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APS files lawsuit to gain full control of four vacant school deeds

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  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Milton Elementary School sits vacant in Chosewood Park. The two-story building was one of several APS schools built in the 1910s, such as the George W. Adair Elementary school in Adair Park. It was most recently occupied, according to a certificate in the boiler room, in 2008. On March 2, APS inked a deal with a production company to take over the 21,357 square-foot building. A dispute between APS and the city over the deed to the building, along with other vacant APS schools, could potentially hold up the sale.

The dispute over who owns vacant Atlanta Public Schools properties, which has become ensnared in a financial and political battle between the city and school system, is now headed to court.

The Atlanta Board of Education has filed a lawsuit to claim the deeds for four former APS schools that have remained vacant for years. According to the legal filing, the city's education board wants a judge to help APS obtain the titles for George Adair School in Adair Park, Arkwright Elementary School in Venetian Hills, Milton Avenue Elementary in Chosewood Park, and Rosalie Wright Elementary School in Florida Heights. With no resolution in sight following an ongoing disagreement with the city, APS wants a judge to "clear the cloud" from the titles, giving system officials full control of the future of those properties.

Mayor Kasim Reed earlier this year said several vacant schools remain part of the ongoing negotiations in the APS-Atlanta Beltline funding dispute. But APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen disagreed, saying the deeds weren't part of those discussions. Reed responded to her remarks saying that the superintendent "doesn't know what she's talking about" regarding the dispute, which still remains unresolved.

According to the March 26 filing, which seeks to "establish title against all the world," the city should have transferred over all contracts, orders, leases, and bonds to the Atlanta Board of Education as part of the city's charter adopted in 1973. That shift in responsibility also should have included the ownership of all properties the city had acquired to provide a public education to Atlanta children when it oversaw the school system. Since that time, the lawsuit says, the city's education board has paid millions in costs associated with the upkeep of those four vacant schools.

The lawsuit says city officials have "routinely granted quitclaim deeds" to allow APS to sell surplus properties to potential buyers despite the actual deeds remaining in the city's possession. How routine? Citing Fulton and DeKalb counties' property records, the city has granted at least 50 quitclaim deeds for more than 150 properties over the course of the past 40 years, according to the lawsuit.

APS says those past decisions are acknowledgment that the city "no longer had, nor did it claim to have, any ownership interest in these education-related properties that had been owned, operated, and maintained" by the school system since 1974. The filing also cites several other efforts in the past — including a 1985 Atlanta City Council ordinance regarding the sale of APS surplus properties and a 1999 surplus property exchange — that supports APS' lawsuit for the four school deeds.

With the lawsuit filed, APS spokeswoman Jill Strickland tells CL the court is expected to appoint a "special master" to give notice to anyone who may claim an interest in the vacant school properties including title holders, lien holders, and nearby property owners. Any party claiming interest in the properties would then need to prove their ownership interest in front of the special master, who would then declare which party legally owns the property.

"The Special Master’s Report then goes to the Superior Court Judge for approval, and if it is approved and not appealed, that ruling gets recorded just like a Deed, putting the world on notice that a court has determined who is the legal owner of the property," Strickland says.

Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres, noting the city is not a party in this filing, tells CL the mayor continues to support two current Atlanta City Council proposals to complete ongoing talks for George Adair School and assess all APS properties not being used for school purposes at the moment.

We've also included a copy of the lawsuit after the jump.



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