- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

D.C. charter-school leaders say they are being forced to turn students away because the city is offering them buildings that are structurally unsafe, rife with hazardous materials and in need of millions of dollars of work.
Charter schools are struggling to find classroom space, and the law requires officials to give charter schools the first crack at buying surplus buildings, unless the District can make significantly more money by selling a building to another buyer. Charter-school advocates say that because of this stipulation, preference is given to businesses.
"The facilities issue is a crisis now," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), a District-based charter-school advocacy group. "It could be solved by the city administration and the school system, but they have done little or nothing to help."
According to Mr. Cane's group, 60 school buildings have been declared surplus by the District during the past few years. He said 10 are occupied by charter schools.
This year, the city also will give charter schools less money to spend on space. The per-pupil facilities allocation has been reduced from $1,422 last year to $1,237 for this fall.
Schools say they are admitting fewer students next year because of the space shortage.
"In all fairness, the city should offer us a building that is at least free of environmental issues," said Joshua Kern, founder of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast.
Mr. Kern said he was told earlier this year that he could bid on the Nichols Avenue School building in Southeast, but he found that it had serious structural and environmental problems.
"We keep uncovering obstacles. The building has been put on the market with $3 million worth of asbestos issues, and apart from that, it will cost us $10 million to renovate," he said.
Mr. Kern opened the school in a church annex last year with 80 ninth-graders who live in Southeast. This fall, the school will admit 40 new students instead of 80 because it has no space to expand.
There are 36 charter schools in the District that are privately run but publicly funded, and two more will open in the fall. According to FOCUS, their enrollment is expected to grow to 13,000 this fall from 11,000 last year, and waiting lists are common. Meanwhile, the District's public schools have been steadily losing students. In 1990, there were 80,694 public-school students. Last year, that number was down to 68,449.
Advocates say that although charter schools are a big draw to parents who want alternatives to the public-school system, the difficulty in finding facilities is one of the biggest obstacles to charter-school growth.
Every year, some schools delay opening because they can't find space. Although a few charter schools have co-located in old school buildings, others have opened with one or two grades in shopping malls, warehouses or church basements with no playground space, science labs, auditoriums or gymnasiums. Some schools do not even have room for libraries. Cafeterias double as auditoriums and, sometimes, as classrooms.
Tri-Community Public Charter School, forced to delay opening by a year because it couldn't find space, will open this fall with 40 students instead of the planned 400, because it couldn't find enough space, said Tamara Lumpkin, manager of school development for the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
"Lots of schools are postponing wonderful programs because they don't have space," she said.
A city official said that since 1998 the mayor's office has offered 13 school buildings to charter schools at a discount of 15 percent to 20 percent. But Mr. Cane said that of these buildings, 10 were occupied by charter schools before the mayor's list was put out.
"The administration is being deliberately misleading when they say they provided us with 13 buildings," he said. The three school buildings that were offered Kingsman in Northeast, Nichols in Southeast and Armstrong in Northwest were in a "seriously deteriorated condition," he said.
Mr. Cane said charter schools are negotiating to get four school buildings that were recently vacated. But documents from the mayor's office show that of these, one, Bundy, already is occupied by the Office of Mental Health. Another, Keene, is part of a legal dispute and may not be free for several months, a source with the mayor's office said.
City officials agree the properties need "significant" repairs but said they want to give charter schools the opportunity to buy them.
"Because of the space shortage facing charter schools, the District is trying to make as many surplus facilities as possible available to charter schools, regardless of their condition," said Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
City officials suggest that charter schools partner with private businesses to renovate old buildings, or co-locate with public schools.
But charter-school officials say the city's public-school system has refused to give them long-term leases and that the prospect of having to move discourages them from opening or expanding.
Susan Schaeffler, principal of KIPP DC/KEY Academy in Southeast, says she would love to co-locate with a public school. She said she was offered a one-year lease for some rooms in a Southeast school.
"We would have needed a longer-term lease, and they did not agree," she said.
Patricia Ngozi Williams, principal of the Tree of Life Community Public Charter School, said she was told by the school system in 1999 that co-locating with a public school "was not an option."
Sarah Woodhead, deputy director of facilities, planning, design and construction for public schools, said the system could offer only one-year leases on certain schools because students would be moved there while their own schools were renovated.
Also, she said, most available space is scattered.
"We have a little bit of space in each building, but not enough space in one building," she said. The system also needs space to reintegrate special-education students, who are bused out of the city.
Miss Schaeffler has found a commercial space for her school to move into this fall. But the search continues for schools including Thurgood Marshall and Tree of Life.
Tree of Life is located on the fifth floor of the Capital Children's Museum in Northeast. After the school expanded by two grades last year, the library had to be converted to a fourth-grade classroom. When it expands by another grade this fall, there will be as many as 50 boys sharing a single bathroom with two stalls, Mrs. Williams said.
She said a new principal will take over the school so she can devote herself to fund raising and finding a building for fall of 2003, when "we absolutely have to move into a new space."

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