A Not-Stellar Week For DC Public Education

–February 12 marked the day a unique and terrible event in DC public education probably occurred.

I say “probably,” because no one in the public actually knows when the asset currently owned and used by a DCPS school, Ellington Field, was or will be transferred from DCPS to the department of parks and recreation (DPR), for use as a rec center, though February 12 was often cited.

Regardless of the date, the transfer means (as my testimony to the council that day outlined) that DCPS will no longer have any legal right to a property that had been set aside specifically for the education purposes of DCPS students and that is currently being used by an active school (Duke Ellington high school) for its programming.

It also means that here out, the mayor will be empowered to seize any DCPS asset for any purpose at any time.

–Two days later, DCPS unexpectedly closed an incomplete FOIA request that I had made for use agreements between DCPS and DPR for assets such as fields shared between the two agencies.

I had filed the request on December 31, 2019 with both DPR and DCPS.

On January 3, 2020, DCPS invoked an extra 10 days to reply. On January 6, 2020, the DCPS FOIA officer called me to note that it would be much quicker for them to find and produce the agreements if I were to limit my search. So I did so, asking for any start date of currently valid agreements for 5 to 10 DCPS schools, including at least one high school.

On January 30, 2020, I got an email saying DCPS was still working on it, despite being beyond their statutory time limit for a response. The next day, January 31, the DCPS FOIA officer said they were “not able to locate responsive documents” and that this seemed to indicate that “DCPS didn’t retain responsive copies” of such agreements. I replied the same day that this would appear to be a sign of either disorganization or noncompliance–and sent DCPS what DPR had produced, on January 23, in response to the same FOIA request.

So here is what DCPS subsequently produced on February 4, in what the agency noted was only a partial response to my request.

Look similar to the DPR production?

Making it even more interesting, on December 19, 2019, I had called DCPS COO Patrick Davis and spoke to him briefly about such use agreements. He said that there were lots of them, including for fields and gyms at Stoddert and Watkins, and that he would send some to me via email.

But he never did (hence my FOIA requests).

And yet, despite that apparent plenitude, none of that was in either agency’s FOIA productions.

So where are those use agreements–if they indeed exist? It stands to reason that they DO exist, since shared space is relatively common in DCPS schools with DPR recreation facilities.

Moreover, if DCPS cannot find its copies of such agreements, it would seem that the agency is negligent with respect to its contracting, since the pool agreements alone entail the better part of $1 million annually spent by DCPS.

But instead of me getting any answers or a full response, my FOIA request was closed.

–At an ANC6B meeting on Capitol Hill on February 11, an ANC commissioner related that homeless people encamped under the 3rd street SE highway overpass are neither her neighbors nor DC residents. A member of the audience opined that it was unsafe for students at nearby schools to be near encampments of homeless people.

(Yes, really: listen to it here.)

Thankfully, both basic decency and the federal government are at odds with the conception of homeless people having no legal identity for residency: McKinney-Vento ensures that homeless children have a RIGHT to education in DC.

But since we’re talking also about school and children’s safety, maybe we should examine the many shootings in DC happening at or around our schools and our kids.

Here, for instance, is a picture of two young children in DC who witnessed, literally, someone being shot to death right in front of them in broad daylight.

(This was not mentioned by anyone at that ANC meeting.)

Or maybe the harm to kids in seeing homeless people is simply bearing witness to economic or other distress, such as the loss of housing or struggles with mental health or substance abuse issues?

After all, we not only have less affordable housing now than decades ago in DC (especially around that highway overpass), but also housing priced beyond what most people anywhere in our country can afford.

That didn’t appear to be part of that conversation–though at large state board of education member Ashley MacLeay was invoked as the person who complained to the ANC commissioner about the behavior of homeless people in public space.

–On February 12, the city council held a performance oversight hearing for the charter board and deputy mayor of education, during which public witnesses outlined repeated violations of the law regarding discipline in, and pushing children out of, charter schools–which prompted co-chair David Grosso to urge them to report such violations, which then prompted witnesses to say that they did report them.

[Confidential to the DC council: If a violation of the law is reported and no one receiving that report does anything, prompting people to testify about the violation and nonaction in front of you, does that mean the violation never happened? Asking for 700,000 friends; thanks!]

That hearing also featured the hearing’s other co-chair, DC council chairman Phil Mendelson, contending with a citizen (there on his own time and dime), by noting that the citizen has access to the council and mayor equal to that of paid groups.

Possibly Mendelson was unaware that more than half of the 58 public witnesses on the hearing list were paid to be there. And with no visitor logs to either the council or the mayor, lobbyists and others paid to be there have access without public scrutiny, all the while being paid for it.

(Nice work if you can get it, PTAs!)

That February 12 hearing also featured co-chair David Grosso telling an expert on open government that he had said enough (ironically, while trying to talk about improving the law regarding open government and charter schools) and that the law governing our charters cannot be amended because it was handed down whole to the DC council by, uh, someone or something.

(I have to say it’s impressive how “won’t” gets transmuted into “can’t”–positively miraculous!)

–At the same time on the same day, the city council held a performance oversight hearing for the board of ethics and government accountability (BEGA). I chose to testify about the Duke Ellington field (see above), but could have testified about the fact that my re-filed complaint against PAVE as a lobbying organization not only has never received any reply from BEGA since I re-filed it on September 8, 2019, but also has apparently not even registered a mention in the BEGA reports of complaints.

–Last week also marked yet another week in which DCPS did not yet know where its Excel school will be next year–except to affirm that it would find another location and that it cannot continue to be in the Birney building, which is owned by DC, because DC has refused to break its lease of Birney to the private and powerful charter school incubator initiative, even though Birney is DC’s own building being used for DC’s own school Excel at what appears to be a profit for the private organization.

(Yeah.)

–And with many conversations this past week about school budgets, DCPS also made clear that principals now have more budget autonomy! But it’s a double-edged sword, because actual decreases in funding have accompanied it, so many schools will be cutting foreign languages and librarians, which used to be part of the staffing model.

Of course, the mayor’s increase of 4% in the uniform per student funding formula has been celebrated (though a Post reporter claimed it actually equals an 8% increase in DCPS).

Despite such, uh, interesting math, at least one government official raised some very good questions around this scarcity budgeting model WRT the closure of Washington Met.

Interestingly, Wash Met students several weeks ago gave food and toiletries to homeless people living in tents under a train bridge near their school–before the city came through and took away everything the homeless people had. It seems that Wash Met students (some of whom themselves are homeless) could teach us about bearing witness to deep and unmet needs in our city–and our failures in meeting them, including at their own school.

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