Sign This Letter Before May 1, and You Just Might Save a Public School

Last week, public school parents and advocates in Ward 6 sent a letter to the council demanding that the proposed FY17-FY22 DCPS capital budget not be approved before clearer rationales are presented. They are asking parents and advocates in other wards to sign on before May 1. (Here is the link; a link to the budget is available here, at “DC Investments in School Facilities.”)

The advocates note that the proposed DCPS capital budget appears unmoored from any rational prioritization, including use of the tool the council created last year for this purpose.

As a result, several schools have been disappeared, Soviet-style, from the capital improvement plan. Other schools have found themselves with odd placeholder values that do not represent reality either because no renovation plans exist or no groups exist to help formulate those plans.

But there is much more to the crisis of DC public school spaces than this budget represents:

Ward 6 is among several areas (wards 7 and 8 being the most egregious) that have had relatively poor capital expenditures for DCPS schools since the beginning of the massive civic push in 1998 to renovate all DCPS schools.

The 21st Century School Fund has created several charts documenting these inequities in capital expenditures by ward, from 1998 through 2015. In addition, the fund worked with Code For DC to create a new website that shows where our city’s massive investment in public school facilities, both charter and DCPS, has gone thus far.

One upshot of that analysis is that many by right schools remaining untouched are in areas of the city with the most kids and, additionally, the most at risk kids.

To remedy this, advocates have demanded that all DCPS schools be modernized by 2022–what that letter above calls “Fix All in 6” and what activist Peter MacPherson touted as the 2022 Campaign.

But what remains officially unsaid is huge.

For instance, tomorrow, Tuesday, April 26 (at 6 pm, in Suite G-9 of the Wilson Building, our city hall, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW), the deputy mayor for education’s (DME’s) cross sector task force meets again, to discuss issues relating to collaboration between DCPS and charter schools.

Among the data the task force will have at the ready are capacity estimates for charter and DCPS facilities, along with utilization rates for DCPS schools (for the latter, see p. 6ff of the current master facilities plan supplement here and appendices here).

The DME has provided this information to inform discussions surrounding what policies need to be in place regarding public school spaces, both in coordinating openings and closures as well as co-locations of charters and DCPS schools. The charter board has made clear that DC charter schools need new and/or better spaces and has demanded that what it calls excess DCPS space be freed up for charter school use.

But there is very little released publicly by the DME mentioning the conditions of DCPS schools.

One comprehensive look at the conditions of DCPS schools was released in 2008, after extensive surveys in 2006 and 2007 by the predecessor agency to DGS.

These 2008 surveys are fascinating, if frightening (scroll down this link and click on “DCPS Master Facilities Plans” to get to the “mini-MFPs”).

Take two elementaries of similar size that will receive much-needed renovations this year: Murch (Ward 3) and Watkins (Ward 6).

On the 2008 assessment of the schools’ building systems (including electrical, HVAC, plumbing, and structural features), Murch had 2 “unsatisfactory” ratings (the lowest rating) and 2 “poor” ratings (the second lowest). The rest of its 10 ratings were “Fair,” the second highest level after “Good.”

On those same 10 ratings, Watkins had 3 “unsatisfactory” ratings, 5 “poor” ratings, and 2 “fair.”

The DME has made available a later (2013; updated January 2016) assessment list from DGS, rating 16 conditions at DCPS school buildings (not counting carbon monoxide detectors). On that list, Murch had 7 “fair” ratings, 5 “good” ratings, and 4 marked N/A. On that same rating list, Watkins also had 7 “fair” ratings and 4 “good” ratings—along with 3 “poor” ratings and 2 marked N/A. (There is no explanation of these ratings that I could find–and it would appear they range from “poor” to “good.”)

Admittedly, this is a silly analysis (not to mention biased, as I have a child at Watkins). These two city-wide ratings were done quite separately, measuring different aspects of the school buildings at different times, so fixes to problems in the first assessment could have occurred by the time of the second assessment. (Although I can attest that very little has changed at Watkins in that intervening time.)

But now, look at the data the DME has released on utilizations of these two elementaries:

Watkins: 463 enrolled; 587 total capacity; 78.9% utilized

Murch: 625 enrolled; 774 total capacity (488 in the building itself; 286 in trailers); 80.7% utilized

If you should ask any parent, student, or staff member at either Murch or Watkins if he or she thinks that their school could handle 20% more students, I doubt you will find anyone who won’t laugh.

Indeed, overcrowding at Murch is legendary and a large factor in the school getting a renovation at the same time as a crowded school in apparently worse shape (Watkins).

And yet, both hugely crowded schools in less-than-stellar condition are rated at 80% capacity in the utilization data that the DME is using to inform the cross sector task force in its work.

In fact, in that same data set are capacity assessments of charter schools–but unlike those for DCPS schools, charter schools self-assessed their capacity, depending on their current and future uses, staffing, and curricula.

Quite obviously, neither Murch nor Watkins (nor any by right school) had that advantage.

You will not find among the DME’s materials why this different assessment of capacities for charters and by right schools is important.

But it is, and the future of your neighborhood school depends on it:

Namely, by right schools that are not enrolled fully by official assessment AND are also in poor condition are leading candidates for closure. And, once closed, if the city deems there is no other use for them, they must be offered to charter operators.

Davis Elementary provides an excellent example. Underenrolled, in poor condition according to that 2008 assessment, it was closed in 2013. DCPS has been holding on to it for swing space. Not surprisingly, Davis was among the schools that the charter board cited about the need to free up excess DCPS space for charter use.

Disturbingly, in light of this data mismatch, the data the DME has released in the “fact sheets” specifically for the cross sector task force obscures actual enrollments, with the result that it appears there are more excess seats than really exist.

Take the fact sheet on middle schools: It shows that there are more than 12,000 excess seats in DCPS middle schools, more than 17,000 in charter middle schools, for a total of nearly 30,000 excess public middle school seats.

But if you adjust those numbers for schools that contain elementary or high school grades along with middle schools grades (i.e., DCPS education campuses, Washington Latin, etc.), you get a different picture, winnowing the excess down to 5,000 DCPS middle school seats and 2,000 charter middle school seats. (Thanks to Matthew Frumin for this exercise.)

In truth, 7,000 excess middle school seats is no laughing matter. That amounts to about 10% of all public school enrollment in DC right now.

Or, putting this into bricks and mortar: 7 entire middle schools with 1000 students each.

(Come to think of it, maybe these excess seats are the solution for the charter board’s concerns about its facilities and potential shortages thereof, when it declared, on p. 47 of its responses to council oversight questions, that “if citywide enrollment patterns from the past five years continue, an estimated 25,000 additional students will enroll in DC’s public and public charter schools over the next ten years. Given the current average school size, and without more efficient use of current facilities, this implies the need for the equivalent of 66 new buildings to serve these students between 2015 and 2025.”)

Whether those hypothetical 25,000 future students attend charter or DCPS schools, officials in DC charged with education oversight are not enabling either sector with inaccurate and mismatched assessments for capacity and seats in our public schools. Those assessments appear to indicate that DCPS is sitting on a vast field of underused (and, because of the current capital budget, probably decrepit) real estate, depriving charter schools of space.

Yet, at a moment when more than 60 DCPS schools remain untouched by any renovation, and citywide inequities persist such that a DC child may attend by right schools in terrible condition until adulthood, that’s not just a little misunderstanding.

It amounts to the city continuing to actively turning its back on the communities and neighborhoods that depend on those schools–and depriving families of meaningful school choice.

So, go ahead and sign that letter and thereby ensure a better public school future for your child and others (including every last one of those hypothetical 25,000 future DC public school students).

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