D.C. parents press city to help fund building renovation for D.C. International school

Parents are calling on Mayor Vincent C. Gray to restore city funding meant to help provide a permanent home for D.C. International, a new foreign-
language-immersion charter school for students in grades six through 12.

Last month, Gray administration officials blocked a multimillion-dollar grant to DCI, calling it an illegal use of capital funds and sparking a wave of protest.

“The city has a compelling interest in being a partner in this incredible thing that is unfolding,” said Monica Fitzgerald, a parent at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom, one of five language-immersion elementary charter schools that banded together to form D.C. International in an effort to extend language studies into middle and high school.

Fitzgerald was one of dozens of parents and children who testified at a hearing Saturday that D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) organized to draw attention to the issue.

DCI is slated to open in the fall in a temporary space, where school leaders expect to stay until they finish renovating Delano Hall, located at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest.

The D.C. Council set aside $6 million last spring to help DCI plan the renovation of its future home. But the Gray administration redirected those dollars to other projects last month, arguing that funneling extra funds to one charter school is unfair and sets a bad precedent. Administration officials also said capital funds may be spent only on governmental entities, not on charter schools, which receive public funding but are operated by private organizations.

The disagreement is a sign of the trouble many charter schools face in trying to find and pay for real estate, and it highlights the legal differences between charter and traditional schools — differences that are sure to attract attention as charter schools enroll a growing share of D.C. students.

It is also a politically charged dispute, pitting Gray (D), who is seeking reelection, against Catania, who inserted the $6 million grant for DCI into the budget and recently said he is running for mayor in November.

Catania argued that Gray could find a way to fund DCI’s new building if he wanted to, pointing to other private development projects that have benefited from city resources.

“At the end of the day, all of these funds are fungible,” Catania said. “I don’t think we should allow $6 million to stand between us and what can be a real educational gem.”

The hearing stretched more than five hours, with parents pressing Gray to reverse his decision, pointing to the need for more excellent secondary schools across the District.

Children spoke about their excitement for DCI, offering testimony peppered with Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese. “I think it’s a bummer that the government isn’t giving DCI as much money as promised,” said Nina Gwynn, 9, a third-grader at Latin American Montessori Bilingual. “I hope they change their mind.”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said that the city doesn’t have a choice. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan opined last month that charter schools cannot legally receive capital funds backed by income-tax-secured bonds.

Ribeiro accused Catania of making “DCI and these families a promise he knew he couldn’t legally make” and of “using DCI, which we think is a great idea and support, as a pawn in his shameless political game.”

Ribeiro said the administration began talking with DCI about possibilities for a permanent home more than a year ago and is still working to identify such options as moving into a vacant school building or co-
locating with another public school. “We want to make this happen,” Ribeiro said. “We do have facilities that are available, and we can work with them to find a temporary and a permanent home.”

Catania argues that the city could use capital funds that are not borrowed and have far fewer strings attached, but the Gray administration maintains that those funds are also off-limits.

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer has yet to weigh in on the matter, but a spokesman said he expects the office to issue an opinion soon.

DCI Chief Operating Officer Mary Shaffner said Saturday that the school has signed a letter of intent for a two-year lease at 16th Street and Park Road NW, in a building occupied by one of its five partner schools, Mundo Verde.

Shaffner said that she is open to any options for a long-term home but that the only concrete one now is Delano Hall. If DCI is to open on time at Delano Hall, she said, it needs the $6 million to secure additional financing and foot critical renovation planning and start-up costs.

As currently planned, DCI would grant automatic admission to students in its five feeder schools, with additional seats open for enrollment by lottery. The school is slated to serve 1,200 students at maximum capacity.

D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who also attended Saturday’s hearing, said he supports restoring the $6 million but would like to see DCI expand its feeders to include traditional elementary schools with language-immersion programs.

DCI leaders said they are open to that possibility.

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