What is outlined below happened thus far in 2018 in just one of our public education sectors. As far as I am aware, no DC public official has publicly commented with concern nor called for any investigation of the charter board’s actions.
–The charter board and its staff appear to be tied–in ways that remain unknown to the public–to a private organization that gets public money through contracts with charter schools regardless of its actual performance with those schools. Charter school staff have reported being afraid of the organization.
–Despite knowledge throughout 2017 of the fiscal woes of Washington Mathematics Science Technology high school (WMST), and with its own reports showing deep financial troubles as early as 2014, the charter board appeared to take no action to help WMST. Public notification of the school’s dire fiscal situation also was not apparent.
–In January, the charter board staff completed a 20-year review of WMST, which was posted on the charter board website. I saw the review in late February or early March and noted that it seemed only mildly concerned about the school’s finances. In April, I looked again for the review, but it was gone. When I asked about it, a staff member directed me toward this review, dated March 12, 2018. On that day, the charter board met in an “emergency” session to vote to begin revocation of the school’s charter. This version raises concerns with the school’s finances that I recollect the January review did not. I asked several charter board staff what happened to the January review. No one responded. The January review existed, as materials the City Paper received via FOIA regarding WMST (see here and here) make reference to it (see in the first link pages 315, 428, and 623).
–These points together suggest that rather than allowing school performance to actually determine a school’s fate, the charter board (or its staff or both) determines which schools will be closed through the board’s own actions–or lack thereof.
–This week, I testified about WMST to the charter board. I noted that most of the city block where WMST is located was bought in May 2017 for $66 million by Douglas development and LLCs associated with it. The intention was to make a major development there. After that May 2017 Douglas purchase, the only properties on that block not owned by Douglas and its investors (who are publicly unknown) were WMST and a fast food restaurant on the corner of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. That meant that after May 2017, WMST was the only impediment to a contiguous Douglas development there.
–In February 2018, WMST applied with the charter board to get a new location. Its application made clear that it would sell its property, but remain in it until 2019. In March 2018, around the time ground was broken for the Douglas development, the charter board voted to allow WMST to stay open only if it sold its property within a month, to raise money. In April 2018, Douglas bought WMST’s property for $6.25 million–well below its assessed value of nearly $10 million. The purchase price was enough only to pay off the school’s outstanding loan–but not to continue operations. The charter board executive director stressed repeatedly that the school’s value was much too high at $9 million.
–The charter board voted on April 23 to have DC charter schools report only contracts that are greater than $100,000, citing the “burden” to schools to do otherwise. It is not clear that the charter board has the authority to make that rule. Such rulemaking may require the scrutiny and approval of elected leaders, as it changes the guidelines of the School Reform Act, the authorizing legislation for DC charter schools.
–When the new contracts rule goes into effect later this year, no one in the public will be able to access or know about any contracts in any DC charter school less than $100,000, unless the schools themselves voluntarily disclose those contracts or the charter board asks them to. This is because no DC charter school is subject to FOIA. Charter schools in other jurisdictions are subject to FOIA.
–The transcript of the April 23, 2018 charter board meeting approving the contract change notes that there were 6 public comments on the rulemaking. But none of the comments are publicly available.
–The charter board violated the FOIA law, in not giving a complete disclosure of documents during the reporting on the board’s relationship with a private organization.
–When I filed a complaint with the board of ethics and government accountability (BEGA) about the actions of the charter board in regard to the oversight and closure of WMST, I was told that charter board staff are not considered public employees and thus are not subject to BEGA’s oversight. As a city agency under the control of mayoral appointees, BEGA recently refused to renew the contract of the director of the office of open government, Traci Hughes. Some years ago, Hughes overruled mayoral appointee and former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles and said that meetings of the cross sector collaboration task force must be open to the public. More recently, Hughes ruled that the DC charter board violated the open meetings act by approving a charter school expansion without public notice. And more recently yet, the city council took a preliminary vote to put the once-independent office of open government under control of BEGA. (A final vote by the council is June 5.)
–I also filed a complaint about the WMST oversight and closure with Attorney General (AG) Karl Racine. He told me that his office would investigate only what the school did; anything else they found about the actions of the charter board or its staff would be referred to BEGA or the Office of the Inspector General.
–Charter board executive director Scott Pearson made a donation of $1500 to AG Racine on March 8, 2018. He also made a $1500 donation to council chair Phil Mendelson on February 21, 2018. Both Racine and Mendelson are up for re-election. Pearson’s donation to Racine came 4 days before the charter board voted to initiate charter revocation of WMST. Both donations were also Pearson’s only local political donations recorded thus far this election cycle and constitute about a third of all Pearson’s donations to DC city politicians.
–The executive director of the charter board said that they do not enforce the law regarding suspensions. He was under oath when he testified about that before the education committee of the city council.
–The public is not entitled to know anything except top level data about charter school facilities in DC. Building surveys of charter schools for the master facilities plan (due out later in 2018) are being paid for by the Walton Foundation, a major charter supporter. City officials have said this means the public will not be able to have that data. There was no explanation for why public funds could not be used for this purpose.
Remember, it’s an election year–and there are candidates offering something different than business as usual. There’s even a proposal for a truly independent education data group–for a fraction of the money spent in what is outlined above. Seems that once again, democracy sure beats the alternative.