Special-Ed School in D.C. To Give Up Its Charter

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

D.C. school board members said last night that they will immediately take over the Jos-Arz Therapeutic Public Charter School after school leaders failed to introduce required improvements -- including obtaining accreditation and providing a proper curriculum -- at the special education facility.

Board members said leaders of the school in Northeast Washington agreed to surrender the charter, and school system staff members have been directed to oversee the school until the academic year ends in June. The 42 or so students will then be reassigned to other schools.

Jos-Arz was designed to reduce the city's substantial special education budget but ended up a costly failure.

The school system spends about $40 million annually to house severely emotionally disturbed students in facilities across the country. School founders obtained a charter in 2000 based on their commitment to bring as many as 190 high school students back into the city -- proposing to enroll 70 in a residential program and 120 in a day program.

D.C. Council members liked the idea so much that they committed an unusual emergency allocation of $9.2 million to help the school beef up its staff and convert a 30,000-square-foot building on Taylor Street NE into a 24-hour educational and medical facility. They provided an additional $6 million over the years to cover operational costs.

The school, however, never was able to reach its enrollment projections and was unable to meet costs. The owners of the Taylor Street building evicted the school in the summer because it was unable to pay its rent. The school moved into a nearby traditional public school building but had to drop its residential program.

Jos-Arz had been on probation since the summer, and the decision apparently brings to a close a dispute between the current operators of the school and the school board. But school board members say they are prepared to launch a battle to obtain the Taylor Street building, which the owners are trying to sell.

"We'll work with the city council, the mayor and the CFO on how we can acquire the building," board member JoAnne Ginsberg, who helped negotiate the surrender, said in an interview after the meeting. "We would like to have use of the building to open a residential special education facility, which the city badly needs."

Despite the school's early support from the council, Jos-Arz founders Rollie and Gwendolyn Kimbrough became embroiled in a longstanding dispute with the school board.

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz became suspicious of what she considered unusually high rent payments from the school to the nonprofit organization that owned the building and on whose board Rollie Kimbrough served. She also complained about contracts the school awarded to Gwendolyn Kimbrough's company, American Therapeutic Services.

The Kimbroughs asserted that Cafritz and the school board sabotaged Jos-Arz by failing to refer the required number of special needs students that the school needed to survive. After losing thousands of dollars, Gwendolyn Kimbrough left her position as the school's executive director in 2003.

The school was taken over by a private firm, Cornell Cos., which withdrew during the summer after losing money.

Chuck Perry, an attorney for Jos-Arz, said the school's trustees opted to surrender the charter because they could no longer afford to fight. "There were pre-Cornell bills coming back to haunt us -- in the $300,000 to $500,000 range," including several tax liens and judgments, he said in an interview. "It became more and more difficult to pay for the services that the children need."

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