School Facilities Are Not Just About Doors, Floors, and Windows

The city council’s performance oversight hearing for DGS, the agency in charge of all DCPS modernizations, is slated for February 25. During the hearing, expect to hear the following words uttered regularly, either in testimony or in grave tones by councilmembers on the dais: modernization equity; stabilization funds; debt cap; Ellington.

So let’s talk about a few things we might NOT hear (all of which councilmembers either know about already or ought to):

–A DCPS elementary school close to the Navy Yard lacks door locks such that when the Navy Yard shooting happened a few years back, staff could not implement a lockdown. Despite DCPS and DGS both knowing about this problem for years running, nothing has changed.

–A DCPS middle school that received an extensive renovation has nonworking (and expensive) electronics in most classrooms and nonfunctional electronic controls of lights and television monitors in common areas. DCPS and DGS both deny responsibility.

–After its renovation overseen by DGS, a DCPS elementary school found itself without a real library–and no plans to get one anytime soon.

–Another DCPS elementary was told by DGS and DCPS that because of underbudgeting for its overdue renovation, it might have to do without a cafeteria or outdoor play space. (One wonders what DGS hearing chair Mary Cheh, who championed the Healthy Schools Act, mandating healthy school food and physical activity for students, makes of this.)

But maybe doing anything in school besides reading, writing, and ‘rthmetic is overrated. After all, the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) approved up to eight Rocketship campuses in DC–and that charter chain isn’t apparently big on stuff like the arts, music, or foreign languages. (Not that Rocketship’s reading and math test scores have been that great of late, anyway, but who’s counting, now that they have a green light for as many as eight schools in DC?)

To be sure, the sparkling new facility that Rocketship is building in Ward 8 for its first DC campus will be incredible–if for no other reason than the largesse of tens of millions of dollars of private capital poured into it from a California-based firm that tennis legend Andre Agassi started to fund the building of charter school facilities around the country.

For instance, check out the $3.3 million purchase price for one piece of that Ward 8 land, once occupied by a 724-square-foot residence. Who spends this kind of cash for a small, not new, 2-bedroom house in DC? (Oh, that’s who.)

Now check out a picture on Google maps of the house that used to be at the address of Rocketship’s new school, 2335 Raynolds Place SE. The DC real estate assessment database lists this same parcel as being owned by an entity at the same address as Agassi’s California firm. The parcel is (now) assessed for more than $1 million.

(FYI to those who wish to search that public database: The only way I was able to find that record for 2335 Raynolds was to search on the street name alone; all other search functions (address, square and suffix, quadrant, etc.) never turned up the record, which in my experience with this database is not unusual, though instructive.)

Of course, Rocketship’s new building looks to be a great savings to DC, since it was brought about through the profitable investments of Agassi’s apparently profitable firm, all without any money from DC.

Well, except for one little (and equally profitable) detail:

This new school needs to have students. And those students need to come from DC’s (currently stagnant) student population.

Which means that the ward’s existing and unrenovated schools–like DCPS’s Garfield and Orr elementaries, to name two rather poignant examples of many untouched in the area–might not, well, look as nice in the school marketplace (i.e., the lottery) and very well will lose students (and thus resources) to the shiny new beacon to educational capitalism in the ward, which in addition to marketing itself heavily to that ward also promises Chromebooks for all its students (which presumably work, unlike the technology at that renovated DCPS middle school).

This isn’t even getting into the fact that we the DC people will actually fund this school for its entire existence–including paying rent back to Agassi’s profitable firm for the use of that shiny new building.

Profits and choice for all!

Well, except for inevitably depopulated existing schools–oh, and us taxpayers, who have to foot the bill for all of those schools, regardless.

So what do the folks who vocalize the virtues of school choice have to say about such a tilted state of affairs, wherein private capital can purchase a property, build a pretty new building, and then ensure a platform for others to promise the moon, stars and laptops to parents and students (sometimes in opposition to community wishes), and then, 5, 8, 10 years later, if test scores are not great, the school can be closed and its students dispersed to other DC public schools, some of which might not have doors that lock, computers that work, or even libraries or cafeterias, and may as a consequence be underenrolled and thus lack resources needed to adequately teach those displaced students?

Yeah–it’s that 70’s tune.

Here’s hoping the people on the dais at the DGS performance oversight hearing next week break that silence and acknowledge what most public school parents in DC endure as a result of inequitable facilities. (Hint: it’s not just about doors and windows.)

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