BRADENTON, Fla. — Fitch Ratings on Tuesday dropped its BBB rating on the Fulton Science Academy Inc. in Georgia to below investment grade.

The four-notch drop to BB-minus comes less than two months after the academy issued nearly $20 million of bonds for its popular suburban Atlanta charter schools.

Fitch said the downgrade reflected “heightened concerns” about the ability of FSA’s middle school to manage the charter-renewal process, which is a fundamental credit characteristic of investment-grade ratings in the sector.

The Fulton County School Board Tuesday night unanimously refused to grant the academy’s request for a 10-year charter renewal. The current charter expires June 30, 2012. FSA officials said they may appeal to the state.

Fitch also placed the academy’s bonds on rating watch negative, which affects $18.93 million of tax-exempt Series A bonds and $350,000 of taxable B bonds that were sold Oct. 27 through the Alpharetta Development Authority. The bonds are not insured.

The debt is a joint and several general obligation of FSA’s three schools and a first-mortgage lien on a new campus being financed with proceeds of the bonds. FSA operates elementary, middle, and high schools, and plans to co-locate them on the new campus.

The negative rating watch reflects concern that the charter ultimately may not be renewed, according to a report by Fitch analyst Eric Kim.

“Fitch views recent events as a significant, rapid and unexpected deterioration in the authorizer relationship,” Kim said. “This level of uncertainty over the charter renewal is more reflective of a BB-minus rating.”

FSA could not be reached for comment by press time.

Discussions between FSA and the school board about the middle-school charter renewal have been under way for nine months, according to Fulton County school records.

On several occasions, the school board said that it would not grant 10-year charters in an effort to improve financial oversight.

In the case of FSA, the school board said the middle school charter should be renewed for a three-year period, which ultimately would match the length of charters for the elementary and high schools.

The charter-renewal term for all three schools is critical because of the outstanding bonds and the schools’ shared responsibility for payment of the debt, the board said.

“We cannot consider the stability of each school separately since all three share this loan agreement,” Fulton County school superintendent Robert Avossa said in a recent statement.

Fulton Science Academy has been in existence for nine years, and the Fulton County school system provides nearly $10 million annually toward its schools.

The $18.93 million of tax-exempt bonds that sold in October priced to yield 5.6% with a 5.25% coupon in 2021, 6.5% with a 6.25% coupon in 2031, and 6.75% with a 6.5% coupon in 2041.

The bonds were sold by Merchant Capital LLC. Fitch is the only agency that rates the bonds.

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