Coming shortly before the excellent editorial that appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post by District of Columbia International Public Charter School’s executive director Mary Schaffner that bemoans the loss of five vacant DCPS facilities for use by charters, was a squabble between D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Senator Ron Johnson over space for the sector that now educates 47 percent of all public school students in the nation’s capital. Senator Johnson sent a letter to Ms. Bowser on May 31, 2018 under his authority as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which is responsible for oversight of the city’s operations. He wrote:
“Under D.C. law, public charter schools have a right of first offer to purchase, lease, or otherwise use excess school facilities. This right provides D.C. public charter schools with access to surplus school buildings while allowing the traditional public school system to generate additional revenue.
Although leasing excess school facilities is beneficial to both charter schools and traditional schools, ten percent of D.C. school facilities were vacant or ‘significantly underused’ as of July 2017. Meanwhile, waiting lists at D.C. charter schools have increased across all charter schools and totaled 28,698 students – an increase of 27.2% from the 2016-2017 waitlist total of 20,880.”
The letter concludes with a request for a list of all surplus and underutilized DCPS buildings and the names of schools that have been turned over to charters during her time in office.
On June 14, 2018, Mayor Bowser responds and answers the two questions in this manner:
“Thank you for your May 31, 2018 letter regarding the District of Columbia’s management of vacant or significantly underutilized public school facilities. As you noted, District of Columbia law gives public charter schools the right of first offer when school facilities are designated as excess. However, the law does not require the District to designate every vacant or underutilized school as excess. Rather, my administration evaluates both the short and long-term needs of a growing school system when determining facility designations.
The population of the District of Columbia declined for several decades but starting in 2010 our population began to grow -recently surpassing 700,000- and so too did student enrollment in the District of Columbia Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools. Since Fiscal Year 2015, my administration has provided public charter schools over $500 million for school facilities through the per pupil facility allotment, and has awarded over $13 million to high-performing public charter schools through ‘Scholarships for Opportunities and Results’ (SOAR) facilities grant funding.
During my tenure, we have converted three facilities to public charter use; these schools now serve approximately 2,000 public charter school students. We also established the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force in August 2015, to increase dialog and coordination between DCPS and our public charter schools, especially with respect to the opening, closing, and siting of school facilities. My administration will also be completing a Public Education Master Facilities Plan (MFP) this year. The MFP will identify schools that are currently underutilized or overcrowded and provide recommendations on how to address these imbalances as well as identify potential gaps between future facility needs and anticipated public school enrollment growth. Additionally, to address overutilization, the District’s FY 19-24 Capital Improvement Plan includes $40 million to add permanent classroom capacity at two of DCPS’s most over-utilized schools.”
Ms. Bowser includes with her letter a spreadsheet of vacant and “significantly underused” DCPS facilities.
In consulting with Friends of Choice in Urban Schools regarding the mayor’s response, it appears that several of her statements are not perfectly accurate.
First, it is true as Ms. Bowser states that under the law every vacant building need not be deemed a surplus property. However, the law was intended as a method of making these sites available to charter schools. Simply holding them without explanation means she is restricting access to quality school seats to children living in the District of Columbia.
In addition, the Bowser Administration has really not “awarded over $13 million to high-performing public charter schools through ‘Scholarships for Opportunities and Results’ (SOAR) facilities grant funding.” These dollars are provided at the federal level and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education then grants them to public charter schools. Going forward, the awards will be given to each charter school based upon a per pupil allotment.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the Mayor has not turned over three former DCPS buildings to charters. In fact, the conversions she included in her letter to Senator Johnson had taken place years earlier and these buildings were already being utilized by the sector.
Specifically, M.C. Terrell-McGogney Elementary School, as the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported, was turned over to Somerset PCS in 2013 under Mayor Gray through Building Hope’s Charter School Incubator Initiative. In 2016, Mayor Bowser renewed the incubator lease. The William B. Keene Elementary School was awarded to Dorothy I. Height Community Academy in 2008. After Community Academy was shuttered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in 2013 the site was transferred to DC Bilingual PCS. Finally, the P.R. Harris Educational Center has been the home to National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School and Ingenuity Prep PCS again as part of the Charter School Incubator project. Ms. Bowser renewed the lease for this space in 2016.
In fact, there have been no vacant or underutilized DCPS buildings turned over to charters to date since Muriel Bowser came into office in 2015.