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Opening Arguments

Eminently despicable

When eminent domain is used to take property for actual public projects, such as roads, bridges and schools, instead of private use masquerading as public good, that's OK, right? Well, how about when a group of people spend enormous time, money and energy getting ready to build themselves a priave school, then the local school system comes along at the last minute and says, "Good idea, we think we'd like to build a school there instead"?

UPDATE: The story is at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Web site, which has one of those annoying registration forms you have to fill out. So you don't have to, here's the whole story:

Colorful balloons bobbed in the breeze. A huge banner reading "The Weber School" lay across a backhoe. A large tent teemed with people eating cake.

The groundbreaking ceremony Sunday afternoon was supposed to celebrate the start of construction of the private Jewish high school's 18-acre campus in Sandy Springs.

Instead, a mood of uncertainty and apprehension mixed with the hot late-summer air as parents and school officials grappled with the realization that all the plans they've made may be in jeopardy.

The Fulton County school system wants to buy the Weber School site and use the land to build a new elementary school. In a strongly worded letter sent earlier this month, the school district indicated that unless Weber sold the property by today, the school board would use eminent domain to obtain the land.

Fulton school officials offered $18.7 million for the site, at Abernathy and Roswell roads, but Weber school leaders say they have no desire to sell.

"We are not going to back down," said Steve Berman, the president of the school's board. "We are building here."

Parents and students said they were shocked to learn of Fulton's interest in their property at such a late date. Construction is set to begin in a few weeks.

"I'm terribly upset," said Stella Tarica, co-chairwoman of the school's PTA. "We've put in so much effort."

Weber's 158 students now attend school in a cluster of portable classroom buildings in Dunwoody. The new facility would have athletic fields, a gym and room for 500 students.

Weber paid $20 million for the land two years ago. The school sold a portion of the property for $10 million to a developer.

Jacob Shapiro, student council president, said he couldn't believe the school's property might be taken away.

"I feel like the rug just kind of got pulled out from under us," he said. "It just doesn't make sense."

The Fulton County school board would have to approve any move to seek condemnation. Fulton schools spokeswoman Mitzi Edge said a new facility is needed somewhere in the area to ease crowding at nearby elementary schools.

"We recognize the desire of Weber parents for a school," Edge said. "Hopefully, we can come up with a solution that will allow Weber to have what they need for their students and us to have what we need for our students."

The groundbreaking was filled with prayers and tributes to the people who have donated to the school's capital campaign. But the fight with Fulton County was never far from the surface.

At one point, Berman asked everyone to join hands and speak with him.

"We will not move, we will not move," the crowd yelled.