- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

Some parents and guardians with children at the Meridian Public Charter School in the District of Columbia are exasperated that the elementary school has yet to open its doors more than a year after its inception.

Meridian, which leases part of the historic Manhattan Laundry Co. building in the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NW., has delayed opening twice since it was founded in September 1999. School officials blame the delays on renovation woes.

"I thought my godson would be better off in a charter school. Instead, things are worse," said Sister Miriam Bauerlin, whose godson, Aaron, is in the fourth grade. "The kids are suffering."

Since the beginning of the school year, most of Meridian's 250 students have been housed in the basement of the St. Augustina Lutheran Church in the 2100 block of New Hampshire Avenue NW and the Studio Public Charter School in the 1300 block of V Street NW.

School authorities first promised that students would be able to move into the Manhattan Laundry building in November, then extended the deadline to December. The latest date given for moving in is the end of this month.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees all publicly funded yet independently run schools in the city, has asked Meridian officials to move at least some students into the building sometime early next month.

"We have asked them to report to us by February," said Nelson Smith, director of the charter school board. "The board very much wants to see the school at the originally approved location. We know they are trying to move in that direction."

The school's early childhood program is housed in a smaller section of the Manhattan Laundry building that was leased in the fall of 1999. Meridian is authorized for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.

Members of Meridian's board of directors said difficulties in securing financing and changes in regulations on repair work on historic buildings have contributed to the school's opening delays.

But the school's board said most of their woes have resulted from the building's landlord, the Rockville, Md.-based Douglas Development Corp., failing to disclose the building's historic status.

Some board members said Douglas Development obtained a construction permit without disclosing that the laundry building is a historic landmark.

"In a nutshell, we believe we were misled about the building permit by our landlord," said Payson Peabody, a member of Meridian's board.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which oversees the preservation of historic buildings, bans changing the facades of such structures.

The Manhattan Laundry Co. was designated a historic landmark in 1994 for "representing a span of more than 50 years of commercial growth in Washington."

Renovation of the laundry building was under way in 1999, when DCRA halted the construction and cited its prohibitions on reworking the exteriors of historic buildings.

Meridian annually pays $13 per square foot to lease 19,000 square feet of the building and has spent $500,000 on repairs, including work required for historic preservation, said the school's executive director, Louis Steadwell.

Mr. Steadwell said funds for repair work came from the school's budget via an annual per-student allocation made by the charter school board. This year's allocation is $1,400 per student.

Apart from funds earmarked for facilities maintenance, school officials also had to dip into a "number of program funds," he said, adding that the overtime work on the building had added to costs.

Douglas Development was supposed to lease the building to the school in good condition, Mr. Peabody said.

"The past few weeks have been an education on how contracting is done in the city. We relied on some promises and faulty advice," Mr. Peabody said.

Douglas Jamal, who runs Douglas Development, said he did not know if the school was notified of the building's historic status or whether his company had notified the authorities about the historic status while getting a permit.

In addition, Mr. Steadwell noted the "hard time we had in getting financing," explaining the school's delay in opening.

Banks refused to advance any loans based on the school's future expansion figures, Mr. Steadwell said. "They also said we were spending too much money fixing up the landlord's building," he added.

The school's explanations have not mollified parents.

"Meridian is an excellent school I love it. But if they continue to run from different buildings, I won't be able to tolerate it for much longer," said Mary Chaney, who has two children attending school in the Lutheran church and another in the preschool program in the laundry building.

Mrs. Chaney said she works as an office temp and often finds it hard to adjust her schedule to pick up the children from two different locations.

Another parent, Anthony More, said he is tired of being given different opening dates by school officials. "I want to know when they will move… . I don't know if [the children] are learning anything here," he said.

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