D.C. Still in Search of Charter School Funds

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl proposed converting eight Catholic schools to charters in September.
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl proposed converting eight Catholic schools to charters in September. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

It was early September when Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl first publicly proposed converting eight of the District's 28 Catholic schools to secular charter schools, citing declining enrollment and escalating costs that made it impossible for the archdiocese to operate them any longer.

The announcement was a signal event for the city's school system. Its community of charter schools, taxpayer-financed and independently operated, had grown robustly over the last decade to serve more than 20,000 D.C. children, many of them from low-income families seeking an alternative to under-performing traditional public schools.

But this was something new. Charter schools generally start on a modest scale, with a relative handful of students on a single campus. Wuerl's plan -- later winnowed to seven schools -- would add hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand, new public school students spread over multiple campuses.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, indicated at the time that the city clearly understood the implications of the archdiocese's announcement: "We will take it into consideration as we plan future budgets," he said.

That never happened.

District officials disclosed last week that they are still looking for the money to finance the schools, a sum that could come to as much as $16 million this year. They have told the nonprofit operator, Center City Public Charter Schools, that its first quarterly payment from the city -- due by July 15 under District law -- will be delayed.

Charter advocates say it underscores the poor level of coordination between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the D.C. Council and the board responsible for oversight of charter schools.

Center City said the city's failure to meet its obligation will not prevent it from opening the schools as planned. Joseph Bruno, treasurer and member of its board of directors, said lines of credit and foundation grants would meet any immediate cash needs. The seven schools, which instruct students up to the eighth grade, have received more than 1,200 applications for the 2008-09 academic year, a number that school officials said could grow.

This month, the D.C. Council approved $366 million for 63 charter schools as part of its fiscal 2009 budget. City officials said that it did not include Center City in their budget planning because its application was not approved by the D.C. Public Charter School Board until June 16 -- three months after the District's spending blueprint was completed. The Catholic school conversion was also atypical, they said, because of the quick turnaround involved. Most new charters spend 12 to 15 months finding a building, hiring staff members and enrolling students. Center City's plan involved a set of existing schools ready to re-open as secular institutions in the fall.

Charter school supporters said Fenty (D) and the council actually had significant lead time to prepare, as evidenced by Wuerl's September announcement.

"This couldn't have been to anyone's surprise," said charter board Chairman Thomas A. Nida, who added that he had warned Center City officials to expect a delay in their payment.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school advocacy organization, said that even after Fenty submitted his budget to the council, "it had months to work with him to correct the error. I told [D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C.] Gray's people repeatedly that the kids were going to show up in the public schools one way or the other."

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