Charter schools and developers who want to buy vacant D.C. school buildings have been turned down in some cases while the properties deteriorate, are preyed upon by vandals and fester as neighborhood eyesores, according to testimony at a D.C. Council education committee hearing yesterday.
Committee members blamed the D.C. financial control board for delegating property disposal to the school system more than two years ago, then failing to act when the process slowed to a standstill because of turnover among school officials and disagreements about how to proceed.
"This is really stupid, and neighborhoods are being destroyed," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). "We've got to decide who's in charge here and get things moving."
Ambrose also faulted Congress for ordering the city in 1996 to dispose of the properties without making clear whether the goal should be to bring in the most money or to determine the best neighborhood use for each building.
Yesterday, a key House Appropriations panel approved legislation that would require Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the control board and school officials to implement a new property disposal process within 90 days of the enactment of the city's budget.
Judging from the council hearing, it can't come soon enough.
Several advocates and officials from public charter schools spoke of negotiating for months to lease or buy a building, only to be rejected or forced to make enormous renovations because equipment had been removed and property damaged during negotiations.
"It's presented a minefield of problems," said committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who with Ambrose grilled the school system's latest real estate director, Gerald F. Cooke, for more than an hour.
Cooke, who was hired in May, said the school system has sold nine of the 53 surplus properties for a total of $8.6 million, with a $2 million sale pending--far less than the tens of millions originally projected.
Several other schools have been leased or are being used by the school system, and deals for others are being negotiated.
Cooke agreed that the process has moved erratically and slowly.
"It pains me to see it," Cooke said. "We are doing everything in our power to improve this process."
Chavous and Ambrose suggested moving disposal of school properties to the mayor's control--where it languished for years under the administrations of Marion Barry--and coordinating with efforts to sell or redevelop other vacant city properties.
Such a move would be up to the control board, Ambrose said in an interview. But Constance B. Newman, the control board's vice chairman, has said she wants Chavous to lead a community effort to develop a new process.
Newman was on vacation yesterday, and neither the spokesman nor the director of the control board could be reached last night.
Although Chavous urged quick action on selling properties, he also expressed support for a Board of Education resolution to delay any transactions for six months until a long-range facilities master plan is completed. The long-awaited study, which is supposed to include demographic projections that have been missing from D.C. school planning for years, is routine in other school systems.
"It makes no sense to sell some of these schools until we finish that process," Chavous said.
Cooke said he will work on deals that are pending and accept new bids until he is told to do otherwise.
"I have to assume that when the direction we are going to take is clarified," he said in an interview, "it will be communicated to me."
CAPTION: Council member Sharon Ambrose says neighborhoods in the District are being destroyed because of the lack of action on vacant school buildings.