Charter Schools Push to Use Extra Buildings

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A D.C. Council committee listened yesterday for seven hours as charter school proponents made their case for four former school properties that the city has said it doesn't need.

At a time when many of the city's regular school buildings are underused, public charter schools are scrambling for any scrap of space they can get. The number of charter school students jumped from about 6,000 in 1999-2000 to more than 15,000 last school year, according to the District's State Education Office. Some public charter schools have had a tough time finding affordable and suitable space in the midst of the city's real estate boom.

That explains the land rush over the four former school properties: Bruce School, at 770 Kenyon St. NW; Old Congress Heights School at Alabama and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues SE; the Langston and Slater schools at 33 and 45 P St. NW; and Keene School at 33 Riggs Rd. NE, where the 450-student Community Academy Public Charter School currently has a lease that it hopes to extend.

The city's Office of Property Management has listed the properties as surplus. The guidelines for disposing of such property call for city officials to give preference to charter schools.

Some of the witnesses at yesterday's hearing of the council's Government Operations Committee said the buildings should be offered only to charter schools.

"It is time for Washington to stop talking about putting its children first and start behaving like its children are first," said Jessica E. Cunningham, a former public school teacher in the District who is looking to open a charter school next year. "Our best is certainly not allowing Washington, D.C., children to walk and ride past vacant public facilities that were originally built for them to makeshift private facilities that were intended for warehouses and offices."

Deborah A. Gist, the District's state education officer, supported the idea of letting charter schools move into the buildings under long-term leases with the city, instead of having them use their taxpayer-funded facilities allowance to buy or lease buildings in the commercial market.

"We are committed to providing preference to public charter schools that demonstrate support from the community in which the building is located and a willingness to co-locate with other entities," Gist said.

But the charter schools seeking the properties face competition.

In Ward 8, for example, some community activists and council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) want to see the Old Congress Heights School become a community and senior center. Barry has introduced legislation saying that "economic and other policy factors'' should be taken into account in deciding the future use of the building. There will be a hearing on Barry's legislation Thursday.

Executives of Friendship Public Charter School testified yesterday that they would be interested in leasing or buying the former school for use as a technical school.

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the panel, said he expects his committee to forward the issue to the Economic Development Committee.

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