D.C. officials change policy on charter schools’ occupation of surplus buildings

September 24, 2012

District officials have tweaked the way they determine which charter schools should be allowed to move into surplus public school buildings, an effort to address long-standing complaints that previous decisions were neither transparent nor always fair.

The new points-based system gives an edge to high-performing charter schools that are already operating in the city. But charters new to the District that have a record of raising student achievement elsewhere can also score well.

“We don’t want to turn over a public asset to an institution that’s not going to provide a quality service to the community,” said Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright, who, along with the Department of General Services, is responsible for handling old school buildings.

The new evaluations will be used in the coming months as the city chooses occupants for the old Young and J.F. Cook elementary school buildings, both in Ward 5. The Department of General Services is accepting offers from charters for those two sites.

The policy change comes as the city prepares for another round of school closures, which Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is expected to announce this fall. Under D.C. law, charter schools have the “right of first offer” on surplus public school buildings.

For fast-growing charter schools, which often struggle to find and afford suitable real estate, the unused buildings offer a rarity: a long-term home.

Previously, charters seeking surplus buildings were evaluated according to a set of loose criteria that — charter leaders and city officials agree — left room for some mystery and subjectivity. Under the new system, each criterion is assigned a point value, and applicants can accumulate up to 125 points. The top point-getter wins.

Besides high academic performance, applicants can earn points for offering a needed program in one of 10 neighborhoods that Wright — in a controversial study published early this year — identified as lacking enough good schools. Charters can also receive points for generating jobs for D.C. residents and showing strong relationships with the community, among other things.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, praised the change as a significant improvement.

“There was always this suspicion that the fix was in, that somebody got a building because they had political pull,” Pearson said. “I think that led to a lack of confidence in the process.”

City officials said they might revise the criteria in the future and that they are particularly interested in awarding points to charter schools with a record of successfully educating children with special needs.

Young and Cook, the two schools offered Monday, drew interest during another round of bids earlier this year. But the city declined to award either building, citing concerns that no charters had submitted strong enough applications.

Soon, the city will begin seeking offers for two more surplus buildings: Langston Elementary in Ward 5 and the old Randle Highlands building in Ward 7.

Charter schools applied earlier this year for two other sites, Webb Elementary in Trinidad and the old Walker-Jones site near the intersection of L and First streets Northwest. Decisions on those sites are pending.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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