Guess Who Is Missing From DC Public Education Planning?

That would be the public.

Oh, the planning process itself is well-defined publicly, as far as the actions of agencies and their employees go:

–The office of planning is updating the city’s comprehensive plan, including feedback from city education agencies that was submitted in June. The office of planning will be soliciting public feedback when it shops around the revised plan—hopefully, maybe, this fall.

–The update of the master facilities plan (MFP) for all DC’s public schools will be overseen by the deputy mayor for education (DME) and her staff and will be completed some time in 2018. For the purposes of public education planning, the MFP will reach farther than the comprehensive plan, but refer to the plan (and vice versa).

Seems clear–in fact, the cross sector task force is holding a phone conversation on the MFP tomorrow, Tuesday October 31, that you can dial into using the numbers at the link above. (Never mind that a recent phone call by the task force, on school facilities, was not publicly available, even though it was supposed to be.)

Yet, despite such seeming clarity, the decision makers, their methods, their motivations, and their conclusions are almost completely shrouded from the public.

Worse, because the timelines for all of this are so short, once any of those things is revealed the public will be able to do only one thing: react. Which isn’t exactly a recipe for feeling warm and fuzzy and included.

For instance:

Sometime this summer, the DME’s office put out a scope of work for a consultant to oversee the work on the MFP. As far as I know, this document is still not publicly available.

But this scope of work document makes clear that the MFP process that the DME this summer outlined in a memo for charter schools and DCPS is essentially what the DME wants in a contractor for the MFP work.

Yet, not only do we not know who was selected as a contractor (presuming one was selected—DC’s office of contracting and procurement doesn’t list any), but we also have no idea

–Who designed the questions for the contractor (and why);
–On what basis those questions were designed;
–Who decided that detailed charter sector facility and enrollment/growth plan information would not be available publicly;
–The process of contractor selection; and
–When/if/how the public will be involved in this process or whether the MFP will arise, like Venus from the sea, fully formed.

Reacting to the DME memo’s purposeful deep-sixing of data on charter schools in non-District owned buildings (amounting to data on conditions in schools educating 21,000 DC students), the director of the 21st Century School Fund asked the mayor that all data used in the MFP be made public for all our schools as well as equitably collected and accounted for.

That letter went unanswered for weeks—until the DME responded without addressing the concerns.

Related: In June, I had asked the DME’s staff what were the amendments and feedback that DCPS and the charter board provided for the city’s comprehensive plan.

I was told that the office of planning was working on it—which was true, but not addressing my question.

(Sense a pattern here?)

Finally, at the end of September, after repeated inquiries from me, I was told by DME staff that they had already submitted that (edited) feedback to the office of planning (in June! when I had first asked!) and that the planning office would happily reveal what was provided by the DME office when they got to it.

Turns out, we the public will never know what those agencies–DCPS and the charter board–actually submitted to the DME for the comprehensive plan. Responses to FOIA requests I made on this to DCPS and the charter board make clear that what those agencies produced for the comprehensive plan are privileged communications, which we the public can never see (unless I or someone else can get lucky with a judge).

However, what we will see of them–if anything–will be entirely the creation of the DME, whose staff edited those responses before submitting them to the office of planning.

To be sure, the office of planning solicited limited feedback from the public in 2016 on the comprehensive plan. What I could see from the write-ups of these meetings was that there was little appetite for charter schools (exactly two comments on creating new ones), while there were lots of comments about the need for vocational schools; supporting existing schools; and not opening new schools until existing ones are treated equitably.

And yet:

The messaging behind the DME’s memo to LEAs about the MFP process is that charter schools need facilities; DCPS has space; and growth is paramount, even when there are more than 20,000 empty school seats according to the 21st Century School Fund (see the entire research presentation here).

And while growth is an acknowledged desire in both sectors, only one sector has really grown purposely, as this chart from the 21st Century School Fund shows:

growthchart1

In fact, the entire focus of the DME’s memo to LEAs about the MFP is skewed toward a view that both sectors are essentially the same in their facilities needs–never mind that they are truly not.

For instance, the memo refers to the MFP examining “the processes and challenges related to securing facilities across sectors.” But that effectively applies only to charter schools, whose growth in DC is not only unregulated and unplanned, but often comes at the direct expense of public involvement, acceptance, or just simple notification. (See here and here.)

Perhaps we should not be surprised: the DME also runs the cross sector task force, which not only has confused “equal” with “equitable” regarding student enrollment, but also created a vision of public education in DC that entirely conflates charter schools with by right schools—without anyone on the task force actually explicitly discussing or agreeing to it. (See here for the whole scoop.)

Sadly, all of this writing out of the public has very real consequences for our kids and their public schools.

Take my meeting last week with DCPS staffers and Ward 7 community advocates over concerns I had raised about neglect of the physical plant of Sousa Middle School.

Happily, some of my concerns have been addressed (graffiti removed; garden boxes fixed). Other concerns appeared in process–until I asked what was being done in regard to that little note about Sousa in the MFP supplement, which had been posted by the DME in July (see here (p. 9) or look up Sousa on the map here):

“During the modernization of the building, reducing the size of the building was considered. However, because of the historical significance of the building, structural changes were not made. By June 2018, DCPS will consider options for partners to potentially utilize a portion of the building and will explore different academic program offerings to increase enrollment.” [boldface mine]

To be sure, that note had appeared on prior iterations of the MFP supplement but for those three words: “By June 2018.”

That means that those three little words were added by someone, somewhere in the DME’s office this past summer without any word to anyone at Sousa.

Worse, the DCPS staffers I met with said that the note originated with the DME and they thusly could not speak to it.

Bottom line: DCPS officials appear to be not in control of, or with authority over, their own school buildings for planning purposes.

Now, think of your local DCPS school. Would this situation be acceptable to you? To your neighbors? To the staff and parents of that school?

And then think of Sousa: a school that has no functioning PTA or LSAT. That is underenrolled. That had no parents of currently enrolled students at that meeting I attended about it last week.

A school where NO parent or community member had any idea about, or input in, plans that someone in the DME’s office has intended for it and–for all the general public knows–put into action already.

And the people in the DME’s office who did this for Sousa are doing all our public education planning right now: the comprehensive plan amendments; the MFP; and school re-use.

This is what our mayor and her deputies apparently want from our public schools: the money of the public, but not the public itself, its needs, desires, or even scrutiny.

Seems our mayor is breathing deeply of current politics. The election next year should be interesting.

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