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."
In a statement, Fenty spokeswoman Carrie Brooks said: "The Mayor is not satisfied with the way this was handled. Going forward, the administration will work even closer with the Charter School Board."
Gray's (D) office released a statement that said "it is not the practice of the Council to provide funding for a program or purpose that has not been authorized first, and as you know the school conversions came after the budget was approved."
Reinoso did not return phone or e-mail messages.
The Center City application touched political nerves on the council, which has grown increasingly concerned about its lack of control over a charter school sector that now costs the city more than $360 million a year. Earlier this month, Gray and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation tightening the regulation of charter schools, including a mandated 15-month planning period before newly approved schools open.
"You should not have to budget by tea leaves," Wells said
David Umansky, spokesman for Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, said his office is preparing options for funding the schools that will soon be submitted to Fenty and the council. The city estimates that the total cost could be $7 million to $16 million -- depending on final enrollment numbers -- but is likely to be closer to the high end.
Umansky declined to discuss specific funding options, including those that could hinder Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's plans for transformation of the traditional public schools. If Gandhi finds the funds by diverting money from other school programs or lowers the per-pupil allocation, current students would bear the cost of the incoming pupils. The city keeps a $7.5 million reserve fund to cover small fluctuations in student population that surface after school enrollment is audited in the fall. But the fund was not intended to address a situation as large as the Center City plan. And using the reserve fund to cover the Center City students would likely mean there would be little or nothing left for its original purpose.
But somehow, Umansky said, the money will be available.
"Dr. Gandhi is confident that this is an amount that can be managed," he said.
Cane said the city's cost estimates are overstated, principally because only about 630 of the Center City applicants are Catholic school holdovers new to the city system. Most of the rest, he said, will be coming from other public or public charter schools and are already accounted for under the city's funding formula.
The larger significance of the Center City issue, charter supporters said, is it points up the need for better communication and coordination between the charter board, Fenty and Rhee. This is particularly true, Nida said, in figuring out how Rhee's recent closing of traditional public schools and the growth of charter schools can be more rationally managed.
As an example, he pointed to E.L. Haynes, a public charter school that will open a new campus on Georgia Avenue in Columbia Heights in the fall. It is within a mile of two traditional elementary schools -- Meyer, which closed this month, and Park View, which will close by 2011. Nida said that in those instances children in the immediate neighborhoods of closed schools could be given some kind of priority in entering nearby charters.
"We read about schools closing, just like everybody else," Nida said. "They [public school officials] read about charter approvals like everybody else. A little more planning might be a good thing."
Center City will set up campuses on the sites of former parochial schools in Congress Heights (formerly Assumption); Capitol Hill (Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian); Trinidad (Holy Name); Shaw (Immaculate Conception); Brentwood (St. Francis de Sales); Petworth (St. Gabriel's) and Brightwood (Nativity).
Interest has been heavier than expected. The 1,200 applications Center City has received exceeds its first-year estimate of 1,094. The group's Web site says it still has space available at the Brentwood, Brightwood, Congress Heights, Shaw and Trinidad campuses.