No Response: Damaging The Public Interest At 2345 R Street SE

[The following is an email sent to DC’s mayor, council chair, deputy mayor for education, and charter board chair regarding the continuing lack of protection of the public interest in the development of the charter school property at 2345 R Street SE, in Ward 8.

It got no response from anyone addressed.

The property in question is currently owned by Eagle Academy (which built the school building there largely without permits) and leased to another charter school, Lee Montessori. The latter now wishes to expand its enrollment at the site for SY22-23, which would necessitate an addition built this coming summer. The enrollment increase was approved by the charter board in 2018–more than a year before Lee signed its lease at 2345 R SE.

While neighbors still reel from unrecompensed damage to their adjacent properties during the construction by Eagle, the looming deadline for the SY22-23 lottery means that Lee needs quick approval to close a public alley on a portion of the property where it would like to build an addition needed to accommodate its enrollment increase.

On October 5, however, the ANC decided to not move ahead with a vote on supporting the alley closure because basic facts are missing. Those basic facts include not only not following DC code for alley closure, but also details of an apparent offer by DDOT to swap the public alley for part of a driveway shared by Lee and an adjacent neighbor—without involving the neighbor (or anyone else in the neighborhood).

In the meantime, the people actually responsible for this situation—mainly (but not limited to) recipients of the email below—have not protected the public interest nor made whole the people most affected in that area. They are hardly alone. It has been more than two YEARS since neighbors wrote to DC attorney general Racine about this, asking for help–without anything changing.

So, read on for nine (unanswered) demands made of these public servants, including informing families at the school of the history of the building’s construction; having Eagle pay its property taxes there; and ensuring a fair value exchange for the alley to benefit the public as much as private entities.

In the meantime, one can hope that a new office at the DC council, for racial equity analyses of all legislation, will scrutinize the proposed alley closure in light of ongoing damage to neighbors as well as the public interest.]

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Subject: 9 demands to resolve the Eagle/Lee property issues at 2345 R SE
Date: October 3, 2021 at 3:56:53 PM EDT
To: “Bowser, Muriel (EOM)” muriel.bowser@dc.gov, “Mendelson, Phil (COUNCIL)” pmendelson@dccouncil.us, “Kihn, Paul (EOM)” Paul.Kihn@dc.gov, Rick Cruz rcruz@dcpcsb.org
Cc: Christina Setlow csetlow@DCCOUNCIL.US, “Jordan, LeKisha (Council)” ljordan@dccouncil.us, “Comey, Jennifer (EOM)” jennifer.comey@dc.gov, barry.kreiswirth@dc.gov, oca.eom@dc.gov, mwalkerdavis@dcpcsb.org

Dear Mayor Bowser, Chairman Mendelson, Deputy Mayor for Education Kihn, and Mr. Cruz,

None of you were at the meeting this past Monday September 27 about the possible purchase, and expansion, of Lee Montessori’s rented school building at 2345 R SE—but I and a fair number of other people were there.

The people at that meeting were trying to resolve a horrible situation regarding that property that none of them was directly responsible for.

But you and others here in DC are actually responsible—which is why I as a DC taxpayer am writing to you now, so you will make whole the people most affected: the school’s neighbors, who continue to endure the ramifications of the building’s illegal construction and now must contend with potential new development on public space; the school’s current and future families, who likely do not know that the building where they send their children every school day was constructed largely without any oversight by the city; and DC taxpayers, who continue to foot all the bills involved.

The meeting this past Monday was to ensure that Lee has a fast way forward to buy and expand the school building at 2345 R SE that it currently rents from Eagle Academy, the charter school that built that building—and never occupied it.

The main hold-up now appears to be the official closure of a public alley that bisects (on paper only) a portion of the school’s property that Lee may develop.

For its part, Lee has stated that it hopes to buy and expand the existing building, to support an increase in its enrollment there starting in SY22-23. The charter board approved that enrollment increase in 2018–literally years before Lee was ever at 2345 R SE (and obviously without any consideration for its effects anywhere). In the next few weeks, Lee will have to advertise those extra seats in the lottery—which means that resolving the alley closure quickly now is key.

Despite Eagle’s construction of the building there starting in fall 2018, using DC revenue bonds, the public alley was never properly closed, much less identified as public space throughout its construction. The alley was simply subsumed into the property as if it never existed.

That may be because construction of the building itself proceeded for about 6 months without a permit—which meant that no one from the city exercised appropriate oversight of the property for most of the building’s construction. During that construction, several adjacent houses sustained structural damage, for which the residents have never received any sort of restitution from either Eagle or the city.

Recently, the executive director of Lee informed me that DDOT now is open to “giving” the public alley to Lee, in exchange for Lee’s portion of a driveway shared with an adjacent neighbor. While this is of course convenient for Lee, it appears to continue DC officials’ lack of due diligence with respect to taxpayers and this property–not to mention deference to private enterprise over the welfare, knowledge, and consent of DC taxpayers.

As you may know, DC code spells out very clearly what has to happen with an alley closure: an application is filed, mayoral intent stated, notice given to property owners on the block and to the ANC, approval of at least 2/3 of adjacent property owners granted, a hearing if 100% of block property owners don’t approve, and council approval.

As far as I know, none of that has occurred for this public alley. Moreover, I am unaware of any mention in DC code of DC officials or agencies simply trading away public space for private gain.

Via FOIA, I requested information from a variety of city agencies regarding the construction of the building at 2345 R SE. Despite asking for this in May, I have still not received everything—and what I did receive was incomplete. The reason I know it was incomplete is because neighbors had obtained information regarding that property that was not in my production (though should have reasonably been produced in it).

That information not produced in my FOIA request made clear that some of the development currently there was not recommended by DC because it was deemed UNSAFE for adjacent structures.

My FOIA production showed that for this 23,000 square foot building almost entirely constructed without a permit, Eagle paid a very small fraction of the total construction cost in fines. And the DC property tax database shows Eagle owes more than $500,000 in property taxes there (see attached screenshot, from Friday October 1, 2021). Incredibly, the tax database suggests there may be tax forgiveness, even though Eagle has acted there only as a landlord and never as a school. Also incredibly, the charter board approved Eagle not locating there, even after I submitted testimony that Eagle had not paid property taxes and had liens there for nonpayment to contractors.

And despite all of that violating in some manner the revenue bonds agreement that the mayor promoted and council approved for Eagle, the low-cost financing for this property enabled by DC taxpayers continues.

This is all very convenient, isn’t it?

Someone wants something from DC for their publicly funded private enterprise, and DC officials and agencies overseen by you make it possible, even as laws are violated and taxpayers actually harmed, while you yourselves remained shielded from all direct responsibility and consequence.

And now there’s a real hurry here, to make a lottery deadline in the name of—what? The DC public school marketplace? School choice?

If so, whose market and choice would that be?

Few if any of the families who currently (or will in the future) send their children to that school are likely aware of ANY of this–while paying for it.

No one asked for this school to be there—and all DC taxpayers had utterly no say in its construction.

No one asked for Lee to expand either its enrollment or the building itself here (or, frankly, anywhere).

No one anywhere near or at this school had any choice in Lee’s approval for expansion in 2018 by the charter board since it was completely disconnected from this location.

And no one asked for

–their properties to be harmed by structural issues resulting from the unpermitted construction of this school building;
–the failure, subsequent flooding, and lack of repair of the property’s storm water management system, resulting in a public hazard of an unsecured, open pool of water for the better part of a YEAR;
–historic heritage trees killed by the construction continuing to remain untouched for years, another public hazard; and
–the danger posed by increased traffic around the school without any traffic studies or mitigation, including on a close-by residential street only 25 feet wide.

All of you are responsible for this situation.

Your actions, and inactions, made this happen, from your embrace of a school marketplace that doesn’t even exist because it is 100% at the expense and risk of DC taxpayers who have no direct say in the leveraging of their own money to your wildly inadequate oversight of school expansions; buildings; and locations, all of which you have predicated on a measure of “quality” based entirely on test scores and waitlists, not actual public demand, need, or safety.

You are responsible here not only for depriving taxpayers of statutorily outlined protections, but also for promoting school governance weaponized to serve the ambitions of charter operators against the public that funds them.

Thus, I expect to hear from you immediately on the following demands before Lee simply moves on:

1. You will ensure that all neighbors who have sustained property damage from the unpermitted construction by Eagle of the building at 2345 R SE are immediately appropriately compensated, including but not limited to DC paying for structural engineering assessments of the affected structures; DC paying for fixing all of the structural damage; and all of you apologizing directly to property owners and residents for the violation that they have incurred. 

2. You will collect unpaid property taxes on 2345 R SE before anything is done on the property now. If you are unable to collect those unpaid taxes, you will ensure the property is sold at a tax sale—like DC law outlines. And you will ensure that no nonprofits operating public schools paid for with DC tax dollars will act as land agents and make profits from publicly funded real estate, like Eagle is doing with this property.

3. You will ensure that DC code is followed for this alley closure and that there is no giveaway of public property without a fair value exchange of money. There is no value to the public in the proposed trading of the alley for the driveway, since the entire benefit accrues to a private entity owning and/or operating the property. To ensure transparency, a public auction of the public alley should be held.

4. You will ensure that before any expansion at this site as well as at all other sites of publicly funded schools takes place, traffic studies, mitigation, and calming measures are enacted, to the satisfaction of neighbors and school families. You will also ensure that all DC government documents relating to this development are released via FOIA and not withheld without statutory reason (or worse, destroyed).

5. You will require DCRA to enact higher standards such that any construction of any publicly funded school building in DC has greater scrutiny than other development, larger penalties for construction violations, and will never again proceed without appropriate permits in place and statutorily required oversight at all moments.

6. You will inform families currently at Lee’s campus there (and those who apply to be there through the lottery starting in December 2021) of all of this—they have a right to know how the city has repeatedly failed to do its duty regarding the property and neighborhood that their children spend hours every day in and how you are going to do better to protect them.

7. You will exercise oversight of the DC revenue bonds program such that DC revenue bonds are not used as a reduced-fee fund to allow profiteering by private entities taking these funds out on the public dime. A year and a half ago, neighbors asked several of you explicitly to stop the use of revenue bonds by Eagle because of violations of its revenue bonds agreement—and I provided council testimony about it. None of us got any reply, and as far as I know, nothing has changed.

8. You all will actually do school planning together, with schools of right as the primary focus, to be preserved and supported throughout DC, and schools of choice as a secondary focus–instead of simply approving the aspirations of private entities operating charter schools on the basis of test scores without consideration for securing education rights, the city’s neighborhoods, or its fiscal welfare. The deputy mayor in spring 2019 and 2020 issued memos outlining many years of excess school seats in DC—and yet Lee was approved in December 2018 by the charter board not only for an enrollment increase, but also to have a campus at some unspecified location in ward 7 or 8.

9. You will stop pretending that charter board approval of enrollment increases and school locations constitutes responsible oversight and governance–and you will accept responsibility for the ills that it has brought about. Here as well as across the city, disaggregated charter board approval of enrollment increases and school locations has led to the forced acceptance of unwanted schools and associated developments as if handed down by God. Lee applied with the charter board in February 2020 to be at 2345 R SE—a MONTH after Lee had signed a lease for the property. Similarly, Eagle was approved by the charter board to not be at 2345 R SE in February 2020—a MONTH after it had signed its lease with Lee. A May 2020 memo by charter board staff indicated that they believed traffic issues with Lee at 2345 R SE would be unlikely–an assertion backed by no assessment on the ground and never once followed up on. Under what circumstances would Lee’s or Eagle’s real estate desires not be approved—or public protection ensured in them? This isn’t about charters lacking facilities—it’s about abdicating your own roles in responsible use of DC resources and in supporting existing schools. 

I look forward to your immediate response. Thank you.

Valerie Jablow

One thought on “No Response: Damaging The Public Interest At 2345 R Street SE

  1. Valerie, this is a devastatingly powerful letter! And you put the issue in exactly the right frame. DC elected officials’ deference to charter schools right to expand robs the city of basic democratic oversight and protection. This would not have been allowed in Ward 3 or even Ward 6. You have documented so well the neglect by the leadership under this mayor. Thank you for your diligence. Where are our elected officials?

    Like

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