Finding frustration instead of a home

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The Washington Post
Finding frustration instead of a home:
Charters are increasingly seeking space in former public school buildings, but the District has repeatedly rejected their applications
By Michael Birnbaum
Friday, December 4, 2009

Walking through a vacant District school building Thursday, Mary Shaffner could visualize the peeling paint replaced by fresh blackboards. Dusty hardwood floors marred by bird droppings could be polished to a gleam. Teachers and students would once again fill the halls of the Franklin School.

But to the developers also attending Thursday's open house, a hotel or condominiums might be more attractive, and it's likely they'll get their way. Two applications from charter schools to use the building have been rejected, including one from Shaffner's Yu Ying Public Charter School. The city said the renovation costs were too high, and there's little indication a new application will be accepted this time around.

It's a drama that has occurred repeatedly in the District, and the 1869 Franklin School, at 13th and K streets NW, is just the latest instance. Because of the credit crunch, which makes it more difficult for charters to finance private projects, and space newly available thanks to the closure of more than two dozen D.C. public schools, charters are clamoring more than ever for public school buildings.

"It's a lot of my job trying to find us a new home. It's a very difficult process," Shaffner said. She plans to try again at Franklin. She also filed applications for two other D.C. public school buildings, which were also rejected, one of them in favor of another charter school. Parents at her school, which leases space in an old convent near Catholic University, are frustrated with the process, she said.

"They're D.C. taxpayers, and they're sending their children to a public school, so they want them to have access to the same resources as other kids," she said.

Although the Franklin School was closed long before Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced plans to close a number of schools last year, it is part of the larger pool of former school buildings that charters have coveted but, in large part, have not received. Charters serve 38 percent of D.C. public school students, but just under a third of charter students attend classes in former public school buildings, according to an analysis by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter advocacy organization. Most of the rest have found space on the commercial market.

Of the 26 public schools whose closures have been announced since last year, seven are or will eventually be occupied by charters. One will be used by the University of the District of Columbia. Four have been filled by other branches of D.C. government, taking them over for, among other purposes, a temporary recreation center and offices for the Department of Public Works. Three will be turned over to developers and two to nonprofit groups. Five are in use as D.C. public schools. One will be torn down and the land turned into a park. The fates of three have not been decided.

Concerns about the process for deciding how the buildings are used led D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) to propose legislation this year that would catalogue city property online and set up an advisory committee to monitor what is done with empty buildings.

"There didn't seem to be a lot of transparency or inclusion" around the recently closed buildings, he said.

Charter advocates point to city law, which says charter schools have a "right to first offer" on excess school buildings.

"Why are charter schools being forced to take out expensive loans to go and convert commercial spaces, for example a warehouse, to send little children there?" asked Barnaby Towns, a spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. He said it would be more prudent to take the public money that charters spend on facilities and channel it back to the city through leases on D.C. school properties.

And some charter advocates think there is room for accommodation.

"The space is there. How you organize it and allocate is the challenge," said Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. He said that in the early days of the charter movement, in the 1990s, charters had relatively little trouble buying or leasing school buildings from the city.

But the city said that it has to consider its needs, too, and that turning buildings over to charters isn't always the best way to use the old schools. In some cases, city agencies spend a great deal renting space in office buildings when they can save money by moving to empty school buildings, officials said. In other cases, a building has deteriorated so much that it's not practical to hand it over to a charter school, they said.

"Charter schools, in every case, have had the opportunity to make the first offer for all of the District's excess school facilities," Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso said Thursday. "A number of schools have made compelling, economically viable proposals for these properties, and the city is working with them to bring these projects to fruition. Our top priority is to ensure that these facilities do not sit fallow but are returned to productive use as fast as possible."

For Shaffner and Washington Yu Ying, that's little consolation. Her school will lose its lease in a year and a half, and she's not sure where it will move.

"We are really looking at every option we possibly can," she said. "And we don't have loads of money to spend on it."

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