This Is What Democracy Doesn’t Look Like: Banneker/Shaw Edition

At last week’s November 15 council hearing, on the plan to build a new Banneker high school at the site of the closed Shaw Junior High, dozens of public witnesses testified, advocating for either Banneker or a Shaw middle school of right on the site.

But after more than four hours of their testimony, it took less than 10 minutes for the two government witnesses to outline DC’s newest educational initiative–which would be doing whatever someone in power wants.

The opening 5-minute salvo came during acting DME Paul Kihn’s opening testimony, in which he presented a rationale for not putting a Shaw middle school of right in Shaw–as called for in multiple capital plans as well as the 2014 boundaries study.

Cautioning about “using data” to determine a need for a Shaw middle school, Kihn recited population forecasts from the office of planning as well as current and expected enrollments, the “average boundary participation rate” in DCPS (24%), and available capacity at Cardozo.

After blithely concluding that all that “data” show that there is no need at all for a Shaw middle school of right, Kihn amazingly floated the idea of a citywide middle school at the Shaw site because, uh, no boundaries!

It’s hard to imagine that Kihn really does not know that the lottery works for schools of right as well as for schools of choice.

As it is, boundary participation rates are not indicative of enrollment–as the staff in his own office know very well because by using their own data, I can see that DCPS’s Sousa middle school has a 68% in boundary participation rate–and is underenrolled. While Stuart-Hobson, fully enrolled for the last several decades, has a 25% in boundary participation rate.


The other seminal moment of testimony was this 2-minute clip of interim chancellor Amanda Alexander (who in that role is subordinate to the acting DME).

In it, Alexander responds to a question from education committee chair David Grosso, who asked her to explicate the meetings DCPS held with the Banneker and Shaw communities about the plan to locate Banneker at Shaw. While explaining (eventually) that the decision to locate Banneker at Shaw was made after the feasibility study was completed (August 15, 2018), the interim chancellor stated that the Shaw community was engaged on the subject starting in May 2018.

This sounds good until you realize that the idea of Banneker at Shaw had been raised months before, in February 2018 (see here for all the Banneker modernization plans), when the Banneker feasibility study was undertaken.

But the feasibility study strangely explored only two options: Banneker at its current building and Banneker at Shaw. As thorough as it is in its examination of those options, the study contains nothing about a Shaw middle school in Shaw nor any discussion about other sites for Banneker–or data to justify expanding it to almost twice its current size.

It appears that someone somewhere ruled all of that out well before February 2018–something no official at the hearing ever raised.

The sad truth behind all of this public obfuscation is that Banneker still needs a renovation and an appropriate facility.

More to the point, Banneker’s renovation has been deferred for so long that it falls in the same disturbing pattern of inequity that we have already seen in our city for school resourcing and modernizations. It was that pattern, in fact, that led the council to enact the PACE Act in the first place, to ensure political power was not the driver of modernized, adequate, and safe school spaces.

Yet, instead of focusing on that urgency and the fact that no one in his own office pursued a fulsome feasibility study examining all the “data” for Banneker around the city, the acting DME used his time at the hearing to admonish advocates for a Shaw middle school of right for not being “practical” and “fiscally responsible.”

This was pretty rich, given that later in the hearing the acting DME had no accurate cost estimate whatsoever to share with the council on the new Banneker at Shaw.

And it was also pretty rich given that Kihn spent time talking about how he thought some Shaw residents “feel excluded” from the planning and the importance of public officials not going into public meetings with a “predetermined outcome.”

Now, it is possible that hundreds of people complaining for weeks before the hearing–and testifying in droves during the hearing–about the lack of public engagement in Shaw on this subject suffer from mass hallucination. (See their apparently non-hallucinatory petition here.)

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the acting DME used his time at that hearing to characterize the actual disenfranchisement of actual DC residents in the alteration of an actual plan for an actual school in their own neighborhood as one of mere hurt feelings–and politely promised to do better and engage well going forward.

There were other disturbing notes as well.

For instance, no city leader even mentioned the new Bard high school, whose plan is publicly amorphous: we don’t know what it will be or even where it will be and whether its creation (in conjunction with an expanded Banneker) will necessitate closing one or more DCPS high schools. For all anyone in the public knows, that is the intended outcome of both projects. Data, schmata!

Also, when asked about keeping Banneker at its current building, Alexander noted that the building is “not fit pedagogically” to suit high school students because it was built as a middle school. (Thank goodness no DCPS high school is in, say, a repurposed elementary! Oh, wait.)

Then, when asked if she considered St. Elizabeth’s as a location for a new Banneker, Alexander responded that it would be “disruptive” to the Banneker community, since many of Banneker’s students come from wards 4 and 5.

Having heard public witnesses at the same hearing opine about what they considered the silliness of Shaw parents not wanting their middle school students to travel far from home, I can only think that there is no way that this hearing was ever intended to question the decision made by someone, somewhere, that Banneker will go at Shaw.

After all, only two council members were present for most of the hearing (Grosso, there the entire time, and Ward 6’s Charles Allen for most of it), despite the fact that the Banneker at Shaw proposal is at least roundly estimated to cost $143 million–a significant sum completely outside the planning process that the council itself enacted.

More to the point, Grosso himself supports Banneker locating at Shaw and doesn’t want to pause the plans–in agreement with acting DME Kihn, who noted (without offering evidence–oh, that pesky data again!) that pausing the plan was not in the city’s or community’s interests.

And yet, while Kihn went out of his way to note that many DCPS schools of right have excess capacity, what he didn’t say was that expanding Banneker thusly might not be good for any school, even Banneker itself–and especially at Shaw, where it would be in close proximity to two under-enrolled DCPS high schools of right.

(Data on the effect of creating new schools was not the only thing happily unexamined by those in charge: Charles Allen noted that Kihn’s population analysis in the clip above was the first time he had heard those numbers, and he worried about their veracity.)

In the end, the driving interest of both Kihn and Alexander at that hearing was not doing right by this process or even examining its effect. Rather, their interest was rooted in a decision that had already been made, no matter the consequences. The public, late to the party, was left to fight it out amongst themselves.

(Not coincidentally, I heard neither Kihn nor Alexander mention “rights” with respect to schools–only “access.”)

So here is where we stand:

–No accurate cost analysis for building Banneker at the Shaw site except that it will cost at least $143 million;
–No apparent consideration of other sites for Banneker;
–No plan for a middle school of right for Shaw;
–Misleading data used to discredit a Shaw middle school of right;
–Misleading statements about public engagement on the subject;
–No analysis of the effect of the expansion and/or move of Banneker;
–Complete flaunting of the PACE Act;
–No explanation of what the existing Banneker building would be used for, much less Garnet-Patterson;
–Plenty of people in Shaw attesting to not being engaged whatsoever, while the interim chancellor says they were engaged and the acting DME says they just “feel excluded” and
–Neither David Grosso nor our education leaders wanting to even pause and ask how this fits in with the plan for Bard or a plan for the city at large to invest in its own schools.

Hmm: what was that bit about a “predetermined outcome”?

5 thoughts on “This Is What Democracy Doesn’t Look Like: Banneker/Shaw Edition

  1. Right on! A sorry, sorry situation all the way around, so sorry that it may just prove to be the undoing of school “planning” in this fashion because now it is clear to everyone just how badly this was bungled. I did appreciate CM Allen’s pointing out to dme and chan that it had been destructive and was once again struck by CM Grosso’s penchant for inserting his own views, as in his statement that putting a pause on the Banneker plan is a “non-starter.” which to me translates to “I’m with the mayor on this no matter what you members of the public have told me about how it has and will affect you.’
    That is indeed what democracy DOESN’T look like!


  2. Hi Liane,

    Not sure which of the comments I could/should address, but there is one that mentioned the following:

    “1) What is this talk about Banneker’s impact on other DCP high schools? Banneker is application, not boundary. If there is a real concern about DCPS enrollment, stick a cork in the number of Charter Schools that can open and provide subpar education under the mask of variety.”

    I totally agree with the fact that we have unregulated charter growth and that it has a baleful influence. The idea of planning is completely upended by it.

    OTOH, both the mayor and council have abrogated most responsibility therein, so to the extent that planning exists in our schools, it is mainly through DCPS, a municipally run system of schools. That is, in fact, the purpose of the MFP and the PACE act: to plan for that system specifically and the city as a whole generally.

    In the case of this newly announced plan for Banneker, however, it exists completely outside of such planning: there was no analysis of the need to grow Banneker; no analysis of where the students come from or what would be an ideal location by virtue of programming or commuting; and utterly no consideration of enrollment (i.e., will we even have enough students to maintain it at an 800-seat level) or even costs.

    This is nothing against Banneker–this is against the city planning (or lack thereof) that both the mayor (and her deputies in the DME’s office) and the council engage in regularly. It is completely unfair to every school community, and in this case pits communities against one another needlessly.

    “2) If the residents of the Shaw Area want a public middle school in walking distance, why don’t they support Cardozo EC, which is currently underenrolled.”

    Good question! So here are more planning questions: why was that EC started; was any analysis done to ensure participation by the various communities; and what is the plan to generate better enrollment? And maybe the best question of all: why are there no clear answers to any of those questions?

    “3) One of the benefits to the Shaw location is the ability to remain in the general area of Howard University, which Banneker has maintained an unofficial partnership for the last 2o+ years. Moving Banneker to St. Elizabeth’s removes that beneficial relationship.”

    OK–but to the extent that the location OF Banneker anywhere was determined by programming AT/partnerships BY Banneker remains unclear. For all any of us knows, there could be a better location for Banneker depending on those factors. Or there might not be. Or it could be that what Banneker needs is a fully service, comprehensive high school building–a la Spingarn, which remains empty. Who knows?

    My point here is not to outline the best course for Banneker (or frankly any school)–simply to point out that *none* of that was considered and/or made clear in the current instance. Why? If that’s not a part of school planning, then what is?


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