On Monday April 4, I got a surprise—and not the kind that comes nicely wrapped in pretty paper.
Months before, on December 6, 2021, two bills—24-556 and 24-555–concerning former DCPS schools Gibbs and Shaed, respectively, were introduced. This permanent legislation would extend until 2045 and 2046 (and potentially until 2070 and 2071) the leases of both buildings to the wealthy and powerful private organization Charter School Incubator Initiative (aka Building Hope), which currently holds the leases and sublets the buildings to Monument and Inspired charter schools.
The rationale behind the legislation was that the organization needed to have the more favorable loan terms that come with longer leases, at risk of defaulting on its current debt. Signed less than 10 years ago, the existing leases for Shaed and Gibbs extend for 20 years (expiring in 2034 and 2035, respectively).
For months in winter and early spring, I kept looking in DC’s legislative database to see whether a hearing on those bills was scheduled.
But the only thing I got in that time when I searched for “Gibbs” or “Shaed” in the database were the individual bills and their introductions.
Until April 4.
That day, my search also yielded emergency legislation, covering the same material and expiring this year. Introduced on December 20, the emergency legislation passed a few weeks later–possibly without a peep to the public, given my fruitless searches until April 4.
An emergency resolution was introduced at the same time by council chair Phil Mendelson, who seemed downright irritated by the fact that the prior incarnation of the legislation was introduced by the mayor so late that emergency legislation was necessary to avert the possibility of Building Hope’s default.
It is worth recalling not merely that this emergency consisted of ensuring a private organization got more favorable terms with its creditors (while keeping public buildings out of public hands for a lot of this, uh, entire century), but that a BFF of Mendelson himself (Ana Harvey) once worked for that organization, whose power at the Wilson Building extends in many directions.
It is also worth recalling that those same players (mayor, council chair, BFF, Building Hope) swirled around a similarly hurried deal in 2021 to spirit a former DCPS school (Wilkinson) into private hands, outside the law governing such offers.
There is—now–a May 18 hearing scheduled on the permanent legislation around these leases (i.e., the legislation introduced on December 6); sign up is here.
But the public darkness continues–and includes an unannounced public disposition meeting; missing leases; un-outlined costs and benefits; and the ridiculous spectacle of withheld information that should be publicly available (and still isn’t), all the while the wealthy private organization at the legislation’s center stands to benefit most of all from holding these public buildings for more than half a century.
The (Non)Events Of December 2021
A few days after the permanent legislation was introduced on December 6, 2021, several people sent me information about a public meeting on the disposition of Gibbs and Shaed, to be held by the deputy mayor for education’s office on December 15, 2021.
The mystery only deepened as the month progressed.
Closed as DCPS schools, Gibbs and Shaed were leased by the Charter School Incubator Initiative for 20 years back in 2014 (Shaed) and 2015 (Gibbs)—with no public oversight because at the time the leases were signed, the law allowed public buildings to be signed away without a public peep for that length of time or shorter.
(Now the time limit for such anti-public shenanigans is 15 years—which is also inadequate, as we have seen with the dead-in-the-night lease of Old Hardy—but I digress.)
Because neither school building had gone through a formal disposition process (remember: leases of 20 years or less and no public process or oversight!) and the revised law now requires it for lease terms of that length (or longer), the hasty and short (1 hour!) December 15 meeting was pulled into service as a public disposition hearing for both buildings.
Not surprisingly, the folks holding the meeting were, uh, not exactly keen on sharing details with the public.
For instance, as there was nothing about the schools’ leases in the legislative database (remember: 20 years and no public process!), I asked the meeting organizers if I could get copies of the leases ahead of the December 15 meeting.
On December 14, I was emailed the leases.
But I got copies ONLY of the leases of the buildings with DC—not the subleases with Building Hope (or in the case of Shaed, the LLC that Building Hope formed with Inspired that constitutes the lease holder) and the charter schools leasing the buildings, much less the user agreements associated with these two properties.
All of those documents are central to the decision making now–and thus to public scrutiny of it. So I obtained them by FOIA—after the meeting.
Because no one in DC government sees fit to provide these documents easily, even though they concern two public buildings potentially locked up in private hands for over half of this century, here are all the documents for Gibbs (lease, LOI, sublease) and Shaed (lease, LOI, and sublease).
Public Benefit: MIA
But even with those leases, there is still no way anyone in the public can know the public benefit (or lack thereof) of these lease extensions.
Consider that at neither the December 15, 2021 public meeting nor in the legislative database is there anything outlining specifics as to what the leaseholders or schools themselves had spent in renovations (for which the leaseholders are getting rent abatement), and nothing outlining the fiscal relationship between the leaseholders and the charter schools in these buildings. The latter piece may be because those are, per the leaseholder’s rep, “confidential business terms.”
(See the discussion starting at minute 54 in the meeting video here.)
There is also nothing to delineate why the leases must be for such a long duration. For instance, the emergency resolution promulgated by Mendelson is predicated on Building Hope defaulting without such extensions—with a worrisome little note that if it defaults on these schools, Building Hope will default on all the properties it is currently leasing for DC charters! Which could potentially affect thousands of students! OMG! Act now! Don’t delay!
Before anyone hyperventilates about DC’s future without the saving ministrations of Building Hope, consider this:
–No one in the public has any idea of what Building Hope’s creditors actually require. We have only the word of Mendelson, Mayor Bowser, and Building Hope that such long lease terms are absolutely necessary. Why don’t we have the bank/lender/moneybags org. statement of need?
–There is no outline of the school buildings that Building Hope could default on—some (possibly all) of which DC owns. (You know, like Gibbs and Shaed.) In other words, in the event of Building Hope going belly up, some portion (if not all) of the school buildings that Building Hope has leases for here in DC will be entirely unaffected because they are already owned by DC and leased by charter schools that (gasp!) DC already funds.
Not surprisingly, I never did get an answer to my question during that December 15 meeting of what the monetary benefit of this lease extension is to our city—except as the charter schools themselves constitute the benefits.
This circular logic is not new:
The current DCPS capital plan outlines a small fortune being poured into Dorothy Height for its modernization, while millions in DC revenue bonds were issued for the building’s renovation in 2000 and 2007 when it was a charter school building (Community Academy). There’s utterly no explanation of what public benefit those prior expenditures got us DC taxpayers—and no explanation now whether we are paying twice for the same things at the same building in two decades (all with public money, naturally).
[Confidential to the DC Council: No one is tracking the reality that someone somewhere in the mayor’s administration is trying to re-create what that same building at 1300 Allison St. NW used to be before it was closed and released to charters: A DCPS career technical high school (Burdick). Perhaps we should thus conclude that public money for school renovations and modernizations is first and foremost about the private entities it enriches. You’re welcome.]
The idea that one can tie up former DCPS school buildings for the better part of a CENTURY without any detail of the actual fiscal issues accruing to both DC and the private organization in the middle of this should frighten every single DC taxpayer.
Instead of getting into any of that, however, most of the December 15 meeting was a platform for the charter schools themselves to display their virtues—and each gave a lovely presentation.
Unfortunately, the meeting was statutorily not about the virtues of those two charter schools (or frankly of ANY charter schools)—but about the public benefit of the long-term leasing of two public school buildings.
And though one may describe the public benefit of the long-term leasing by way of whatever virtues those schools currently have or aspire to, the reality is that in 2045 (much less 2071!), neither school may be in business and untold others may have passed through Gibbs and Shaed—virtuous or not.
Even if we accept that the virtue of these two particular schools is a sufficient litmus test for locking up two entire public buildings for more than half a century, the results of such a litmus test aren’t exactly inspiring.
For instance, Inspired is not representative of DC students, inasmuch as its at risk population is less than 20%, while more than 40% of its student body is White. And Monument’s awful troubles have been well-documented (see here and here and here and here). Much less well-documented is how the school is doing in the wake of those troubles and a forced reorganization by way of Friendship charter school. (Monument’s most recent review by the charter board took place remotely—which is understandable in the wake of covid, but less understandable in the context of a boarding school. Its next major review is not until SY24-25.)
And none of that gets to the utterly ridiculous battle I engaged in to get this document: the chat from the December 15 meeting.
The reason for my wanting it is simple:
Early in the December 15 meeting, I tried—and failed—to ask all my questions on speaker because of unreliable internet issues on my end. Thus, the chat became literally the only way I had to ask questions–and for the public record of them.
Yet, when the meeting video was posted by the office of the deputy mayor for education (DME) on its website a week after the meeting, I asked about the chat, which was not included on the DME’s website or on the video itself.
I was told I had to request the chat by FOIA (!)—even though at the 1 hour, 3 minute mark of the meeting video, Clara Botstein of the DME’s office said the following:
“So the recording will be part of the record. We’ll also put that on our DME website. And then as Claudia [Barahona, of DGS] said [at minute 59], she’s going to summarize the comments and we’ll also save a copy of the chat and save the comments that were received via email.”
Eventually, after coaxing from me, Ms. Botstein released the chat without me making a FOIA request of her own office. It was redacted—so I added back a note from the Building Hope rep., which answered one of my questions.
[Confidential to everyone reading this: Yes, I copied the chat from the meeting while it was ongoing. Yes, I wanted the DME to provide the chat publicly, with the video. No, they have not done so. Yes, this is tiresome. Sorry.]
Even with the chat publicly aired (but only here, on this blog!), there is still stuff missing from that meeting:
Despite multiple emails and a phone message from me about that summary of comments and any comments received via email, Ms. Barahona never responded—and never did send on a promised outline of rent credits for work done at the schools (see minute 27 of the video).
All that silence is in keeping with
–a single public meeting for both buildings’ disposition, which apparently was never announced except to folks in the know and lasted only for 1 hour even though it concerned disposing of public properties for more than half a century;
—the main purpose of the legislation, which appears to be terms favorable to Building Hope and its creditors, without outlining whether such long extensions are truly necessary for those creditors (where are the financial statements?), while the public benefit outlined by DGS and DME is simply that the charter schools currently there are, um, nice;
–no way for the public to adjudicate what is a fair price, since the leaseholders get rent credits and there’s no publicly provided outline of them nor when those credits will likely run out;
–no public detailed delineation of what was spent on renovations at either school nor whether they were done well (and with what % of publicly provided money), all of which goes into the rent credits;
–no public sharing of the agreement between Building Hope and Inspired (i.e., their shared LLC that is the leaseholder for Shaed), so that no one in the public can judge whether this is good value for the public money provided to Inspired (i.e., whether Inspired (or Monument for that matter) is happy is not an accurate delineation of fiscal value to the public); and
–no public sharing beyond this blog post of all the leases and the meeting chat, in which most of my questions were posted.
And just think:
Mayor Bowser and Council Chair Phil Mendelson—the main movers in bringing about this anti-democratic spectacle that benefits a private organization first and foremost and could lock up two public buildings for more than half a century–are up for re-election this year!
There’s only one word for all of this: Vote.