There has been substantial debate about the merit both for and against approving the conditional zoning for the Amana Academy. To do so would require approving a variance to the Windward Master Plan. The area where the school would like to move is zoned for office and light industrial, but not for schools.
There is a reason that we have master plans, and it is a good one. It controls how a community or a city grows and develops. If it is done right, it optimizes the amenities and moderates undesired change. That is, it protects value – or is supposed to do that. In most cases though, a good master plan works as it is supposed to work.
There should be a compelling reason to make an exception. And I believe that this decision at hand with Amana might be one of those rare exceptions that can be justified. My idea makes most sense if one projects forward a few years, five years, 10 or more. It may make sense if one contemplates the type of environment that their children and their grandchildren experience. The idea is simply that allowing the Amana Academy to move into that space communicates a clear and unequivocal message to our residents, to our business community and to “the outside world” that Alpharetta is an “education-centric” city. It communicates that we highly value education, our schools, and that we are willing to actively cultivate, encourage and support them. Bare with me please.
Every day, cities and states across the country fall all over themselves to attract new businesses and the jobs that come with them. They offer incentives in the millions of dollars in the form of tax rebates, gifted land and a multitude of different “credits” to attract new business. Every state does it. Most cities do it. Generally speaking, while some states and cities have deeper pockets than others, it is a fairly level playing field. That being said, the other primary factors that are generally considered are the cost of living, the overall quality of life and the quality of education available in one market versus another. Of those three, the quality of education may be the most important.
As the economy gains momentum – and that is starting to happen now – competition for skilled and/or highly educated employees will greatly increase. Companies will relocate to those markets that offer the best school systems. And here is the rub. Any city or state can find the money to offer building or tax incentives. In a sense, that is “cheap.” But it takes years and much more money to build, maintain and foster the best high-performing schools and school systems. You just don’t do it overnight. And that is where North Fulton/Forsyth has the competitive advantage over much – but not all – of the competition right now, today. But we also have some decisions to make now, today. Do we increase that competitive advantage, maintain it or lose it?
I vote for increasing it. It is so much easier to stay on top of the mountain than it is to climb it, and right now we are on the education peak or very close to it.
So, does Amana Academy have to have that specific location? No, they do not. But does that location and that existing office space ideally fit the needs of this ultra-high-performing school? Yes, absolutely yes. So, not only does approving this application support a school that performs at the high level that we seek from our schools, but the public commitment generates a giant step in growing a “brand” for ourselves – in creating a blue chip reputation for Alpharetta/North Fulton/Forsyth as an area in which everyone would want their children to receive an education.
The Amana Academy was just named the “Charter School of the Year” in the state of Georgia by the Coca-Cola Foundation. In announcing the award, the director of the committee that selected Amana made this statement: “The three finalists went through a rigorous application process including a selection committee panel interview. It was a tough decision for the committee because of the quality of the finalists, yet Amana stood out for its ability to replicate its innovative instructional program to other schools.” If we really thought about it, we should try to create more Amanas – as many as possible. Education is the key to all our future.
So we have an opportunity here. A big one. Not only that but we also have to consider what message we wish to send to Gwinnett Tech which is considering locating a campus in Alpharetta. We can support the Amana request or deny it. Both decisions will be very public and both can, I believe, have significant impact on how we are perceived by others and also how well our children, in the long run, are educated. In fact, I would humbly suggest that we, as a city, consider adopting as our point of view that we “approve” all new schools as the opportunity arises - unless there is a compelling reason not to.