Destroying The Public Trust: FOIA In DC Charter Schools Edition

As awful as it is to see a DC public school closed and students and staff blamed for its poor attendance, low test scores, and declining enrollment without any blame attached to the people actually responsible for the school’s divestment that resulted in just those conditions, such blatant disrespect for the public (i.e., you), and the public trust, in our public schools is hardly isolated.

Just last year provided many examples in DC education (Banneker, Jelleff, and Ellington Field, for starters).

Yet, possibly the most egregious example of sheer, unadulterated disrespect for the public was the debate surrounding FOIA applying to DC charter schools.

As you may recall, Ward 6 council member Charles Allen introduced legislation almost a year ago to ensure that all DC’s charter schools would adhere to FOIA.

That bill is now essentially dead. Allen’s staff is working so that another bill, providing for open meetings for charter boards, will incorporate FOIA requirements for our charter schools. But there’s no guarantee of success.

To be sure, it’s not as if no charter schools are subject to FOIA–many are, albeit in other jurisdictions.

But the difficulty of this ask here in DC speaks volumes about how DC taxpayers are viewed by their own city government and DC education leaders.

For instance, in a city council hearing on October 2, 2019, on whether FOIA would apply to our charter schools, an appointed public education leader (Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter board) decried “aggressive” FOIA requests.

Please: Can someone tell me what an “aggressive” FOIA request is?

(Hear the statement here.)

The animating idea behind that statement seems to be that the people filing FOIA requests (i.e., you) are vindictive and abusive of the right to file FOIA requests–and thus the government itself is a victim of the public.

As crazy as that statement seems (well, in a democracy, anyway), it was well-supported by more than 7 hours of testimony at that hearing. We were told, for example, that the idea of FOIA in DC charters was being pushed by “interest groups” with a “personal agenda” and thusly used to “undermine schools.” We were also told that FOIA was being “weaponized,” while schools are being “targeted” via FOIA by “opponents” of charters (which presumably includes reporters with “large” FOIA requests)—oh, and that FOIA serves “outside communities” (though outside what wasn’t specified: DC? United States? Earth?).

As if all that explicit hatred of the public (i.e., you) wasn’t enough, in his testimony Pearson noted that (boldface mine)

“The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.”

So it is that a person paid $218,000 a year with your and my tax dollars to hold the public trust believes that government actors working in secret is key to “free and open electronic communication.”

Setting aside such sheer Orwellian gaslighting, this is hardly the only example of the public trust held in contempt by the very people and agencies tasked with holding it for our schools.

Herein are some recent examples from our charter sector:

1. The other day, I attempted to find older charter school agreements for a DC charter school. But on the charter board webpage with those agreements, only the most recent ones are available. When I asked where the others were, I was told (by charter board spokesperson Tomeika Bowden) that there isn’t enough website space to make them available on the website–and that if I wanted them, I would have to file a FOIA request.

Now, the charter board is responsible not merely for collecting these documents, but also for making them available to the public.

Yet, by invoking FOIA as the only way to grant the public access to these documents, the charter board is making clear that it is not voluntarily giving this information over, as the public trust would indicate. Rather, the charter board is asking not merely that the public contacts them to get the documents, but that the public also invoke a law to force that action.

Hmm: What’s that bit about abusing FOIA?

2. Last year, I requested from the charter board via FOIA a lease held by DC Prep for a space at the Birney school (2501 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE) for a middle school. According to its application to the charter board for locating its middle school there, the lease was signed by DC Prep in March 2019 with the actual leaseholder of that building, the charter school incubator initiative.

But my FOIA request was denied, because the charter board said it didn’t have DC Prep’s lease at Birney.

The deadline for charter schools to turn in their leases to the charter board was early October 2019–so I naturally thought my FOIA request after that date would have been successful.

But I was told by the charter board spokesperson, Tomeika Bowden, that the charter board provides those leases only when a school is actually in that space–which, as the plan had been announced, would be fall 2020. She thus recommended that I file my FOIA request when school starts (i.e., fall 2020).

Yet, on December 3, 2019, DC Prep purchased a large property at 1619 Frankford St. SE where they had indicated they might locate their middle school that they had been approved (in November 2019) to have at Birney.

So there is a real possibility that although DC Prep’s lease at Birney was signed in March 2019, the public may not see it until after the school is in place at Birney–which rather defeats public oversight.

And now there is also a possibility that the public will never see that lease if DC Prep doesn’t locate in Birney after all!

As it is, it’s not like the charter board doesn’t collect leases at times other than its October deadline for leases.

For instance, on page 3 of its conditional approval of Capital Village, the charter board wrote that “by February 3, 2020, the school shall submit a fully executed lease or title agreement for a sufficient school facility. The school shall also include updated financial projections as deemed necessary by DC PCSB.”

So presumably by now the charter board has THAT lease, right? Especially since the school tweeted out (on February 3, naturally!) its new (but yet-to-be-approved) location!

Perhaps the most pressing issue regarding DC Prep at Birney is that the 2501 MLK Ave. SE location is listed on the school lottery website as the location of that school that parents right now are applying to.

So, even though this school–DC Prep middle school in Anacostia at 2501 MLK Ave SE–has not yet officially started, it is currently accepting students for its approved location there at Birney, per its charter board approval in November 2019.

Yet no one in the public can find out anything about that location’s lease until, well, maybe this fall–if at all.

In other words, what is prioritized in the charter board’s response to my FOIA request is NOT what the LEA is doing with its public money in a publicly owned building–but what the LEA directs will happen, aided by the charter board.

As excellent as it is, FOIA cannot get around that purposeful defeating of the public trust by those charged with holding the public trust.

3. At its January 2020 board meeting, the charter board heard testimony about Meridian’s plan to assume the lease of the former Chavez middle school space at 770 Kenyon St. NW. As you may recall, in 2019 Chavez closed that campus amid a consolidation of its resources.

Yet, the actual lease that Meridian will assume for that space–which is owned by DC–is not currently available to the public. (Yes: not even with FOIA. Believe me, I tried and was told multiple times by DGS, which handles that lease, that it is not yet available publicly.)

But that lease may not even be available to the public before the charter board approves Meridian being there, at its hearing later this month–even though Meridian’s application (incredibly) states that it will pay the same (low) rate as Chavez did in its 2007 lease.

Perhaps worst of all, the public does not know what part of the $8.5 million being spent by Meridian to assume Chavez’s lease will pay off the $22 million remaining on Chavez’s DC revenue bonds, some portion of which were used to renovate the property.

This may not in fact be an inconsiderable amount. Yet, we know nothing about that–and plenty more.

For instance, it was clear from Meridian’s application that Chavez was looking at competing bids, possibly to maximize its revenue. In 2019, before closing its middle school there, Chavez told its DC revenue bond holders that it wanted to “monetize the asset” that is 770 Kenyon–and thus found it more to its interest to let the building sit empty for an entire school year than to rent it out to another school immediately.

(Huh: Didn’t someone say there’s an acute shortage of charter facilities?)

Add to the mystery the fact that the (private) school turnaround organization TenSquare has concurrent contracts with both schools and a presumably concurrent monetary interest in both as well.

So, because it appears that the first (and last) order of business here was business, not public disclosure, the public will actually never know its own stake in this entire transaction. In fact, given the amount of money Meridian is planning to pay to get this lease (with a cool $2 million in cash), one could even call the entire transaction “aggressive.”

But then, that word seems to be used only to describe citizens (i.e., you) exercising rights.

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