A former religious compound was converted into a charter school, with ready-made community spaces and below-market apartments for teachers, in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The powerful board that oversees charter schools in Washington acted improperly when it voted in June to allow a charter network to expand, the D.C. Office of Open Government has ruled.

The finding has sparked calls by some parents and activists to void the charter school board’s decision.

But the school panel said it has no intention of reversing the June 19 decision to allow D.C. Preparatory Academy Public Charter Schools, known as D.C. Prep, to expand.

The Office of Open Government ruled that the D.C. Public Charter School Board violated city laws by not giving the public adequate notice about the vote or enough time to submit testimony. The Office of Open Government did not, however, in any of its four recommendations to the board, require that the board void the decision and take another vote.

A spokeswoman for the charter school board, Tomeika Bowden, said board officials will comply with the recommendations, which include abiding by the law in the future and attending an Open Meetings Act training session.

One charter school board member who voted in favor of allowing D.C. Prep to expand was Rick Cruz, who was chief executive of D.C. Prep from 2012 to 2013. Cruz said in an email that the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability “advised” him that his former position with D.C. Prep did not disqualify him from serving on the board or from voting on issues affecting his former employer. “I believe if I still worked for D.C. Prep that would be a conflict,” he said. “I have not worked for D.C. Prep in nearly four years.”

The recent ruling by the Office of Open Government was signed by Johnnie Barton, an attorney adviser, who was acting for Traci Hughes, the office’s director. Barton wrote that Hughes would “customarily issue any findings” but recused herself because she has a child attending a D.C. Prep school.

The vote to allow D.C. Prep to add more than 2,000 seats was the latest move in a years-long expansion of charter schools in the District — even though many open seats are available for students in charter and traditional public schools.

As of this school year, 120 charter schools operate in the District, run by 66 nonprofit organizations, accounting for more than 41,000 of the about 90,000 public school children in the city.

Charter schools have become a central feature of the school choice movement, which seeks to provide parents alternatives to traditional neighborhood public schools. The charter schools are run as if they are businesses rather than civic institutions. There are now thousands of charter schools — which are publicly funded but independently operated — enrolling more than 3 million students in 43 states and the District. About 6 percent of public school students across the country attend charter schools.

Charter school supporters say the traditional school system in the District has long been troubled. As proof of their popularity, charters assert that they have lengthy waiting lists. Opponents say the charter sector draws money and other resources from traditional schools, which don’t turn any child away and educate more students with severe disabilities than charters.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that discipline rates at D.C. charter schools were about double those at charters nationally and higher than those in the District’s traditional public schools in 2013-2014. The GAO found that 16 of the 105 charter schools that existed then suspended more than one-fifth of their students over the course of the 2015-2016 school year.

The D.C. collection of charter schools has enjoyed a better reputation among charter school researchers compared with scandal-ridden charter sectors in many states. But that doesn’t mean all of the District’s charter schools do equally well when it comes to student achievement and metrics. There are three “tiers” of charters in the District, rated by the board on a 100-point scale that includes factors such as test scores and attendance rates.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which was created in 1996 and is the sole charter authorizer in the District, granted permission for least 13 new schools between 2014 and 2016, according to the 21st Century School Fund — though all didn’t open — and gave at least 34 separate approvals for expansions or enrollment ceiling increases for existing charters during that period. The board says it closed 11 charters from 2014 to 2016.

Charter expansion has occurred even though existing charter schools have space for students, including some schools rated as being in the top “tier.” The exact number of open seats is not known because officials are still counting students in the new school year. But the 21st Century School Fund, a D.C. nonprofit that works to modernize public school facilities, performed an analysis using data from the latest report issued by the deputy mayor for education on building capacity and enrollment. It found that charter schools have more than 9,000 available seats and that traditional public schools have even more vacancies.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board does not put any stock in those numbers, saying the calculations don’t really add up to open seats. Asked about the issue, Bowden recently said in an email:

The number of “unused seats” has limited value. Schools self-report the maximum number of students who can theoretically be served at the facility. This number is based on the school’s current facility (e.g. the fire code allowance), educational programs (e.g., low teacher to student ratios), class size and staffing.

Rather than looking at this one number, there are a number of considerations which DC PCSB considers when reviewing new public charter schools or the expansion of existing ones. . .

Those include school closures and demand for charters, she wrote.

The June vote by the D.C. Public Charter School Board came two months after another vote in which it had denied D.C. Prep’s request to expand. In March and April, public testimony was given by a number of D.C. residents, some opposing the expansion. The May meeting of the board did not revisit the vote, but in June, without public notice, the expansion matter was raised again.

The woman who filed the initial complaint (see text below) about the June vote with the Office of Open Government was Valerie Jablow, a parent and education activist. She recently joined a handful of other D.C. residents in sending a letter to board leaders asking them to void the June vote, hold a public hearing on the issue and vote again. Bowden said the board would not revisit its decision.

Jablow wrote on her “educationdc” blog:

We have a procedurally flawed process by a public body regarding a public school using public money that omits the public — and yet results in a legally binding decision.

Wouldn’t a re-vote be the democratic way?

Here’s the opinion by the D.C. Office of Open Government:

on Scribd

And here’s Jablow’s original complaint:

At the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) meeting on March 20, 2017, several citizens and public interest groups either submitted written testimony or testified in person against a petition by DC Prep for an enrollment increase that would allow it to open a new elementary school and a middle school. Some opposition was based on DC Prep’s high student suspension rates, and the overcapacity in available seats that already exists among all DCPS and charter schools.

(Minutes of the 3/20/17 meeting are available here: http://www.livebinders.com/media/get/MTU4ODc4NjU=, and a video of the meeting is available here: https://livestream.com/dcpcsb/events/7145431/videos/152266817)

At its next meeting, on April 24, 2017, the PCSB denied DC Prep’s petition, citing concerns about suspension rates at DC Prep among other reasons.

(Minutes of the 4/24/17 meeting are available here: http://www.livebinders.com/media/get/MTYwNTk1NDg= as well as here: http://www.livebinders.com/media/get/MTYwNTk1Njk=. A video of the 4/24/17 meeting is available here: https://livestream.com/dcpcsb/april2017/videos/154883636)

On June 19, 2017, the PCSB held its most recent regularly scheduled monthly meeting. The agenda for that meeting was posted a day or so in advance of the meeting, on the charter board website. DC Prep was on the agenda for a charter amendment to its Performance Management Framework (PMF), but not for an enrollment increase.

(The June 19, 2017, meeting agenda is available here:

http://www.livebinders.com/play/play?id=2215191&utm_source=Test%20List_Tomeika&utm_campaign=65c7dc5b03-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_06_16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_69fce04733-65c7dc5b03-180601985.

Video of the June 19, 2017, meeting is available here: https://livestream.com/dcpcsb/June2017?utm_source=Test%20List_Tomeika&utm_campaign=65c7dc5b03-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_06_16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_69fce04733-65c7dc5b03-180601985)

At about an hour and a half into the June 19, 2017, meeting, one of the board members, Don Soifer, introduced additions to the agenda for the evening, citing Robert’s Rules of Order. The first addition was to renew DC Prep’s application to amend its charter to add a middle school, with a corresponding increase in students. The second addition to the agenda was for DC Prep to add an elementary school, along with a corresponding enrollment increase. The board voted to add both items to the agenda, with the vote on each to occur later in the evening.

So it was that at its June 19, 2017, meeting, without any notice to the public, the PCSB reconsidered and then reversed its April 24, 2017, decision, approving DC Prep’s petition to create two new charter schools. Before the June 19, 2017, meeting, the public had no idea this was going to be reconsidered and voted upon that evening. This is a violation of the charter board’s own rules for public notification.

It also is a violation of the District’s Open Meetings law, as the lack of any public notice that the DC Prep expansion vote would be revisited in all practical effect made the June 19 PCSB meeting a closed meeting, particularly with respect to those who had opposed the petition the first time around.

In addition, the PCSB failed to post at least one public comment on the DC Prep petition ahead of time. This too is a violation of the charter board’s own rules.

In response to a question from another member of the public about that reconsideration vote on June 19, 2017, a charter board staff member (Tomeika Bowden) sent the following:

“Robert’s Rules of Order allows for board members to request to add items to the agenda during the meeting. Additionally, Robert’s Rules of Order advises that a prepared agenda should not prevent members from bringing up business items. In this case, the DC Prep items voted on at the June meeting were identical in substance to those voted on previously, which already went through the complete public hearing and comment process. The public had ample time to provide comments and testimony, which the Board received and considered in its decision. If the items added to the agenda were materially different or new, we would have held a new public comment process to ensure adequate notice.”

There is also a related problem of considering and making available all public comments received on the DC Prep petition.

The day before the June 19, 2017, PCSB meeting, on June 18, I emailed Ms. Bowden at the charter board, along with Scott Pearson, the executive director, and Darren Woodruff, the board chair, noting that my comments on the original proposals from DC Prep and KIPP DC (which I submitted by the charter board’s March 20 deadline) were not listed on the materials for the June 19 board meeting. I re-sent my comments to them in that same email.

Later on June 18, Darren Woodruff sent my comments to all the charter board members and copied me via email. But it wasn’t until days after that June 19 board meeting that my comments on KIPP DC appeared on the posted materials for the June 19 board meeting. And my comments on DC Prep have never been posted with any board materials for DC Prep at any time.

Moreover, in the materials for the March 20, 2017, PCSB meeting, a staff memo (dated that same day) noted that the DC Prep proposal, which was to be discussed but not voted on during the 3/20 meeting, had no public comment. That was not true—I had submitted my comments by then, as had others.

When the DC Prep proposal came up for a vote on April 24, 2017, only one public comment in opposition to DC Prep was posted with the board materials the day prior to the April 24 meeting. That was a comment by Suzanne Wells that was made at the March 20, 2017, PCSB hearing.

Finally, and worst of all, no one commented against the DC Prep proposal for the June 19, 2017, board meeting because no one knew before the June 19 meeting that this proposal was going to be re-visited and voted on by PCSB. While the public had been allowed to comment on the DC Prep petition before the March 20, 2017, PCSB hearing, new information about DC Prep’s suspension rates was learned at the April 24, 2017, PCSB hearing.

In addition, the public had every confidence that once the PCSB had denied the DC Prep enrollment increase petition in April, it would not be up for consideration again without further public notice. As it is, members of the public might have testified if they knew there was a likelihood two additional schools would open in Ward 7, where there is already an overcapacity of school seats in Ward 7 at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

The charter board needs to suspend the vote they took on June 19, 2017, approving both the new elementary and middle schools for DC Prep. They need to announce this addition to their work agenda anew; open it up for public comment; ensure that the public comment is in fact posted well ahead of the meeting; and have another meeting to vote on it.

This would allow people who had no idea DC Prep’s proposal was going to be re-visited and re-voted upon a chance to testify in person or create new comments (and ensure they get posted).

The fact that the proposal for DC Prep was the same as it stood before the vote in April is a moot point: if the public doesn’t even know something is being considered, and voted on, the public is left in the dark not because it chooses to be, but because the public has no other choice.

Moreover, the only people who knew DC Prep’s proposal was under consideration at the June 19 PCSB meeting were those who stood to benefit from it materially: the school itself and the charter board, which depends on its funding in large part from fees from individual charter schools. This raises conflict of interest issues as well.