- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

A District of Columbia Superior Court judge Tuesday threw out a legal bid to stop the first conversion of a District public school into a charter school, freeing the school to open as scheduled this fall.

Last September, the charter school board had approved Paul Junior High School's application to convert to a charter school, after a three-year effort. Supporters were required to get signatures from two-thirds of the school's parents and teachers.

Opponents of converting Paul to a charter school told Judge Judith Bartnoff the conversion process was tainted by improprieties and asked the court to issue an injunction.

"Teachers were told to sign the petition or lose their jobs," said Barbara Bullock, president of the Washington Teachers' Union.

"There were names of parents on the petition that didn't sign it. Plans for the school conversion were not presented to the community as the legislation says it needs to be."

But Judge Bartnoff disagreed and denied the injunction, finding that the plaintiffs two teachers and two parents had not met the criteria to obtain one.

"[We] are extremely pleased that Judge Bartnoff has rejected this attempt to thwart the Paul Junior High School conversion," said D.C. Public Charter School Board Chairman Josephine Baker.

"This conversion was the result of tremendous effort by teachers and parents over the last three years. To stop the conversion at this point over baseless allegations would undermine the plans of hundreds of students and parents who are looking forward to the opportunities afforded by this new public charter school."

Opponents of the conversion expressed frustration at the judge's findings.

"It's unfortunate because that school needs to remain a neighborhood school, not become a charter school," said Mrs. Bullock. "Quite a few people are upset by the conversion."

As a charter school, Paul will operate independently of the D.C. Public Schools system but will continue to be a neighborhood school, admitting students from its boundary area.

Opponents are doubtful that it will continue to be a neighborhood school.

"As for the school remaining a neighborhood school, the rest of the charters don't work that way," Mrs. Bullock said.

Judge Bartnoff rejected those accusations after hearings Monday and Tuesday, saying that the Charter School Board is the body that is charged with investigating allegations of improper conduct regarding the application process. She noted that no allegations had been presented to the board before it approved Paul's application. And she ruled that allegations of intimidation or coercion in the petition process were baseless.

The judge added that charter proponents informed parents and teachers in a "reasonable and satisfactory" manner about the initiative.

The strong findings by the judge on the allegations make it unlikely the lawsuit that brought on the injunction will continue, said Nelson Smith, spokesman for the board.

"There are always going to be obstacles, but this ruling removed one more," said Mr. Smith. "The opposition is grounded on sheer misinformation. We hope the school will start to be judged on its merits."

From the start, the conversion has been embroiled in controversy. Recently, the control board granted Paul permission to lease the building at Eighth and Oglethorpe streets NW, a move that led four members of the emergency school board Maudine Cooper, Peter Gallagher, M. Charito Kruvant and Emily Washington to quit their appointed posts. In a prepared statement they said "the control board's decision is harmful to children."

Mrs. Ackerman has opposed letting the charter school keep the building and had tried to install a math and science magnet program at the site.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. public schools declined to comment on Tuesday's ruling.

Paul, which enrolls 726 students in seventh through ninth grades, will sever its ties with the established school system when it converts to a charter school this fall. More than 500 of Paul's current students have signed up to enroll at the charter in the fall

Cecile Middleton, principal at Paul for more than a decade, is widely credited with boosting enrollment, morale and test scores at the school.

Mrs. Middleton has said she decided to pursue a charter conversion to escape the bureaucracy of the established school system.

"I understand the uproar regarding public schools, but until D.C. schools are up to par, parents need another option," said Janet Meyer, the 2B Council president.

"Most parents can't afford private schools, and when they can, get billed twice once as a taxpayer for the public school, once as a customer of a private school."

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