Tonight the DC Public Charter School Board is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposal by Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy to close its Capitol Hill High School and Prep Middle School campuses and consolidate its students at its Parkside High School location. The current Parkside Middle School will close at the end of next year due to low academic performance. The highly controversial move would eliminate the only unionized charter school in the District when Chavez Prep closes its doors.
The PCSB staff is in support of the decision by the school’s board of directors. They write:
• “It is within the school’s exclusive control to close campuses provided the school’s enrollment ceiling is commensurately reduced.
• It is within the school’s exclusive control to reconfigure campuses provided it remains within its enrollment ceiling and serves grades for which the local education agency (LEA) has been approved to serve.
• The amendments to the charter are technical and conforming changes that ensure the school’s charter reflects actions taken by the school that are within its exclusive control.”
While the charter has the authority to make these changes, the PCSB is not too happy about the way it has been carried out. It takes note of the public testimony against the campus consolidation and closures, and makes the following recommendation:
“As noted in the testimony, and further described below, the Cesar Chavez PCS board’s decision was made late and without any opportunity for community input. While this is within the school’s prerogative, the DC PCSB Board may wish to express through a resolution its disapproval of the manner in which the decision was taken, while taking note of the extraordinary time and effort invested by the school’s volunteer board as it sought alternatives to insolvency.” The staff continues:
“The LEA faces financial challenges, as further described later in this memo. The campus closure and reconfiguration decisions and communications were very close to the My School DC lottery deadlines of February 1, 2019 for high school applicants and March 1, 2019 for PK-8 applicants. This timing was difficult for families, as they were forced to evaluate other school options and make decisions for a new school in a minimal time frame. However, rising 9th, 10th, 11th and 12 grade students from both Chavez Prep and Capitol Hill are allowed to re-enroll directly into Parkside, rather than enter the lottery. DC PCSB enrollment specialists began working with families at both campuses on January 25, 2019.”
The proposed charter amendment that will be considered this evening includes an enrollment ceiling decrease from 947 to 847 students. It would also allow Chavez to re-open a middle school at the Parkside location beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school term, starting with the sixth grade only for that year.
In response to questions late last month from Ward 1 D.C. Coucilmember Brianne Nadeau about the lack of transparency and whether Chavez Prep could stay open another year to seek an alternative to closure, PCSB executive director Scott Pearson wrote back:
“We asked the board about the option of keeping Parkside Middle open for an additional year and were told that the school’s dire financial condition, caused by high debt and low enrollment, would not permit this option. We also asked about the reasons for the last minute decision and the lack of transparency around the making of this decision. The school’s board replied that they had been in difficult negotiations up to the final hour with the school’s bondholders over the school’s risk of default, and pursued every possible avenue to avoid foreclosure on the entire LEA. The school’s board reported that they were reluctant to make these deliberations public given the destabilization of enrollment and staff that they feared would occur as a result.”
The Chavez board has made the right decision in order to protect the future existence of the school. This charter management organization has been having academic difficulties for years and is now at risk of defaulting on its loans. It appears that it expanded too fast without first developing a deep bench of leadership capacity, a pattern we have unfortunately seen repeated many times within our sector.