The District plans to lease a vacant campus in Southeast Washington, potentially paving the way for a charter school to take over a public school building for the first time during Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s five-year tenure.
The deputy mayor for education, Paul Kihn, said the city no longer needs the building that housed Ferebee-Hope Elementary School, which was shut down in 2013 along with more than a dozen other city campuses facing declining enrollment.
The announcement comes as charter schools clamor for facilities, with advocates blasting Bowser (D) for holding on to empty campuses when charters could use them. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, are responsible for securing their own buildings, and they often construct campuses or retrofit facilities that were not designed as schools. The District’s charter board recently approved the opening of five new campuses in 2020.
“We’re grateful and we thank the mayor for doing this,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. “We have always been troubled by the fact that there are empty school buildings, while there are charter schools that can’t find space or are forced to locate in warehouses or office buildings without proper amenities.”
Under federal law, charter schools in the District have the right to make the first offer on any surplus school campus the city owns. Preference is given to charter schools that are considered high performing and financially sound.
If the city does not reach a deal with a charter school in six months, it can accept applications from other organizations that want to use Ferebee-Hope Elementary, which is in the 3900 block of Eighth Street SE in the Washington Highlands neighborhood.
The empty school is connected to the Ferebee Hope Recreation Center, an expansive community space with a pool that needs renovations. Kihn said the city is looking for a tenant that would revamp the recreation center.
The elementary school sits mostly vacant, but it is not boarded up and is maintained by the city.
“Because D.C. Public Schools has determined that it does not need the school as a current or future school building, we are opening it up to see how we can make it something really special for the community in that location,” Kihn said.
While this is the first vacant schoolhouse that Bowser has released from the city’s inventory since taking office in 2015, she has extended a few short-term leases with charter schools into long-term agreements. DC Bilingual Public Charter School, for example, operates out of the old Keene School in Northeast Washington. In 2016, Bowser said the city no longer needed the building and gave DC Bilingual a multiyear lease, allowing the school to make renovations.
Kihn said the District does not have many vacant school buildings left that it would consider leasing. He said the city is interested in putting some empty schoolhouses to different uses, while others serve as temporary space for students during renovations to existing campuses.
Bowser’s predecessors, Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Vincent C. Gray (D), released buildings to charter schools, although they had more empty buildings in their inventory than the current mayor does.
Forty charter schools are housed in former D.C. Public Schools buildings. Nine of those charters own their buildings, and the others have leases. The District can also lease its buildings to private schools, such as the Lab School of Washington, which educates children with special learning needs.
Before the city leases the Ferebee-Hope building, the property will be appraised, and the future tenant will probably pay about market value.
Pearson said he regularly lobbies the administration to relinquish buildings so that charter schools, which educate about half of the District’s public school students, can use them.
Last week, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, an advocacy organization, launched a radio and digital advertising campaign in Spanish and English, calling on the city to release empty facilities to charter schools. The campaign featured leaders of high-performing charter schools, who said they could better educate students — and more of them — if they had proper facilities.
Ramona Edelin, executive director of the association, called the District’s empty school buildings a “travesty.” She said she hopes the campaign galvanizes support to pressure the city to release more buildings.
“Not only is there a moral imperative to providing a facility to public school students,” Edelin said, “but there’s also a fiduciary responsibility.”
Residents in the Washington Highlands neighborhood have urged the city to find a use for the empty Ferebee-Hope campus.
Sandy Allen, a former Ward 8 D.C. Council member who lives six blocks from the school, said repurposing the empty building would make the neighborhood safer.
“The space was being wasted, and we could not afford that because there is too much stuff going on in our community for any building to be vacant,” Allen said. “Knowing the needs of the neighborhood and the things that needed to be done in our neighborhood, I asked the mayor to look into it and get something done with it.”
The city will hold its first public meeting July 9 to gauge what the community wants to see on the property. Pearson and the Bowser administration agreed that the Ferebee-Hope property is large enough to potentially house multiple tenants. The D.C. Council must approve plans for the property, with the future of the parcel unlikely to be finalized until the end of the year.
“We’ve heard it loud and clear from the community — it’s time to reactivate and develop the Ferebee-Hope site to breathe life back into this space and bring new opportunities to the neighborhood,” Bowser said in a news release. “I’m committed to working hand-in-hand with residents on what they want to see at the site.”