Lafayette Elementary parents are wondering whether they will be able to continue holding before-school Spanish classes for kids now that the city is asking for $1,000 monthly rent to use school space.
“We can’t afford to pay that,” said Julie Stewart, one of two parents who volunteer to run the program, which has enrolled 90 kids this year. “I’ve never heard anything about having to pay rent to use the public school.”
City officials said outside groups have always had to pay for the use of space in public schools and that fees help defray security, custodial and other costs. But it’s not clear how widely and evenly the policy has been enforced.
D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose Upper Northwest constituents are known for being involved in local schools, said she was not aware of any other parent group asked to pay rent for use of a school building.
Lafayette “is not the only place where parents band together, spend their own money and provide enrichment for kids,” said Cheh, “and it just seems to me so wrongheaded to try to frustrate that.”
She may move emergency legislation next week, if that’s what it takes to make sure that parents who operate enrichment programs don’t run up rent bills.
The Lafayette parents were billed shortly after they filled out paperwork requesting permission from the Department of General Services to use the school building three mornings a week.
That paperwork — called a “building use agreement” — requires proof of insurance, among other things. Without those forms on file, principals can be held personally liable for anything that happens outside school hours.
Longtime Lafayette Principal Lynn Main said she let the forms slide for years, but tightened up this fall and asked groups to fill them out. She said she could no longer assume the risk of something going wrong, given the school’s growing number of extracurricular activities — many of which are run by outside, for-profit companies.
DGS folks say they’re charging rent under the authority of something called DCPS Directive 612.1b [see below]. Apparently groups that don’t charge participation fees — such as the Girl Scouts — can meet for free at schools. For-profit companies have to pay.
The Lafayette foreign-language program doesn’t make a profit. But organizers do collect $495 per student for eight months of classes. The money goes to hire part-time instructors, who earn $46 per class.
The $1,000 rent is based on the use of 10 classrooms at $100 each. But the teachers and kids don’t actually use classrooms, which are occupied in the morning by teachers getting ready for the school day. Instead, they meet in the corner of the library and other unused alcoves of the school.
So organizers asked DGS to reconsider the rent. In response, the agency sent someone to the school last week with a measuring tape and instructions to figure out how much space the Spanish classes actually use.
DGS will assess rent based on that square footage. Parents hope it will be cheaper than a grand, but they’re still waiting to hear.