7 Catholic Schools in D.C. Set to Become Charters

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The D.C. Public Charter School Board approved a controversial proposal last night to allow seven financially struggling Catholic schools to reopen as secular charters this fall, although the city's plan for funding the schools remains uncertain.

The schools, with a total projected enrollment estimated at 600 to 1,000 students, are Assumption and Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Southeast; Holy Name and St. Francis de Sales in Northeast; and Immaculate Conception, Nativity Catholic Academy and St. Gabriel in Northwest.

The board's unanimous vote continues the steady growth of the city's charter sector, with 57 schools and more than 20,000 students across 88 campuses this fall. But yesterday's deliberations might also reflect the board's acknowledgment of criticism from the D.C. Council that the rapid expansion of charter schools, publicly funded but operated by independent boards, has come at the expense of academic quality and accountability.

The board approved one other application out of the 10 it considered this year, for National Collegiate Preparatory, a high school targeted to students in Wards 7 and 8 that will open in 2009. Last year, the board approved six of 13 applications.

The Catholic schools, to be renamed and switched to a nonreligious academic program, will be operated by Center City Public Charter Schools, the nonprofit group selected by the Archdiocese of Washington. The group is an offshoot of the Center City Consortium, set up by the Archdiocese in 1995 to help financially fragile urban Catholic schools pool administrative costs and fundraising. Even with the consortium arrangement, the Archdiocese said, falling enrollment and mounting costs would force the closure of the schools unless they were converted to charters.

The Center City plan triggered criticism from some council members already unhappy with the rapid expansion of charter schools. Most charter operators take a year after board approval to open. But because the Catholic schools already have buildings, staff employees and students, they pushed to open this fall.

The city is required by law to provide funding for all District students attending a charter school. But because of the short lead time, it did not include the cost of the Center City project, which could run from $7 million to $14 million, depending on enrollment, in its recently completed 2009 budget.

City officials said they have several options, possibly using some of the federal funds President Bush has set aside in his budget for D.C. schools. The city also has a reserve fund with money set aside to deal with fluctuations in enrollment. The fund has about $7.5 million, city officials said.

Charter board members said last night that their sole responsibility was to approve a responsible plan to help children who were at risk of losing their schools.

"There's been a lot of political stuff going on," Karl Jentoft said. "Our role is to look at the application and determine what is best for the children."

The board of the City Center non-profit group that will operate the converted schools includes S. Joseph Bruno, president of Building Hope, a national nonprofit group that assists charter schools with real estate deals; Ralph F. Boyd, chairman and chief executive of the Freddie Mac Foundation; and Jack Griffin, a retired real estate developer and former chairman of the Center City Consortium's board of directors.

Mary Anne Stanton, who retired as executive director of the consortium in June 2006, will be the nonprofit group's executive director.

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