Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Kidnapping (Stays DC Charter Real Estate Ventures)

In a charter board meeting on October 28 filled with incredible events, perhaps the most incredible was when the charter board did not even let a kidnapping from the Rocketship school where they were meeting slow down their approval for a new Rocketship campus in Ward 5. In the first (and at the time only) public statement about the event, a Rocketship parent testified at the meeting about her children being kidnapped. The kidnapping happened more than two weeks before, on October 11. The parent testified that since then, she had been struggling to get clarity from Rocketship as to how her children had been kidnapped.

Yet, a short time later at the same meeting, the DC charter board went on to blithely approve the new Ward 5 Rocketship campus. The next day, October 29, the school sent out a letter to parents about the kidnapping. The next week, the school sent out an open letter about the incident, apologizing for poor communication.

Perhaps in keeping with the eye-popping nature of the meeting, charter board member Saba Bireda unironically characterized the vote on Rocketship’s new campus as “pro forma,” since the school’s original charter allowed it to have up to 8 campuses.

But the school’s charter actually says that all the campuses have to meet or exceed a certain performance level before such approval is given. It seems that the Rocketship campus where the kidnapping occurred isn’t meeting that benchmark: It’s either at a 53% score, according to this screen shot taken today from the charter board website on school profiles, or at 62%, per the charter board materials for the October 28 meeting–versus the required 65% score (per p. 2 of the the charter board’s agreement with Rocketship).

Given that some DC charter schools have been closed for small gaps between a passing grade and a failing one, I gotta ask: was Rocketship’s vote pro forma–or pre-destined?

There’s also the fact that Rocketship is planning to sublet part of its new Ward 5 campus to a charter middle school–which piece of information was mentioned only indirectly in any public record, whether the October 28 meeting materials or the information given to the ANC.

It seems that Rocketship told the ANC that the middle school (Social Justice) needed to go separately before the charter board to have its location approved, so despite the fact that Rocketship had by that time made an agreement with that middle school, the public was entirely in the dark and the charter board vote on October 28 meant that the sublet was implicitly also approved.

Interestingly, at that same October 28 charter board meeting, Ward 8 residents turned up to protest a charter school, DC Prep, purchasing a property in their midst (at 1619 Frankford St SE) without public notice of the school’s intentions.

That protest of DC Prep’s real estate venture animated charter board member Naomi Shelton to express not merely her concern with DC Prep’s apparent lack of engagement on the matter, but also her annoyance with the people protesting. Shelton noted that schools and residents need to work together to demand elected officials provide facilities for charters wherever and whenever the schools need them.

This amazing spectacle of a public official asking the public to be, well, more hard-working in advantaging charter schools is of a piece with the recent Post op-ed alleging a charter facilities crisis in DC. Co-authored by someone who didn’t live or pay taxes in DC while she enacted legislation to force DC to spend its own money on private organizations, the op-ed outlined how yet more of DC’s taxpayer resources should be used for those same private organizations, which have long waitlists and lack facilities.

Setting aside the irony of a publication with the motto “democracy dies in darkness” running an op-ed demanding less democracy, this alleged crisis in charter facilities is actually, well, fiction.

That is, not only is waitlist length meaningless when each student can be on as many as 12 waitlists simultaneously (not all of which are for charter schools–surprise!), but every single charter school in DC is 100% optional.

That is, charter schools in DC don’t secure education rights. Rather, they are schools of choice both in educational services as well as family choice run by private operators, who self-justify in their applications to the charter board the need for their optional services.

And the body that determines whether DC embraces (and funds!) those optional services is the charter board–to the tune of almost 3000 new seats in 2019 alone.

So to the extent that there is a problem with charter facilities in DC, it would appear that it lies directly with the charter board, which approves–blithely and happily!–new charter schools here seemingly without regard for, well, anything in DC’s public sphere: not lack of a commensurate growth in student population, not oversaturation of schools, not lack of public knowledge or approval or desire, not even public protest and kidnapping!

Yet, not only does the charter board appear to absolve itself of that responsibility, but in its approval of Rocketship’s new campus, it also appeared to be blithely unaware of the major driving force in DC of the last 25 years: real estate ventures.

For instance, Rocketship’s application for its new Ward 5 campus notes that eventually, the total facilities costs for all three of its DC campuses (the chain currently has one campus each in wards 7 and 8) would amount to $6.5 million per year, for about 2112 students. That comes out to about $3068 per student–which is less than what the school would get from the city for per student charter facilities fees (in FY20, $3335 per student). Rocketship noted in its application that it has already “identified more than $1 million in philanthropic support for the third site [in Ward 5].”

That works out to more than $500,000 of extra DC taxpayer money going to Rocketship annually. Sadly, we DC taxpayers don’t know where that cash ends up, because charters can use those facilities payments for anything—and don’t have to report it.

(Hey! Maybe that’s the real reason that charter advocates in DC don’t want FOIA.)

Anyway, it seems that at least some of that Rocketship facilities money is going to a private, for-profit venture that has apparently profited considerably from Rocketship in DC already.

That is, according to the DC real estate assessment database, the new Rocketship Ward 5 facility is owned by an LLC, Art Place@Ft Totten WH-C LLC.

But TA Washington 3rd St. NE (an LLC out of the Turner Agassi company, a for-profit venture that invests in charter buildings) is Rocketship’s landlord at this Ward 5 facility, with yet another LLC, Launchpad Development Three DC, as the sublandlord and Rocketship DC as the subtenant.

That Launchpad LLC is apparently a stand-in for Rocketship’s parent company in California. For instance, the recent issuance of DC revenue bonds for Rocketship was really made for Launchpad (see more information about their relationship here).

In May 2019, in fact, Launchpad used those revenue bond funds to purchase the first DC Rocketship campus (Rocketship Rise, on Raynolds place SE–where the kidnapping occurred) for $25.5 million from an LLC created out of the for-profit Turner Agassi charter real estate business. In 2015, before that Rocketship school was there at that address, that Turner Agassi LLC purchased the property (which contained a small house) for $3.3 million. At the time, the property was assessed at a third of that purchase price, so it seemed a strange (and overpriced) investment.

But once Rocketship built its school there at Raynolds place, the property’s assessed value rose considerably, to its current assessment of $19 million.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for DC taxpayers (well, without FOIA) to know how much Turner Agassi itself spent on the actual school building there at Raynolds place. To be sure, this story from last year about the Turner Agassi support of Rocketship’s other DC campus suggests the business spent something on the first campus.

Still, the fact that Launchpad purchased in May 2019 the Raynolds facility for more than $6 million OVER its assessed value suggests that the 2019 purchase price was engineered to ensure a hefty profit for Turner Agassi without much consequence to Rocketship.

Specifically, DC taxpayers are the back stop to the private profit: facilities fees from DC would ensure that the revenue bonds to fund that purchase price would be paid back, possibly in excess of what Rocketship reported it needed.

Theoretically, between the $3.3 million Turner Agassi spent in 2015 for the Raynolds property and the $25.5 million it received this year by selling the same property to Launchpad, the company could have realized as much as $22 million in profit from just this one Rocketship campus.

Now, Turner Agassi appears poised to profit again, through the wagering of public money and charter facilities, in a similar arrangement for Rocketship’s Ward 5 facility.

In September, in a public comment on the Ward 5 Rocketship campus, I wrote the charter board about all of this.

But there was no mention of it anywhere at that October 28 charter board meeting.

Nor was there any mention of financial connections of the Post editorial board or its op-ed writers to such interesting DC charter real estate concerns as DC Prep’s land speculations or Rocketship’s careful leveraging of public money for private gain.

But we sure did hear about that facilities crisis, didn’t we?

Democracy dies in darkness, indeed.

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