- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

The success of a late-1990s partnership between a D.C. public school and a private developer is prompting school officials to consider similar projects.

D.C. Public Schools plans to publish in the summer a list of schools that would be ideal for partnerships with private firms.

The citywide list is likely to include several schools east of the Anacostia River, including a school near the Eastgate development in Marshall Heights in Southeast, said Lucian Coleman, interim deputy director of planning for the school system.

School officials see the partnerships as a way of financing the repair of schools. Many buildings are more than 70 years old and are falling apart, Mr. Coleman said.

In 1996, the school system considered abandoning the overcrowded Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Woodley Park because of disrepair; but a coalition of parents proposed and oversaw an unprecedented construction of luxury apartments on school grounds, in exchange for new classrooms, a gymnasium and a cafeteria.

But success is not guaranteed. It hinges on issues like land values and availability, said Timothy Smith, senior vice president of LCOR Inc., which partnered with Oyster.

“There has to be a balance between the cost of the school and the land available,” Mr. Smith said. “Oyster was lucky; it had an unused playground.”

Mr. Smith’s firm has evaluated several schools in the District: Francis Junior High School in Foggy Bottom is one example, he said.

“We really have not found any that make sense,” said Mr. Smith, whose firm searched only in Northwest. “A lot of these schools are planted on a block [with no extra land].”

Where the land is valuable, the public schools can have plenty of negotiating power.

The school system is negotiating a land swap in Foggy Bottom for its School Without Walls with George Washington University. The university wants the swap to build a dorm, said spokeswoman Tracy Schario.

For the swap, the university is expected to finance the $16 million reconstruction of the school with $10 million of its own funds, Mr. Coleman said.

Such partnerships were not always feasible.

For the Oyster Elementary project, rising property values in Woodley Park coincided with available land at the school to create an economically viable project.

“If you look at the economics, it only started making sense in ‘98-‘99,” Mr. Smith said. “The balance between the cost of the school and rising rental values was just right.”

For Oyster, with a leaky roof and portable classrooms, the timing was perfect.

“They were planning on closing down the school,” said Serena Wiltshire, a parent at the school. “If we didn’t have the partnership, we probably would not have the school.”

Local activists agree that public-private partnerships cannot solve the problems of all D.C. schools.

“It can’t work for every school,” said Nancy Huvendick of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for such partnerships. “It takes a lot of time and effort with the parents and community involved.”

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