The reddish-brick building sits vacant on a tree-lined lot in Northeast Washington, a three-story monument to a failed experiment to bring down the exorbitant costs of special education in the District.
Five years ago, the former seminary on Taylor Street became a public charter school for children with severe emotional disturbances. Officials from the school system and the city's youth services agencies enthusiastically endorsed the plan, seeing an opportunity to reduce the $40 million annual cost of sending such children to private facilities as far away as California and Utah.
The D.C. Council also liked the idea -- and provided an unusual emergency allocation of $9.2 million so the charter school could increase its staff and convert the building to a 24-hour treatment facility.
But instead of saving D.C. taxpayers money, the Jos-Arz Therapeutic Public Charter School turned into a costly failure. Jos-Arz, embroiled in a political battle between the council and the school board, enrolled fewer than half the number of students projected and never received enough money to complete the planned renovations. In June, the school moved out of its home on Taylor Street because it could not keep up with the rent, and the school board is considering revoking its charter.
In all, Jos-Arz received about $15 million in city funds, of which $2.3 million was used for renovation expenses, former officials from the school say. Although there is sharp debate over who is to blame, everyone involved agrees that the city's investment essentially was wasted.
"We spent a whole lot of money, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing," said former council member Kevin P. Chavous, one of the school's early supporters.
Now Jos-Arz, which has dropped its residential program and is sharing space with a traditional public school, is at the center of another debate -- this one focusing on the fate of the empty Taylor Street building.
The nonprofit organization that owns the property has put it up for sale, entertaining offers from developers who would convert it into condominiums or senior citizen housing. But some school and city officials argue that they have a stake in the building, given the substantial public funds that went into Jos-Arz.
"To sell the building is criminal," said school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has waged a long fight against the school's founders. "We've paid for the building many times over, and I think the city should move in the courts to get the building."
Jos-Arz's struggles stem partly from a student referral process that proved more complicated than the school's administrators had anticipated. But they can also be traced to a political standoff between the council, which wanted to fully fund Jos-Arz's expansion, and the Cafritz-led board, which did not trust the school's financial management.
In the early days, the plans of Jos-Arz founders Rollie and Gwendolyn Kimbrough resonated strongly with both city and school officials.
The Kimbroughs played up their experience in education and health care. Rollie Kimbrough, as a board member of a nonprofit called Community Research Inc., had been extensively involved in substance abuse prevention programs. His wife, Gwendolyn, ran a company specializing in physical therapy and had worked in the administration of former D.C. school superintendent Barbara Sizemore. The fact that they had a location -- the Taylor Street building already was owned by Community Research -- was another plus.
The school board granted Jos-Arz's application to open a charter school to serve up to 70 residential and 120 day students.
But Jos-Arz opened only as a day school in fall 2000 because the building was not yet configured to serve residential students.
Charter schools normally receive an allocation from the city based on their current enrollment. That formula was not going to work in the case of Jos-Arz, its advocates said, arguing that it needed a large infusion of funds so it could build a residential wing and hire medical specialists.
Chavous, who had chaired the council's education committee, pushed through the legislation providing Jos-Arz with the emergency allocation of $9.2 million.
"We needed a way to rein in outside placement costs from [private] schools that would charge more to the District because of our lack of monitoring," Chavous said.
But Cafritz, who was not on the school board when Jos-Arz's charter was granted, became suspicious of what she considered unusually high rent payments from the school to the nonprofit on whose board Rollie Kimbrough served. She also complained about contracts the school awarded to Gwendolyn Kimbrough's company, American Therapeutic Services.
A 2003 report on Jos-Arz issued by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, however, said auditors found no "fraud, illegalities, misappropriation or irregularities."
The council approved a revenue bond to allow Jos-Arz to borrow up to $16 million to complete renovations to the building. But Cafritz, citing her concerns about the Kimbroughs, persuaded the board not to issue the school a letter of good standing, which prevented it from borrowing the funds.
The school was soon hemorrhaging money because of its low enrollment, Jos-Arz officials said. They said the situation was exacerbated by a city funding formula that did not take into account the high cost of the residential program.
Chavous, in part because of Jos-Arz's difficulties, got the council to pass legislation requiring that the school system give first priority to traditional public schools or D.C. public charter schools when deciding on the placement of special education students. Gandhi's report urged the school board to comply with that law, noting the school's enrollment problems.
But school system officials said Chavous's legislation conflicted with another law that prohibited them from placing students at charter schools, which receive public funding but are independently operated.
The Kimbroughs contend that the school system could have recommended Jos-Arz to parents. Shelvie McCoy, who was executive director of the school board's charter school office in 2000 and 2001 and later served briefly as an executive at Jos-Arz, agreed that school system officials were reluctant to recommend the school. "For some reason, referrals were rarely made," she said. "It seemed to be an unwritten rule not to make those referrals."
In June 2003, Gwendolyn Kimbrough quit as Jos-Arz's executive director, saying she had depleted her personal savings on the school. Houston-based Cornell Cos., which runs some of the private out-of-state facilities that enroll D.C. special education students, took over.
Paul Doucette, a Cornell spokesman, said city officials assured the company that Jos-Arz would get more referrals from the D.C. Department of Mental Health and other agencies involved in the placement of special education students. But the department instead began putting more emphasis on community-based day programs.
The school continued to receive "only a trickle of students," Doucette said, and Cornell pulled out in June.
Jos-Arz never enrolled more than 20 students in the residential program and 50 in the day program. It is serving 50 day students at its new location.
The school board's charter school office put Jos-Arz on probation last spring, citing low academic achievement, lack of certification for all teachers and lack of individual education plans for all students.
Meanwhile, some city and school officials have suggested that legislation is needed to allow the city to confiscate the properties of shuttered charter schools. Gwendolyn Kimbrough and some charter school advocates say such a law would restrict the schools' ability to obtain leases and financing for buildings.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the education committee, thinks otherwise. "Public money that has gone to a lease or purchase of a building is part of the value of the property," she said. "The city has an interest in addressing this by putting down some statutory language."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.