Late-night maneuvering gives Harris building to UDC for community college

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

The slash to the streetcar program wasn't the only big change to the city budget made in the middle of the night.

Via little-noticed language that first appeared in budget legislation released after 2 a.m. Wednesday, the Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Ward 8 would be removed from the city's real estate portfolio and transferred to the control of the University of the District of Columbia for use as a campus for its newly established community college. The move, along with other budget provisions, awaits a final council vote next month.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) included the transfer hours before Wednesday's initial vote on the fiscal 2011 budget at the behest of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

"I'm one of the strongest supporters of UDC on the council," Barry said late last week. "Launching this community college, I've always insisted that we have a campus east of the river in Ward 8." Barry added that he approached Gray about including the transfer in the budget "three or four days ago."

It isn't the first time the council has used the city budget to appropriate a shuttered school building for UDC's use. Last year, the council took Bertie Backus Middle School -- located on a valuable site near the Fort Totten Metro station -- and handed it to UDC for its community college over the objections of mayoral officials, including City Administrator Neil O. Albert.

Gray, who is running for mayor, has made his support for UDC and its new president, Allen L. Sessoms, a prominent part of his education platform.

Harris, like Backus, was closed in 2008, among the 23 D.C. public schools shuttered that year. Since then, the 358,000-square-foot building near the city's southern tip has housed a variety of city agencies, including training facilities for the fire department and for the child-welfare agency. The nonprofit group Sasha Bruce Youthwork occupies space at Harris, as does UDC, which has a lease there for the community college's workforce development programs.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and Robin-Eve Jasper, director of the city real estate office, lobbied council members ahead of the budget vote, urging them to hold off on the transfer, but was unsuccessful.

Work has already started at Harris on a physical agility testing facility for fire department recruits, a contract that recently passed council review. If the transfer goes through, Jasper said, work might have to stop, and an undetermined amount of taxpayer money could be wasted.

"It's a shame we didn't have an opportunity to work with UDC on this," Jasper said Thursday. "We could have given them some information and suggestions that might have been helpful in their consideration of their options."

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who as head of the Government Operations Committee oversees city real estate dealings, also learned of the move hours before the vote and started asking questions. "At that point, it had a certain momentum I was not able to stop," she said.

Cheh raised concerns about the process used to make the transfer. "It's not the best way to proceed to make a decision like this, especially because this doesn't seem to be an emergency," she said.

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