – for all our sakes
By Guest Columnist CEASAR MITCHELL, president of the Atlanta City Council
Update and a note to readers: Since this guest column was first published, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell on Monday, Jan. 5 worked with council members and the Mayor’s office to modify his recommendation to set aside reserve funds for Beltline payments. Council Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong introduced an ordinance to address the ongoing APS BeltLine dispute. The ordinance calls for an appropriation of funds of up to $13.5 million dollars coming from selling city real estate and other funds identified by the Chief Financial Officer. The decision to not specifically list the city reserve as the funding source came after conversations with members of the city council and the administration. The goal of the legislation remains the same: to stress the equal importance of the Beltline and APS, as well as to move towards a resolution of this issue.
Nearly 10 years ago, when I was a primary sponsor of the BeltLine legislation, I believed in its power to unify and transform the Atlanta community and improve our quality of life.
Around the same time, I launched the College Prep Series, an educational initiative to help local high school students and their parents prepare for the journey to college.
Promoting both community development and education are important to me, as an Atlanta native, and to so many others citizens, because it is undeniable that world-class cities must excel simultaneously in both of these areas.
This inescapable fact brings me to the current state of affairs between the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools concerning the Atlanta BeltLine project.
The road leading to the current impasse between our two governmental bodies is a long and winding one. It is highlighted by a Georgia Supreme Court challenge, a state constitutional amendment and a very deep economic recession.
However, the path forward is a straightforward one where political and civic jostling is set aside and the unifying spirit of partnership symbolized by the BeltLine, and ultimately required to save our youth, is affirmatively embraced. It is in that spirit of coming together that I will aggressively do everything in my power as president of the Atlanta City Council to resolve the contractual dispute for the sake of Atlanta’s children and our intown neighborhoods.
For starters, I will ask the Atlanta City Council to set aside $13.7 million dollars from our $137 million city reserves for the purpose of paying the past due amount owed to APS under the current agreement.
When coupled with the more than $25 million lump sum previously paid by the city to APS in connection with the Supreme Court ruling, sequestering roughly 10 percent of the city’s reserve represents a significant commitment on the part of the city.
But this show of good faith is only part of the solution. Thus, I humbly caution my committed friends at APS, who are working very hard to improve educational outcomes and transform our school system, not to misinterpret this good faith attempt to drive home a resolution as a capitulation on a number very critical issues.
It is undisputed that the city has an obligation to make good on the past due payments based on the current agreement. This obligation should be honored. By the same token, it is apparent that the economics that existed when the initial contract was struck no longer exist or at a minimum, will not exist for some time.
Moreover, the subsequent amendments to the agreement only kicked the can down the road to preserve the relationship, and as a result, were a stop-gap at best. A sustainable resolution to the current problem is much deeper than two annual installment payments.
Additionally, the future implications of a strong City of Atlanta – APS relationship are far broader than the BeltLine.
As such, I will also propose that the payment of this amount be preconditioned on the execution of a refashioned agreement between the parties within 60 days coupled with a commitment by Atlanta BeltLine Inc. to repay the city reserves over a reasonable period of time.
Finally, as an added incentive for both parties, if a mutually-acceptable, long-term resolution is not reached within 60 days, I will work with the School Board Chair Courtney English to reconvene our two bodies to urge a sustainable legislative solution.
It is high time to put this unfortunate distraction to rest. Our collective energies are better spent focused on other pressing issues such as student performance, college and career readiness, community development, youth safety and fiscal collaboration.
Last year, when I brought the City Council and Atlanta Board of Education together in an effort to elevate the issue, I had no idea that many months later we would still be languishing in the hazy maze of discord.
As a consequence, an unfortunate signal has been sent to taxpayers that the persons entrusted with the power to right track this issue lack either the motivation or the intent to find common ground.
Even more grave, supporters of the BeltLine have been pitted against supporters of our schools, and parents like myself who believe in the promise of the BeltLine have been put in the untenable position of being forced to choose. Most disheartening is that our youth are stuck in the middle scratching their heads and asking what in the world are the adults doing.
Two weeks ago, I watched the entire Atlanta community come together as Benjamin E. Mays High School played for the High School 5A state football championship – the first time for an APS school in nearly 25 years.
This high school championship experience, though we fell short on the field, was a victory for the players, school, families and our city.
It was also a crucial reminder for the Atlanta community that we are stronger when we come together and rally around a common goal. To paraphrase a well-known slogan, the BeltLine and our city’s youth should be where Atlanta’s government, business and neighborhoods rally together. The two should never ever be pitted against one another.
It is time to be our best selves and resolve this issue.
Onward, Upward, Together Atlanta!