Shining Stars Montessori scrambling to find new home after charter’s building deal fails

When his daughters’ school announced plans to move to a new building a few blocks from his Petworth home, Wayan Vota thought he had achieved an elusive dream in his search for a charter school: a great one in a convenient location.

But Vota and other parents at Shining Stars Montessori Academy recently learned that the school’s building deal fell through when the owner accepted a more lucrative offer from another charter school at the last minute, before Shining Stars’ lease was finalized.

Shining Stars is now scrambling to secure a new location in time to open its doors next month, and families are reeling and frustrated, unsure where they will send their children to school and how they will get there. “It’s definitely a shock and a setback and a challenge,” Vota said.

The confusion highlights a common struggle for charter schools as they work to plant roots across the city.

Charters receive a taxpayer-funded facilities allotment of $3,072 per student. But advocates say charters remain at a disadvantage because they must hunt down appropriate campuses as the public school system invests heavily in renovations and maintains a list of surplus buildings.

“They are letting buildings lie empty and deteriorate and requiring charter schools to look to the private market,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The result is that many charter schools set up shop in “really inadequate facilities,” he said.

City officials acknowledge that charter advocates feel the process of obtaining space in public school system facilities is too slow, but they also note that 30 former school system buildings now house charter schools, with half a dozen leases or building awards coming in the past year.

“There are many charter schools that do have homes in [D.C. Public Schools] buildings,” Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith said this month on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM), responding to a question about contentions that the city is hoarding empty school buildings. “I think that we certainly can do more on our end to ensure that . . . charter schools are in good school space and that we’re making use of these DCPS buildings for the purpose they were designed.”

Because of the facility challenges, charters often find spaces that require them to make do without gyms or playing fields and rely on public playgrounds nearby, Pearson said. There are charter schools in church basements and old warehouses, and one is above a CVS pharmacy.

“We are a small school. It’s a challenge competing in the commercial real estate market” with deep-pocketed developers or other charter schools, said Kamina Newsome, director of operations for Shining Stars, which expects to have 124 students this fall and has a waiting list with more than 100 names.

Newsome said the school is in final negotiations for a location that school officials hope they will be able to announce soon.

“I can tell you that we are going to open school on time and we will have a quality space,” she said. “We are packed and ready to go.”

There are a limited number of buildings that are potentially usable and offer space to grow, Metro accessibility, access to play space, and a price tag that doesn’t sap all their resources, Newsome said.

This will be the third location for Shining Stars, which opened in 2011. For the past two years, the school has had classes in an annex of a former industrial laundry near the U Street Corridor.

Many parents were relieved when a search for new space focused on an office building at 1246 Taylor St., in Petworth, because it was not too far — about a mile and a half — from the school’s current location.

But the school’s executive director, Regina Rodriguez, notified parents last weekend that the deal, more than two months in the making, had fallen through.

“Essentially, we were the ‘victims’ of what is known in the real estate industry as a retrade,” Rod­riguez said in an e-mail.

The school had completed rounds of negotiations, signed a lease and submitted a deposit by June 25, she said. It had also obtained a building permit from the city for renovations. But the owner had not signed the lease. And on June 27, school officials were informed that the owner had decided to pursue an unsolicited offer from another charter school.

Donald E. Kinser, managing member of JRK Family Investments DC, which owns the property, said in an e-mail that the broker and others had worked “diligently and in good faith” to complete a lease negotiation with Shining Stars starting in April. But in June, once negotiations were completed, they waited for “nearly two weeks” to receive the signed lease and deposit from the school.

In the meantime, Bridges Public Charter School, which has a campus next door to the building, came to JRK and made “a far more compelling economic offer” and was able to complete negotiations and execute a lease in a week.

Kinser said the lease with Bridges represents a “far lower risk to us as a building owner” because, among other things, the school has a 10-year track record of success.

Rodriguez said there was never any intent by Shining Stars to stall and that attorneys on both sides were working out final details of the lease well into June.

The director of Bridges said she was not available for an interview. Pearson said the school had planned to expand its second campus at a former DCPS building but recently learned it couldn’t and went looking for new space.

Shining Stars’ letter to parents said school officials delayed sharing the “devastating news” because they hoped to find an alternate location quickly. In a meeting with parents Wednesday night, officials said they are focusing their search on a site near the Maryland border.

Several parents said they love Shining Stars’ Montessori model, not commonly found in a public school, and the tight-knit community of families that has grown up around the school. But they also said location is crucial.

Tabitha Bennett, a Ward 8 mother, said she commuted 45 minutes each morning to drop her twin girls at Shining Stars last year and would then continue on to her job at a nonprofit organization in Georgetown. A new location near the Maryland border would be unmanageable, she fears, as it would add more than an hour to her round-trip commute. She turned down the chance to enroll the girls in another charter school after the city’s annual lottery.

“Now I’m kicking myself,” Bennett said.

Shining Stars officials said that if they do finalize a deal in a less-central location, they plan to provide shuttles or offer enhanced before- and after-care to help parents.

“We are aware of the inconvenience,” Newsome said. “They won’t be on their own to sink or swim.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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