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Charter School Measure Slips Into District Law

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2004

Without consulting with District officials, Congress approved legislation last month that requires the city to offer any surplus school property to public charter schools for at least 25 percent less than its appraised value before selling it to anyone else.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and several D.C. Council members complained this week that they were never told about the measure, which was introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as an amendment to the D.C. Appropriations Act. They said the law is poorly written and has left in limbo the sale of some surplus properties.

"You would think at least the congresswoman would know," Norton said, adding that she has worked well with Landrieu in the past. "I was completely irate."

A spokesman for Landrieu, who is a member of the Senate's Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said the legislation was proposed by charter school advocates who have complained for years about problems in obtaining vacant school buildings from the District's government. The city's charter schools, which receive public funds but are run independently of the public school system, have experienced rapid enrollment growth, and several are housed in cramped facilities.

The spokesman, Brian Geiger, acknowledged that the senator did not tell city officials about the measure but said she was not obligated to do so. He said that the amendment became public Sept. 21 with the rest of the appropriations bill and that city officials had two weeks to read it and make comments before it was passed. City officials said the amendment was tucked away in a bill that covered scores of pages.

Language in the D.C. Appropriations Act had encouraged the city to give "preference" and a reduced rate to charter schools in the sale of surplus school buildings. The new law states that charter schools must be given "a right of first offer" to lease or purchase such buildings at a 25 percent discount.

At a D.C. Council hearing on school issues Monday, several council members said it was "outrageous" that Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, the nonprofit group that lobbied for the change, also did not tell city officials about the proposal. They also said the law is difficult to implement because its wording is vague.

"The law is ambiguous, it's clumsy, it's harmful and it's an outrage," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

Graham said the law could force the city to sell the former Franklin School, in downtown Washington's Franklin Square, for far less than it is worth.

Alicia Daugherty, a policy and programs associate with the nonprofit, told the council that the group had gone to Congress out of frustration after trying for years to work with city officials. She said the city would never have approved charter schools in the first place without federal intervention.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) disputed Daugherty's comments, saying council members had ushered charter schools into the city.

"To suggest you wouldn't have made progress without federal intervention . . . frankly is an insult," Schwartz said. "I resent when people decide to circumvent the local government and go to Congress. 'Let Big Daddy do it.' "

Malcom Peabody, president of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, acknowledged that the group's actions had upset the council.

"We've now gotten them very angry at us, and I'm sorry about that, but each one of those council members has been advocates themselves -- some of them very successful at it -- and I think they would have done the very same thing in our position."

Norton said Landrieu has agreed to try to develop new language to address the city's concerns about the amendment, but Norton said she is not sure when that will happen.

Chris Bender, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the mayor's office is having "ongoing discussions" with Congress on the issue.

The D.C. Council, meanwhile, is drafting its own legislation to ensure that charter schools cannot buy city property at a discount and then, if the schools fail, sell the property to a developer.

Norton and council members said the amendment passed by Congress violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the D.C. Home Rule Act because the 1996 law that created charter schools in the District is part of the city's code.

Peabody disagreed, noting that Congress passed that law and has since amended it.


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