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Local: Education

Charters shell out to renovate long-vacant D.C. school buildings

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Local,DC,Education,Rachel Baye

With its students divided among three campuses on 16th Street Northwest -- sharing facilities with churches on two -- it's easy to understand why Washington Latin Public Charter School is eager to lease a former D.C. public school.

The top-performing charter school is spending $23 million to move into Rudolph Elementary, vacant since it was closed in 2008 under then-D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, said Martha Cutts, Washington Latin's head of school. While part of the cost comes from plans to add a gym, library and theater, the rest is the result of the school falling into disrepair while it sat empty.

"People had gotten in there and smashed glass and stolen copper piping. It was a mess," Cutts said.

Kristin Scotchmer, executive director of Mundo Verde Public Charter School, described a similar experience when she walked through the former J.F. Cook Elementary School, which also has been vacant since 2008. The two-year-old charter recently submitted a bid to lease the campus in Ward 5 from the city.

"There were holes in the walls, the sinks have been cracked or are falling off the walls, the bathrooms are completely unusable," Scotchmer said. The repairs are expected to cost $8.5 million.

DCPS's failure to turn vacated school buildings around quickly and make them available to charter schools has long been a criticism from charter school advocates.

Legally, the District is required to give charters the first shot at closed DCPS buildings. That doesn't usually happen, said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. "The government should be eager to get the charter schools in the building and should be eliminating a lot of the red tape."

Of the 30 underenrolled, underperforming schools closed since 2008, six are vacant, according to DCPS. Including the 15 schools closed before 2008, DCPS has three more still-vacant buildings. Of the 45 schools already closed, 23 are being used by DCPS or a public charter school. Others are being used by city agencies, and two have been torn down.

Last month, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced plans to close 15 more schools. Though she has said she plans to keep all 15 in DCPS's inventory, she hasn't announced plans for 10 of them.

Buildings are often kept in case the school system needs them while another school is being renovated, or in case enrollment increases, said DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz.

But numbers released this week show charter schools vastly outpacing DCPS's growth rate, educating 43 percent of the city's public school students this year.

"The mayor's hoarding buildings to protect DCPS against the charter growth," Cane said.

Salmanowitz called that accusation "unfair."

Thomas Porter, director of real estate for the nonprofit Building Hope, which helps charters find buildings, said that while the city has been resistant to leasing to charters in the past, the process has improved.

"Do we get as many facilities as we need for charter schools when we want them? I don't think so, but I think DCPS still makes a pretty good effort to dispose of buildings when they're no longer needed."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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