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Northwest D.C. ‘NIMBYs’ fight proposal over new schools

D.C. may build a school over a portion of the newly renovated Hardy Park. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the D.C. property that the city leases to the Lab School. This article has been corrected.

The District’s public school system has proposed constructing two new schools in the Foxhall area of Northwest Washington to alleviate significant overcrowding at existing campuses.

But the plan has fiercely divided the community, with some arguing that it would destroy beloved park space and bring more traffic. Others believe that the need for these schools is so urgent that residents should support the plan and push officials to move fast. Residents have packed community meetings and put signs up on fences around the proposed school sites, championing their stances on the city’s approach to addressing the overcrowding.

It’s a challenge unique to the wealthiest swath of the city, with its highest-performing public schools. In most other wards, public schools are under-enrolled as families opt for charter schools in large numbers. But in Ward 3, enrollment in the traditional school system has grown so much that some elementary schools require “speed lunches” so administrators can quickly shuffle children in and out of packed cafeterias.

“We have an immediate and urgent need,” said Jason Rao, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area who has two children in elementary school. “We see classroom sizes growing and growing to the point where we are building trailers.”

This building shows how complicated school real estate can be

The controversy has entangled a cluster of properties sprinkled amid some of the region’s most expensive residential real estate.

The first site under consideration is the proposed Foxhall Elementary, planned for the 1500 block of Foxhall Road NW, in what is now Hardy Park. The city allocated more than $50 million last year for the 550-student school, to alleviate overcrowding at nearby Stoddert, Key and Mann elementary schools. But some residents fear the new building would obliterate beloved green space. A city analysis said the proposal would use no more than 15 percent of the green space.

The second property is blocks away on MacArthur Boulevard NW: a former campus of the private Georgetown Day School that the city bought for $46 million in March. The city wants to build a middle school or a high school on the site to relieve overcrowding at Deal Middle School or Wilson High School.

And the third site is a satellite campus of the private Lab School, located nearby on Foxhall Road NW, whose lease with the city was set to expire in 2023. Many residents hoped the District would reclaim this property for use as a public school instead of building a new one on Hardy Park.

Then, in December, the city renewed Lab’s lease until 2038. Ward 3 Council Member Mary M. Cheh (D) charged that the city negotiated with the school behind closed doors, avoiding the standard public review of such leases by the D.C. Council.

“I was shocked to learn that the Executive [branch of the D.C. government] had unilaterally extended Lab’s lease for 15 years,” Cheh wrote in her newsletter to constituents. “I later learned that the Deputy Mayor for Education had specifically rewritten that lease extension to avoid Council review, effectively negotiating with Lab in secret with no notice to the Council or the public on the plans to extend the lease.”

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In an email, D.C. Public Schools spokesman Enrique Gutierrez said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) “has been consistent that she intended to extend the lease for The Lab School — a school that effectively serves special education students with high needs.” The school currently pays $10,594.82 per month in rent, he said.

Robert Avery, president of the Foxhall Community Citizens Association, said the city’s plan to build new schools “starts to look like a pretty crazy proposal” given the Lab lease extension and the number of other schools in the area. Green space in the city is limited, Avery said, and Hardy Park is at the end of a $5.7 million renovation.

“This is so mind-bogglingly stupid,” he said. “This was done with no planning.”

Avery said he was “concerned about overcrowding,” but concluded that “there’s got to a be a better place to put this school.”

“You have a bunch of stay-at-home moms in Spring Valley and their poor little kids worried about two shifts in the cafeteria,” he said. “We don't need this $56 million gold-plated [school].”

Rao, the advisory neighborhood commissioner, lives two blocks from Hardy Park, and his 6- and 8-year-old children attend a public elementary school more than two miles away. Although the school construction would not be completed in time to shorten his children’s daily commute, he said he supports it, rejecting the “not in my backyard” view of his constituents.

Conditions are dire for children in overcrowded schools, Rao said, with gyms and extracurricular spaces jettisoned for use as multipurpose rooms when building more schools would only demand “minimal sacrifice.”

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Residents say they want more details about the two schools, but the city has not yet decided what grades each building would serve. Options abound.

At Foxhall, the school system has proposed creating an elementary school with a new boundary or relocating lower grades from Mann and Key to the campus. The MacArthur Boulevard building may host a new, stand-alone middle or high school, or the city may move Hardy Middle there while creating a new neighborhood high school at Hardy. Another idea is to use the new building as a campus for Wilson’s ninth-graders, to alleviate overcrowding there.

In a June 2 letter to the mayor seeking more information about the city’s plans, Paige Ela, chair of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission where the schools would be built, said the District “should not only address overcrowding and enhance diversity in our schools but also protect and promote DC’s precious community parks and recreation resources, rather than sacrifice them.”

In an interview, Ela, who supports the school construction, said much of Hardy Park would remain after it was built. She said neighborhood opposition was based on “misinformation.”

“The heart of the matter is that, generally, change is just really hard,” she said. “The park is underutilized right now.”

But the reality is that these two new schools would only solve a portion of the overcrowding in the area — together adding about 1,200 seats. Stoddert is slated for a renovation that could add 200 seats to the school. However, city estimates say that by 2029, Ward 3 could require more than 2,000 additional seats — an estimate that doesn’t include seats needed for full prekindergarten programs.

Residents have criticized the city for failing to come up with a more long-term plan to solve the overcrowding, saying the current proposals fall short of that.

And parents like Ela say they want to ensure that schools are diverse, with room for students who want to attend but do not live in-boundary. The city says its projections include about 10 percent of seats for out-of-boundary students.

D.C. is expanding in-person learning. But most of the new seats will be in D.C.’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

J.P. Szymkowicz, another advisory neighborhood commissioner, said he was the only ANC member to oppose construction of the new school, comparing his position to Gen. George Custer’s “last stand.”

“The last thing any government anywhere in the country should do is take a public park and use it for a government, non-park-related building,” he said. “Once you take park away, it’s gone forever.”

But some parents say there is definitely a need for new schools.

Heather Fath says her 17-year-old son William had trouble getting a good education, even though he has lived in expensive areas of upper Northwest D.C. his whole life, including a home two blocks from Lafayette Elementary, a highly regarded public school.

William, born with a brain malformation, is on the autism spectrum and has limited verbal abilities. When his peers began walking to elementary school, Fath said, her son couldn’t find an appropriate placement through the D.C. system. Overcrowding at the city’s sought-after public schools, most of them west of Rock Creek Park, made it impossible for the District to provide what William needed: a self-contained classroom.

After trying out six different schools across the city, William ended up at a private school in Potomac that costs the District — which pays for special education placements for students it can’t accommodate — tens of thousands of dollars per year. Though Fath is happy with the school, she said bussing her son a half-hour into the suburbs each day is “isolating.”

If DCPS wasn’t overwhelmed with students, she said, William might have had a chance to build better relationships with neighborhood children by learning alongside them.

“The overarching question is, where do we put these kids?” Fath said. “You can have both the school and the park. They can coexist.”