DC public schools modernization could learn from charter sector

The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reports today that DCPS’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts will re-open next week after the completion of a renovation project that is $100 million over budget and a year behind schedule.  The total cost of construction is a staggering $178.5 million.  Only 575 students attend the school.

The newspaper goes on to explain that cost overruns such as the one at Ellington are more the rule than the exception when it comes to modernization of the traditional public schools, as was documented in a 2016 study on the issue by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson.  From Mr. Heim’s story, “As Ellington’s budget surged to $178.5 million, spending plans for 35 other DCPS school modernizations grew from $586 million to $1.4 billion.”

Charter schools would love access to this kind of cash.  However, when it comes to capital expenses, even though charters are public schools just like those of DCPS, they are on their own to raise the money for school renovation.  The Mayor and the city council do not provide a dime, leaving it up to the per pupil facility allotment to cover the cost.  This is true even when a charter takes over a shuttered traditional public school facility.

So here’s how it works in the nation’s capital.  A charter is approved to open.  Then it must scramble to find a building, competing for space with other businesses in D.C.’s outrageously expensive commercial real estate market.  If it is able to secure a closed DCPS building, that space has typically been decimated by years of neglect.  Then the charter must pay to fix up the classrooms at its own expense and then pay the city to rent the structure.

Charters are severely limited in the amount of money banks will loan them for this type of work.  There is nothing magical here.  A charter school receives $3,193 per student.  The average charter school has 400 pupils.  This equates to about $1.3 million a year it has to repay a bank for a construction loan.  Charters usually allocate around 100 square feet per child.  Therefore, it needs a building that is around 40,000 square foot and, according to Building Hope, typically spends $150 to $250 per square feet to renovate the space.  For example, when I was board chair of Washington Latin PCS we spent $20 million, the most we could get a bank to loan us, to renovate the former Rudolph Elementary School in Ward 4.  The gym would have to wait to be built at a later date since this was all we could afford.  Latin spent about $267 per square foot on Rudolph or roughly $33,000 per child.  When it comes to Duke Ellington, it cost the city $310,000 per pupil.

Something must be done to even the playing field between charters and the traditional schools when it comes to access to facilities and their renovation.  After 20 years of public school reform in this town, we are no closer to a solution.

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