By D. Aileen Dodd
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton Science Academy Middle School has been notified it is in violation of state education rules by beginning construction on a new campus without first getting state approval of its plans.
Enlarge photo Johnny Crawford, email@example.com Tatyana Manogin,12, plays the guitar in music class at Fulton Science Academy Middle on Wednesday, November 30, 2011. Fulton Science Academy is Georgia's first charter school to win the national Blue Ribbon for academic excellence.
The nationally acclaimed charter school with more than 500 students was advised late last week by facilities officials at the state Department of Education that its construction application for a new 44-acre campus in Alpharetta was incomplete and had not been approved.
This week bulldozers continued to move red clay to clear a path for the school.
Fulton Science entered into a loan agreement of more than $18 million to build a shared campus with Fulton Sunshine Academy and Fulton Science Academy High School, its sister schools. The schools sought revenue bonds through the city of Alpharetta Development Authority to fund the project.
"The process is that we look over plans before construction is to be done," said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "It's a safety issue. There are codes to follow. Ultimately they are a public school."
Fulton Science officials, however, say they have done nothing wrong and that charter schools have the freedom to build first and get site approval before students move in.
"You have to have fire alarms, you have to have extinguishers. Other than that, charter schools are flexible," said Ali Ozer, executive director of Fulton Science Academy.
A Jan. 12 letter from the state Facilities Unit says otherwise. It notified the school that it did not submit all of the documentation necessary for site approval or construction plans approval to state architects. The letter also questioned financing for the project and whether the school followed state law in advertising bid proposals for jobs. It also stated that the school's application did not mention that an elementary and high school would be located on the property.
Cardoza said Fulton Science is not exempt from state protocol and failing to follow it could cost them.
"They are getting public dollars and they fall under the same state board rules,” Cardoza said. “You have to do a hazards assessment. There are issues about the location of a school in proximity to places that sell alcohol. ... There could certainly be extra expenses to correct those issues if they have to end up retrofitting something we wouldn't have approved."
Cardoza said the state education department doesn’t have the authority to issue a “cease and desist” on construction, however.
Ozer said Fulton Science has updated its construction application to include details of the other two schools that will locate on the site. Ozer added that the project has financing and followed state procurement law. He said 12 proposals for the job were considered before Winter Construction was chosen.
Meanwhile, as a new school is built, Fulton Science continues to operate on a charter contract that will expire on June 30. Its application to continue as a Fulton County Schools charter campus was denied in December. Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa this week rejected a request by Fulton Science to have the state mediate a reconsideration of that rejection.
Members of the Fulton County legislative delegation had asked Fulton County Schools to reconsider Fulton Science's application.
Avossa said mediation would be “inappropriate” due to the school's numerous issues, including violating state rules on construction. “This pattern of reckless, premature actions ... constitutes additional breaches of their charter contract and has also now endangered the financial health of its FSA sister schools," Avossa said in a state letter.
Fulton Science is currently applying to become a state charter school, a designation which would result in a loss of half of its funding if approved. School supporters have donated more than $245,000 to help offset the loss.