By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
The District school board is considering shutting down a public charter school for severely emotionally disturbed students that received $9 million from the city to buy a facility but did not come close to reaching the enrollment level it had promised and has since moved out of the building.
The D.C. Council issued the $9 million revenue bond for the Jos-Arz Therapeutic Public Charter School in 2002 so it could buy a former seminary at 220 Taylor St. NE and renovate the property.
Supporters of the unusual financing arrangement said it was an investment in the school system's effort to place a larger percentage of disabled students in public facilities. Placement of special education students in private facilities has cost the city tens of millions of dollars a year in tuition.
But Jos-Arz, chartered in 2000 as a residential school for 70 students, has never enrolled more than 20 students and is no longer operating as a residential program, said Paul Doucette, a spokesman for the management company that ran the school from 2003 until early this year. The school moved out of the Taylor Street building before the summer and is now at 1401 Brentwood Pkwy. NE.
The D.C. school board, which gave the school permission to open and is responsible for monitoring its progress, put Jos-Arz on probation in July, saying the school had violated the conditions and standards set forth in its charter. The board is scheduled today to discuss a recommendation to revoke the charter because the school has not submitted a satisfactory plan for improvements.
Messages left at the school for Principal Michelle Pajardo, Jos-Arz board President Joe Johnson and founders Rollie and Gwendolyn Kimbrough were not returned yesterday.
The school "is not performing as agreed to under its charter. It wasn't serving the number of students in the program it said it would," said school board member Tommy Wells (District 3), who supports closing Jos-Arz. "Frankly, the investment the city made into this group -- the purpose is no longer being met."
The D.C. charter school law does not spell out what happens to the property of a charter school that closes. The school board and the city's other chartering authority, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, have said they believe such properties should revert to the chartering agencies. This summer, the shuttered SouthEast Academy of Scholastic Excellence became the home of another charter school, but only after the SouthEast board agreed to lease the property.
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said that if Jos-Arz closes, the school system should seek to obtain control of the Taylor Street building. "If the city is able to get the building, we could continue to operate it as a charter school or operate it under the public school system -- or even a partnership of the two," she said.
The three-story red brick building includes treatment rooms and more than 20 dormitory rooms. But the school ceased its residential program this year because there were not enough students to justify the cost, said Doucette, the spokesman for Houston-based Cornell Cos. Inc., the school's former management company.
Doucette blamed the school's enrollment problems largely on the District government's bureaucracy.
"At the end of the day, we were not able to get the Department of Mental Health and DCPS to pull together a sufficient population to make it work," he said. "There's red tape. It's a very complicated process."
In 2003, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi conducted an audit of the school, which found that Jos-Arz officials had awarded contracts without proper bidding. Gandhi specifically raised questions about the school's contract with Community Research Institute, which leased the facility to the school, and American Therapeutic Services, which provided therapists. His audit said that Gwendolyn Kimbrough owned American Therapeutic Services and her husband owned Community Research Institute.