DCPS School Planning (AKA “A Hand Tied Behind The Back And A Foot In A Bucket Of Concrete”)

Last week (and weeks late), DCPS released the capital plan documentation required when it made public its budget in March. 

The documentation marks a seminal moment in the continued disregard of the mayor and her deputies for the public’s connection to the public school assets held in its name. Basically, it is a plan to end municipally run schools of right in every quarter. 

Such disregard is not new.

Consider that on March 10, the DC council committee of the whole held a roundtable on the mythical Center City Middle School (mythical, because although it was once planned and much-desired (even had its own legislative shout-out!), the mayor and her deputies have spent years moving seamlessly from “maybe someday” to “nope, nope, and nope”). 

At that March 10 hearing, deputy mayor for education (DME) Paul Kihn (who back on November 15, 2018 was merely in an acting position when he testified about how data showed re-opening Shaw MS wasn’t advisable) turned in a reprise of his 2018 role. Kihn noted that there was extensive outreach on the middle school and that there are not enough kids or growth to justify it. He brought up, once again, the fact that the in boundary participation rate of the schools around the site of the former Shaw MS was low.

Never mind that in boundary participation rates nearly everywhere in DC are low (and thus may not be a good metric for planning): 

Despite public witnesses talking about wanting a middle school IN their community and their desire to support the current diversity of their elementary schools—and despite the efforts of council members Mendelson, Pinto, and Nadeau to push back—Kihn didn’t budge.

But then lo, a miracle!

The next week, the mayor released her budget–and there was suddenly >$100 million to renovate the old Banneker building at 800 Euclid NW for a brand-new Center City MS. That would allow Cardozo to once again be a stand-alone high school, moving its shoehorned middle school/education campus (created because of prior closures–naturally) into its own building on Euclid.

But such deft avoidance of even speaking to the unwashed masses about actual planning and actual expenditures around public assets (and thus wasting the time of public witnesses as well as elected officials in a hearing that the mayor and her deputies knew would be of no consequence in a matter of hours) is neither new nor unique. 

After all, this mayor has unilaterally acted for years to diminish public connection to DCPS schools:

–Demolished without public process more buildings of DCPS schools of right (Shaw, Marshall, now Winston) than many (possibly all) of her predecessors; 

–Closed Washington Met against public wishes and subsequently leased it to Howard without public process;

–Seized a field from a DCPS high school (Duke Ellington) to assuage public outcry over the privately executed lease of another publicly owned field (Jelleff) to a private school (Maret);

–Expanded seats of choice through the creation of a new DCPS high school (Bard) and expanded Banneker without public process or consideration of underenrollment at existing DCPS high schools (much less public desire for alternative uses of the spaces those schools occupy); 

–Signed away in the dead of night a public school building (Old Hardy) to a private school (Lab) for 15 years despite public desire for its use for DCPS; 

–Privatized education services at the former public school site of Marshall elementary in Ft. Lincoln, while not explaining whether the same privatizing will occur with services at Old Miner & Old Randle Highlands; and

–Pushed out former schools of right directly to the charter sector (Spingarn, Wilkinson) without public involvement and, in the case of Wilkinson, specifically to one charter school.

Such disregard for the public has only picked up speed this budget season.

On March 14, just a few days after the Center City MS hearing but before the mayor’s budget was released, Jennifer Comey, director of planning and analysis with the DME, met with C4DC to talk about population trends and DC’s schools. 

At that March 14 C4DC meeting, Comey quickly deferred discussing Center City MS, as if she knew utterly nothing about what the mayor would announce about it in a matter of hours–nor about the demolition of Winston, in Ward 7. 

That latter piece was particularly galling. 

The presentation Comey made to C4DC that day showed that Ward 7 is the only ward to have had an increase in births recently. But Comey did not mention that Ward 7 does not currently have enough seats in DCPS schools of right to accommodate all its kids, due to prior closures. 

Comey’s presentation also showed that enrollment in DC’s publicly funded schools has more or less plateaued except for a slight increase in middle and high school seats. Comey appeared to attribute that slight increase to covid—without mentioning that kindergarten enrollment peaked in 2016, such that the “increase” in middle and high schools now is merely that same bulge of students moving through. 

(Naturally, no one could possibly have known any of this except when they did–in November 2020.) 

And yet, without a word about any of that or how entire neighborhoods right now lack schools of right due to closures or how the capital plan includes hundreds of millions to expand capacity in Ward 3 all the while we KNOW the student population isn’t increasing, Comey pushed a carefully curated view of our schools that managed to ignore reality. 

Ironically, the same day of Comey’s C4DC presentation, the DC council held a hearing on several bills (here and here) around safe passage and transit for schools. Public witnesses raised problems of schools without accessible bus routes; no nearby metro; and lack of school signage, crossing guards, and marked crosswalks. Many of the problems outlined in the hearing have been created (or made worse) by proliferation of seats of choice, closures, and consequent long school commutes. (Not to mention that nearly all could be addressed with a robust municipally run system of neighborhood schools of right in every corner.)  

Yet also that same day (March 14), Spingarn (the closed and long-neglected DCPS school of right that the mayor recently announced would be set aside for charter use) suffered a fire

One doesn’t need to embrace superstition to see that those events of March 14 outlined exactly how contemptuous this mayor and her deputies are of municipally run schools of right in every corner—and of those to whom those schools are entrusted.

Since then, we have had only more evidence of the same:

–Ward 7 residents had no notice of Winston’s demolition except this (charmingly undated) letter, while no Ward 7 resident advocated for such a use for Winston. Instead, residents had long wanted the school to be re-opened for use by Ward 7 residents. (I know, I know: Shocking that residents wanted their neighborhood school to be used for–gasp!–their neighborhood.)

–Apparently a few (if not all) of the schools slated to receive early childhood education centers were not notified about, or included in, the plans for those centers, which will presumably all be citywide seats.

–The March 28 budget oversight hearing for DCPS featured public witnesses testifying about dangerous conditions at many DCPS schools of right as well as overcrowding at others like Roosevelt. The capital budget document is silent about the latter, while many schools regardless of condition will see no work at all or have work finished only by the end of the decade. 

–The March 28 hearing also featured (at the 10 hour, 27 minute mark in the video) the principal of Malcolm X at Green noting that her school building was only ever intended as temporary swing space—9 years ago. Now, its renovation is slated to be finished by SY26-27, 5 years hence, while the building itself is not near the kids in bounds for it, since the actual school near those kids they once had a right to (the old Malcolm X) is slated to become the home of the citywide school Bard. (Neighborhood, schneighborhood!)

–At that same hearing, council chair Phil Mendelson noted (apparently without irony) that it’s “exasperating” dealing with DGS, the agency in charge of DCPS buildings, and that he meets with them every 2 months (see the video starting at the 42 minute 20 second mark). All of that suggests that hundreds of unfulfilled work orders for DCPS schools are somehow just business as usual (albeit “exasperating”)—even while DGS has apparently been violating the law by not creating a dashboard for the work orders. 

–About a minute later in the same March 28 hearing, Mendelson took issue with complaints about the hearing length that resulted from just a single oversight hearing for all education agencies (that one wound up to more than 10 hours, with more than 200 witnesses). Again, without irony, Mendelson noted that “opportunities” to testify are numerous. He didn’t mention what happens when you don’t have 5 or more hours to monitor your place in the electronic queue—nor when there is only one council member listening for long stretches to testimony about BILLIONS in taxpayer funds, as if one person can ever exercise adequate oversight over more than half a dozen agencies.

–Despite the artificially limited venue at that March 28 hearing, several DC education advocates outlined how the current DCPS budget ignores the terrible effects of unregulated growth of seats, subsequent enrollment declines and disinvestment in neighborhood schools, particularly EOTR, all the while continuing cruel budget and renovation disparities. See here for the testimony of Dr. Carlene Reid, the W8 state board of ed rep starting at the 23 minute, 20 second mark in the hearing video here; and here for the testimony of W7 resident and NAACP DC head Akosua Ali (starting at the 5 hour, 39 minute, and 40 second mark); and here for the testimony of Dr. Antoine Kirby, the education chair of the NAACP DC (starting at the 5 hour, 43 minute mark).

The DCPS capital budget document we received last week simply extends such contempt for the public interest as well as for the entire notion of a citywide system of municipally run schools of right:

–The document highlights the time when planning for renovations starts, with no tracking to see how well prior renovations adhered to planning guidance nor to end date fidelity. Buried within is that some unrenovated schools in horrible shape will be finished only by the end of this decade (i.e., Simon and Langley). 

–There doesn’t appear to be any acknowledgement of, or solution for, overcrowding at schools of right outside those in the Wilson/Jackson-Reed feeder system–even though the last master facility plan supplement from December 2021 noted Ketcham’s and Roosevelt’s dilemmas. 

–There is also no renovation timeline for under-enrolled schools of right like Kramer and Johnson despite their relatively poor conditions, while the speed around citywide seats for new builds in Ward 3 (Foxhall, MacArthur) and around the demolition of Winston (for a citywide program–natch) is breathtakingly fast.

–There is no acknowledgement of lack of swing space within DCPS. Long, difficult commutes thus await when modernizations take place at schools of right like Ketcham, Garfield, and Malcolm X (swinging at Davis); Hendley (swinging at Kenilworth); and Truesdell and Whittier (swinging at Garnet-Patterson or Sharpe). Most of those swing spaces are miles away from the schools (and sometimes in different wards altogether). Also unmentioned: limited swing space, not financing, may determine (and delay) when schools are renovated, adding insult to the injury of prior school closures and giveaways to the charter sector that caused the shortage of swing space.

–There’s also no data about how the scope and size of renovations were made: nothing about the number of kids in bounds; enrollment trends; local need or desire for programming; and how the renovations relate to current programming at, or public desire for, the schools themselves.

–And that’s not even getting into the fiscally insane plan to expand capacity in Wilson/Jackson-Reed feeder schools for >$100 million while DC has >20,000 unfilled seats; schools in terrible shape elsewhere; and when overcrowding in Wilson/Jackson-Reed feeders could be addressed for $0 by altering boundaries, feeders, and out of bound slots. Recall the chancellor said such expansion was to preserve those schools’ “diversity”–while remaining silent about the diversity of the rest of DCPS’s schools. The chancellor apparently believes that students east of Rock Creek Park should commute hours every week (for some, more than a hundred miles a month) in service of the diversity of Ward 3 schools.

Given such contempt for the public interest, it’s not surprising that the link to the plan’s “explainer attachment” doesn’t work for each school’s information, while no public-facing document explains the fate of those few swing spaces after their use for that purpose is concluded. 

Instead of investing in schools of right, the DCPS capital plan emphasizes seats of choice, prioritizing schools with large portions (or consisting entirely) of seats of choice, from Bard to the new MacArthur Blvd. HS, which is slated to be bigger than most existing DCPS high schools (despite being located in a ward with some of the fewest resident kids). 

Not surprisingly, DCPS responses to council questions about out of bounds enrollment (see p. 132, for example) included nothing about capacity of schools or the size of boundaries. DCPS thus provided essentially useless information that appeared to address a question while hiding the actual data that would assist in understanding how best to support a citywide system of schools of right. 

(Fun fact: In the wake of her C4DC presentation, I asked the DME’s data guru Jennifer Comey to provide data for enrollment by ward and boundary at each publicly funded school for the last two school years. Despite her promise to do so, I am still waiting.)

None of this is just a little bone to pick: 

This capital plan entails real fiscal and social pain. It includes no less than $148 MILLION to expand capacity of, or create wholesale, DCPS schools in the wealthiest area of the city with the some of the fewest resident kids; highest private school participation rates; and lowest births. Not only are all of that area’s schools already renovated (unlike only 41% of Ward 8’s), but those schools have huge numbers of out of bounds students, which combined with large boundaries and large numbers of feeders have been the source of their current overcrowding. 

And while some of that capital work may not be completed right away (Foxhall construction ($61M) is slated to start in FY23, while Stoddert’s addition ($20M) will start in FY24), two projects—Deal’s addition ($22M) and the new MacArthur HS addition ($45M)–are slated to be complete by SY24-25. 

Yet while those capital plans are speedily realized, many schools elsewhere will languish for years without any work—like Ward 8’s Hart MS, which not only has never had a full renovation, but will get money for a renovation only 5 years hence—almost 20 years after its phase 1 work and almost half a decade after THOUSANDS of new seats will come on line in Ward 3, along with untold numbers of charter seats. 

Indeed, since Hart (along with other schools that will see no work for years to come) is identified as under capacity, it would thus appear that the DCPS capital plan will bring about two things, supported by the new expansion of seats of choice AND the data Comey amassed that shows a not-increasing student population: 

1. Closures of under-enrolled and/or unrenovated schools of right outside Ward 3 (which Comey’s data will conveniently fiscally justify) to give charters the buildings they have long wanted under this mayor 

and

2. Driving students (literally and figuratively) from across the city to newly expanded and 100% renovated Ward 3 schools and other pretty (and don’t forget diverse!) seats of choice. Since many of those schools DCPS can say have high test scores, it will look like the school system is improving overall even as education rights shrink and students are increasingly pushed out of their own neighborhoods.

At the March 14 C4DC meeting, Mary Filardo (founder of the 21st Century School Fund) likened the mayor’s support for DCPS schools of right to a “hand tied behind the back and a foot in a bucket of concrete.”

She’s not alone.

During the March 30 budget oversight hearing for government witnesses of all DC’s education agencies (yep, one loooong hearing once again), at large council member Christina Henderson (starting at the 1 hour, 25 minute, 26 second mark) noted that the new MacArthur Blvd HS could not actually be sustained without significant out of bounds seats and wondered what that meant for boundaries elsewhere (and inherently the rest of the city’s schools). 

Sadly, one doesn’t need to wonder.

And that’s not even getting into the fact that schools of choice like Bard and Ron Brown are currently under-enrolled relative to their capacity. 

Thus, with a not-growing student population, including seats of choice at both the new Center City MS and MacArthur is as likely about making the math work as providing so-called “equitable access” (which is, in fact, NOT equitable despite its pretty look).

Possibly worst of all, none of this is new. 

DME Paul Kihn has at almost every stage of his DC tenure treated DCPS schools of right poorly—whether in saying they need to “look at their role” or that we are “overinvesting” in them (real quotes, the first from the Kojo Nnamdi show on December 4, 2018 and the second from the April 25, 2019 oversight hearing for the DME). 

And since 2013, Jennifer Comey has provided planning support to THREE DMEs (Kihn, Jennifer Niles, and Abigail Smith), all of whom have been committed to prioritizing seats of choice and choice itself as the prime determinant of school policy and planning. One of those DMEs (Niles) even pushed the idea of by right charter schools, so as to capture neighborhood children without the messiness of democratic oversight. 

Now, with the current DME set to publish a “needs analysis” this summer (according to p. 4 of the December 2021 supplement here), expect only more of the same from this mayor and her deputies: 

–offering school buildings to specific charters quite outside the law (a la Wilkinson; Spingarn next?); 

–not exercising appropriate oversight of charter building efforts (Ferebee-HopeEagle);

–speaking of the ills of small schools in DCPS, while cheering on tiny schools in charters (DC Wildflower, just approved despite neighborhood pushback (see the April 18 board meeting video starting at the 6 minute 30 second mark; and DC Prep, awarded Wilkinson’s whopping 145,000 square feet for its Anacostia middle school (140 students this school year) and elementary (440)); 

–privatizing citywide education services at the former public school site of Marshall elementary, while not explaining whether the same privatizing will occur with citywide programs at Old Miner & Old Randle Highlands;

–committing to citywide seats (Bard; Wilson/Jackson-Reed feeders; Center City MS; new MacArthur HS) and citywide programming (Winston) as a way of appearing to ensure equity without actually doing so; and

–not tracking of whether any of this is fiscally responsible or embraces good planning (i.e., modernizing Dorothy Height after millions in DC revenue bonds were issued for its renovation when it was the Community Academy charter school, while not acknowledging that when it was closed in 1996, it was a DCPS career technical high school of the sort that someone somewhere appears to be trying to re-create at the former DC library facility (1709 3rd NE or 326 R NE) and also possibly at the site of the demolished Winston).

Bucket of concrete indeed.

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