- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

Leaders of the District’s public charter schools are appeal ing to D.C. Council

members in the wake of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s proposed $24 million, or 26 percent, funding cut.

Lawmakers have until May 12 to amend the mayor’s budget before voting on it.

The proposed cuts followed the release of city-audited enrollment data that showed a 17 percent increase in student enrollment in public charter schools and an 8.5 percent drop in enrollment in city-run schools.

The cutting is to the charter schools’ facilities allowance, which is used to lease, buy and renovate buildings. The mayor’s budget, meanwhile, would increase facilities funding for city-run schools by $13 million, or 5 percent.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, told the council earlier this month that the $66 million allotted for charter school facilities is “sufficient to support all current facilities costs with a 10 percent growth rate.”

Public charter school leaders dispute this. They believe the cut is unfair because only their schools would take the hit. They argue that charters are already underserved for facilities, compared with traditional public schools.

They also point out that charter schools are ahead of the curve in one of the city’s primary education goals - closing the achievement gap between black and white students - despite facing greater facilities challenges.

“African-American middle- and high-school students in public charter schools are almost twice as likely to be proficient at reading and math as their peers in city-run neighborhood schools,” says Donald Hense, chairman of Friendship Charter Public Schools. “The mayor’s planned $851-per-student cut for charters is bad for D.C. school reform as well as the children. But will the city council members stand up to the mayor and remove it?”

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, an advocacy organization and resource for the city’s charter schools, said: “Public charter schools educate 36 percent of D.C. public school students but are being asked to take 100 percent of the education cuts planned by Mayor Fenty.”

Charters, moreover, are being denied access to public school buildings that are no longer required by the city-run schools while facing cuts in the funds the charters need to acquire and develop commercial space, charter leaders say.

Mr. Cane says the District is entertaining 35 offers from private developers on 11 school buildings closed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Charter schools made 33 separate offers on surplus public school buildings, but the city accepted only six offers on three buildings - with charters competing against each other.

Mr. Cane argues that the city government has frustrated charter school access to the surplus buildings despite D.C. law that says the schools should have the “right of first offer” to negotiate to buy or lease them before the District can offer them to condo and office developers.

“Many charters are crammed into often-inadequate warehouse, commercial or retail space and church annexes and basements,” he said, adding that the average square footage per student is less than half that of the city-run schools.

Mr. Reinoso countered by saying that not all charter school facilities’ funds are spent for facilities each fiscal year.

Charter leaders say that their difficulty obtaining school facilities means that in many cases they must save for a down payment to purchase a building or to undertake renovations necessary to convert commercial space to school use.

Many D.C. public charter school leaders also worry that, having been forced to borrow to renovate high-priced commercial real estate, the facilities funding cut will make it harder for them to get loans.

Lenders have extended credit to some charters to acquire facilities based on the assumption that the current facilities allowance of $3,109 per student will only be adjusted for the cost of living. School leaders fear that if their funding for facilities is subject to change owing to political considerations, then credit - already scarce because of the overall economic downturn - will become impossible for schools to obtain.

Charter leaders also are concerned that the cuts may place their schools in default on existing loans. Mr. Hense, whose Friendship schools enroll almost 4,000 students, is one.

“It is quite clear that the current proposals jeopardize the bonds that we have and without some fancy dancing could force us into default,” he said. “If we are able to dodge default, the proposals will surely thwart the growth of charters.”

c Mark Lerner is a board member of the William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School.

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