When Public Officials Go Private: Kenilworth Edition

On Friday November 17, 2017, DCPS and charter board staff met to discuss transferring a closed DCPS school, Kenilworth Elementary, to an all-boys charter school, North Star (now called Statesmen). Not only was the school legally unavailable for such an offer, but the public learned about the proposed arrangement only on February 1, 2018, at a meeting of the Ward 7 education council. There, a representative from North Star shared that the charter school had been offered the closed DCPS Kenilworth Elementary starting this upcoming school year, SY18-19.

Emails I obtained via a FOIA request show that from at least September 2017, DCPS officials connected with the charter school’s founder. Officials also deliberated DCPS’s loss of students at schools around Kenilworth, as a result of North Star locating there. DCPS’s interest in North Star was apparently connected to the possibility that the school could feed into DCPS’s Ron Brown high school, which also serves only boys.

Many in Ward 7 had hoped DCPS would reopen Kenilworth as a DCPS by right school. Right now, DPR uses part of the building as the Kenilworth Recreation Center. Until December 2017, about 40,000 square feet was rented by DCPS to the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative.

North Star turned down the offer of Kenilworth apparently because it was made contingent on the school starting in 6th grade, not 4th. But one document in the FOIA materials shows that Maura Marino, the chief executive officer of Ed Forward, a charter advocacy organization, noted that a “sticking point” was “getting a pipeline to Ron Brown faster.”

Now, let us ignore for a moment that DCPS was apparently working hard to ensure a feeder pattern from a charter school to one of its schools—at the direct expense of its own elementary and middle schools.

Ignoring also the violation of public trust inherent in a process by which public officials worked over the course of many months to offer a public school to a private charter operator in private, without any public input, the proposed transfer appears to have violated several laws.

For one, Kenilworth is still part of DCPS, despite being closed. As its purview, DCPS has not deemed the school excess (although that could change in the master facilities plan process underway right now).

Even if the mayor determined that DCPS needs to give the building up already and the school has no other public use, the council still has to approve the school being taken out of the public sphere.

Needless to say, that did not happen.

The offer appears to have also violated another law, by which charter schools can publicly make their applications for closed DCPS facilities no longer needed by the city. The reason for that process is to ensure that charter operators have fair access to excess school facilities—not so one charter operator can be privately handed a school facility on the word of city leaders and private charter advocates like Ed Forward.

So it seems that the proposed offer of Kenilworth not only violated the letter and spirit of the law concerning excess DCPS property, but also prohibited any other charter schools in need of facilities from accessing it.

Funny how you don’t hear about this—much less any passing concern for all the dissing of the public in the process. In fact, when I raised this during an education committee hearing this spring, committee chair David Grosso noted that because the offer was not accepted by North Star, it was all OK.

Moreover, in February when I inquired about the offer with the acting DME, Ahnna Smith, she told me via email that although she was not present at that February Ward 7 education council meeting, “in the spirit of cross-sector collaboration, we [the DME’s office] have asked DCPS to meet with newly opening charter schools to discuss and understand their needs.” When I then inquired if her office had, in that same collaborative spirit, asked that charter schools meet with DCPS to discuss and understand DCPS needs, I didn’t get a response.

Yeah.

At the same time, when I inquired about the offer with DCPS deputy chancellor Michael Gaal (who the FOIA documents reveal was an intimate part of the discussions of Kenilworth’s offer), he responded thusly to me:

“Although I was not at the meeting in question [February 2018 Ward 7 education council meeting], we agree that the process on the release of buildings for use by other educational entities is not to be done in isolation. DCPS strives to be partners with the community and your call for by-right schools that provide excellence in every neighborhood is aligned with our vision of Every Student, Every School, Every Day.”

(Enjoying the gaslighting yet?)

Even with Kenilworth out of consideration, the public disenfranchisement around Statesmen continues, as several ANCs and neighborhoods were not given their required notice for consideration of Statesmen’s other proposed locations in Ward 7.

Hmm: unconcerned public officials discussing in private giving away public property without the public involved. What ever could go wrong?

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