- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 states that, unless the District can make substantial money from another purchaser or lessee, charter schools must be given preference of surplus schools. Yet, the Williams administration appears to be violating not only the spirit of the law but, more importantly, the letter of the law.

In recent years, about 60 D.C. school buildings have been declared surplus. The Williams administration has had control of half of those school buildings since March 2000, when the control board relinquished its oversight. Since then, the administration has repeatedly ignored pleas from charter school proponents regarding the sale or lease of those abandoned school facilities.

In one instance, for example, the administration reneged on a mayoral order. In that case, the mayor issued a directive in October 2000 that designated the Keene School in Northeast Washington for charter-school use. A public notice dated June 2001 reiterated that directive. However, the mayor's office is now considering returning Keene to public school authorities. Similarly, charter school supporters would like to use the old Addison school building in Georgetown. Addison, like Keene, is in good condition. But here again, the mayor wants to give Addison back to the public schools. Bundy school is available, too. So is Reno school. The list goes on. And so do the mayor's rejections. In fact, in many cases, the mayor either wants to give the surplus schools back to public school authorities or use the surplus schools as government office space. Yet, the 1996 school reform law makes no such provisions.

Acquiring suitable facilities is a nationwide problem. In fact, it is the main barrier to starting a public charter school. In the District, the problem is near-crisis. "D.C. Public Schools has lost 11,000 students since 1997, yet it wants more schools," Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, told us the other day. Unfortunately for D.C. charter schools, "the control board returned the best of the lot to DCPS a couple of years ago."

Interestingly, while traditional D.C. public school enrollment has dramatically declined for the past 10 years and school buildings all over town have been closed, growth and enrollment in charter schools has remained steady over the past five years. New charter schools open every year, and already-established schools are adding grades to accommodate the growth.

However, while students come easily, suitable facilities are tough and costly acquisitions. For starters, D.C. public school officials refuse to share facilities. Then, there are the prohibitive market costs. Charter schools that managed to acquire abandoned schools found they needed millions in renovations because they were in near-total disrepair. The commercial real-estate market, meanwhile, means charter schools might have to pay as much as much as $2,500 per student to lease commercial space, compared to the $1,500 per student allocated by D.C. government. Even then, if the school were to lease space, it still might have to pay for renovations. Moreover, 22 of 40 charter schools will need to identify newer facilities within the next year.

Charter schools would not be in this dilemma if the Williams administration were following either the letter or spirit of the law. The school-reform act is clear: "preference in leasing or purchasing public school facilities" goes to charter schools. And that applies to former public school property and current public school property.

When Anthony A. Williams became mayor, we advocated that the control board turn over much of its own authority, including school buildings, to the executive branch. We did so because his predecessor broke the law. Now, the current mayor seems to be lawless, too. Must a lawsuit be filed before Mayor Williams understands that he is not above the law?

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